Don’t you absolutely hate it when someone gets up to give a presentation or speech and the first words out of their mouth is “Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines such-and-such as…”? I audibly groan and lower my head into my hand to immediately begin massaging away the massive migraine that the sophomoric cliché has not-so-gently thrust into my brain. For the most part, the people in my circles hate this kind of pedantry as well, and I certainly hope you count yourself amongst that number.
But what’s the big deal with starting with a dictionary definition? I mean, I’m always blathering on about defining your terms, aren’t I? Isn’t it critical to proper communication that everyone involved in the discussion knows what everyone else means when they use whatever word? Of course. Of course we need to maintain clear definitions when conversing, otherwise we aren’t having a conversation at all. But when you immediately go to the dictionary in order to resolve miscommunication, you aren’t necessarily using the right tool.
Have you ever used a shoe to open a bottle of wine? Oh, you can make it work, but it isn’t really the best tool for the job. You’re not going to bypass a corkscrew if your only intention is to open a bottle of wine. You could be trying to show off the nearly useless skill you picked up by watching a YouTube video, but if that’s the case, then the proper tool was the shoe; the corkscrew would have bumbled things right up, wouldn’t it?
Another for instance: I recently posted a picture of a moderately sized garden spider with the caption “People wonder why I own a machete.” The spider was brilliantly colorful—yellow markings on its back and orange-red segments on its legs—and was probably a little less than 3” wide, measured from foot to foot. My wife had found it in our raspberry bush and urged me to murder it with extreme discretion. I obliged, but before I did so I decided I would make a little joke about the destruction of this beautiful arachnid.
Full disclosure before we proceed: I don’t much care for spiders. When they’re outside, I generally let them go about their business of adjusting the insect population, but once they’re in my house, I take it as a territorial threat and expunge them post haste. This spider was encroaching upon my wife’s territory, and she deemed it necessary to destroy the interloper, so I understood her desire. I took a pic, hashtagged it “notaphobia,” killed the spider, cleared the bulk of its web and went back inside to eat some raspberries.
A friend decided that I did, in fact, have a phobia and told me how horrible it was that I killed one of God’s beautiful creatures and blah blah blah, but when I persisted that there was no unintelligible terror involved in my actions, he posted a screen capture from Merriam-Webster dictionary’s mobile site (or app, maybe). Anyhow, it read “a pathological fear or loathing of spiders,” so in his mind, because I don’t want to cuddle the eight-legged bug-munchers, I had arachnophobia. Which is silly. Because I loathe guys who stake their masculinity on their beards, but I don’t go around knocking off all the hipsters I see, and I don’t think I adequately qualify as “beardophobic.” Maybe I do.
But herein lies the problem. I’ve studied more than my share of psychology. In fact, the only reason I don’t have a degree is because I had the startling realization that psychology, while couched in scientific terms and statistics, is mostly subjective speculation. The stats are made up and the science is bunk. Psychology is a study, for certain, but it isn’t a science. (Send your hate mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org)
When I use the word “phobia,” unless I offer some sort of immediate clarification, I am typically referring to clinical phobias. Mental disorders as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly referred to nowadays as the DSM-5. In that diagnostic manual, the criteria for phobias is quite specific. A quick rundown: Persistent, unreasonable, and excessive fear which can trigger panic attacks in adults. This fear is often recognized as being disproportionate to the actual danger and the person takes steps to avoid the object of their fear. The fear interferes with daily routines, has lasted six months or longer, and may be attributed to other mental conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or PTSD.
This friend of mine wanted to use a source that defines “literally” as “virtually” as the authority on what a phobia is and isn’t. But why would we use a shoe when we’ve got a corkscrew on hand? Because he wasn’t trying to properly define the word in its context, he was trying to win a point in a debate that wasn’t. Or, more tragically, maybe he thought that Merriam-Webster Dictionary was a conclusive authority on the usage and definitions of words.
Allow me to regress into absurdity for a moment before moving on: I want you to see how dictionaries define themselves. It felt a little meta, plugging “dictionary” into multiple dictionary programs, but it’s important. (And you’ll notice this is buried in the article, not leading the first paragraph!)
Merriam-Webster says a dictionary is “a reference source in print or electronic form containing words usually alphabetically arranged along with information about their forms, pronunciations, functions, etymologies, meanings, and syntactic and idiomatic uses.”
