REVIEW: Dictionary of Fine Distinctions: Nuances, Niceties, and Subtle Shades of Meaning by Eli Burnstein

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What’s the difference between mazes and labyrinths? Proverbs and adages? Clementines and tangerines? Join author Eli Burnstein on a hairsplitter’s odyssey into the world of the ultra-subtle with Dictionary of Fine Distinctions. Illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Liana Finck, this humorous dictionary takes a neurotic, brain-tickling plunge into the infinite (and infinitesimal) nuances that make up our world.

The perfect gift for book lovers, word nerds, trivia geeks, and everyday readers, this illustrated gem is more than just a book—it is an indispensable resource akin to a thesaurus but filled with charm and wit. Each entry, from “latte vs. flat white” to “Great Britain vs. The United Kingdom,” is accompanied by mnemonic aids, quirky asides, and detailed illustrations, making it a standout dictionary for any bibliophile or language enthusiast’s library.


This looked entertaining and since I’ve enjoyed a number of books dealing with words and what we do with them, I asked to review it. The blurb correctly leads one to believe that the distinctions between the terms covered will be, in most cases, small and I found this to be the case. I amused myself by glancing at the word pairings and seeing if I could mentally distinguish between them before reading what Burnstein had to say about them. I did okay on my own but did learn some things that, frankly, I’m not sure I’ll retain. Burnstein also said that for many of these pairs, the distinctions are being lost so this book is probably aimed at those who are curious or those who want to be pedants.

The book is filled with line drawings to illustrate differences but these are rather hit or miss as to usefulness. And despite being over 200 pages, it’s a quick read. The words chosen to examine varied from common to vanishingly specific. There is little to no organization that I noticed so readers can fill a free moment or two without fear of losing their place. Here are some (abbreviated) examples of what you can find discussed.

Ethics vs morality – … why an immoral act sounds graver than an unethical one: One may get you fired, but the other could land you in hell.

Snitch = tattletale and a rat = traitor

Amp vs. Volt vs. Watt – In short, when you hear amps, think current, when you hear volts, think pressure, and when you hear watts, think utility bill.

AWD vs 4WD – One is safe and sophisticated. The other, rugged and badass.

Parable vs fable – A parable is a brief tale with a moral lesson. A fable is a brief tale with a moral lesson – plus animals.

I had fun reading it but it is more entertainment rather than a reference to be returned to. B-


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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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