Dictionary.com says it’s “a book, optical disc, mobile device, or online lexical resource (such as Dictionary.com) containing a selection of the words of a language, giving information about their meanings, pronunciations, etymologies, inflected forms, derived forms, etc., expressed in either the same or another language.”
While the Oxford English Dictionary uses a similar definition (“a book or electronic resource that lists the words of a language (typically in alphabetical order) and gives their meaning, or gives the equivalent words in a different language, often also providing information about pronunciation, origin, and usage.”), its website also defines itself specifically. On its homepage, the OED says that the OED is “the definitive record of the English Language.”
Now that’s interesting. It’s a record of the English Language.
What do you suppose they mean by record? Do we need a dictionary definition to tell us what they mean? I posit that we don’t. We have the book in our hand (or on our computer), and we have the OED’s words about what we are holding.
A record of the English Language. Like, they record the English Language?
Well, if it’s a recording of the language, that means it’s a copy of a thing that happened in the past. That seems fairly straight forward, but allow me to illustrate for those of you who are itching to argue. Right now I am listening to a recording of Louie Bellson’s rendition of “Cotton Tail.” (Here’s Luigi playing with Duke Ellington.) That doesn’t mean that Louie Bellson is sitting behind his kit jamming away for me as I type this. I’m no necromancer, and I have no interest in parlaying with the dead, so don’t go thinking my recent exploration of all things Lovecraft left me with an intimate knowledge of the black arts. Bellson’s been dead for years. No, very clearly the music I am listening to was recorded at some point in the past and is now being played back via my computer. It is a record of the performance.
If we look at the dictionary—any dictionary—from this perspective, the concept of “dictionary as record” makes sense. Dictionaries aren’t giving words their definitions, they are simply recording them. Dictionaries aren’t creating new words, they’re simply jotting down the ones that we keep creating. If we are looking for dictionaries to actually generate the words that we use, which dictionary is the ultimate authority? Is there a council of dictionaries that hold clandestine meetings, their minutes scribbled all over with odd nomenclature that defies etymological study? Perhaps this strange organization was originally put together by Douglas Adams? Or do you suppose he simply challenged Paul Jennings to a duel for the chair?
No, this is silly. Dictionaries can’t exist without a language preceding it. Every year the OED releases its list of top new words, and inevitably people whine and bemoan some entry, as though the OED has some magic authority to grant legitimacy to the slang you use. Let me ask you a question: Have you ever used the word “literally” to mean “figuratively” or “virtually”? Have you overheard it in public conversations? Does it irritate you?
Did it irritate you when F. Scott Fitzgerald used it figuratively? Or James Joyce? Or Charlotte Bronte? Charles Dickens? Did you know that “literally” has been used as hyperbole since the mid-1700s? Did you realize that this colloquial definition of “literally” wasn’t originally enshrined by OED back in 2011; it also appeared in Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary in 1909?
Yes, I’m one of the people who gets his feathers ruffled when I hear some uneducated rube talk about how her head is “literally gonna explode,” but it’s not because I think it’s an improper function of the word. I get irritated because she’s lazy. It’s not as though she were thinking, “Gosh, I find myself to be quite vexed by the news I have received; how can I properly convey the simultaneity of my frustration and impotence? Ah, of course! I shall paint the picture that the dissonance created by the conflicting thoughts and emotions actively shatters my very physical being.”
No. Never happens that way. I’m not saying she’s wrong. I’m just saying she’s wrong.
Communication is work. It can be very hard work. You aren’t wrong if you pull out the dictionary to help smooth some hiccough in transmission or to ensure everyone’s using a word the same way, but you shouldn’t be citing it as some authoritative text. That’s not what it’s there for. It is there as a recording of how people have used certain words throughout recent history.
And here, again, is something worth pointing out: Just as dictionaries add words, they likewise remove them. It doesn’t get as much buzz, but every year there are lists of words that have been unceremoniously deleted from the dictionary. It’s not a big deal, because the words and definitions that are dumped are largely irrelevant to modern contexts. Martin Robbins of The Guardian said, “Attacking a dictionary for removing archaic words is like punching your thermometer when it’s too cold.” And he’s absolutely right.
Dictionaries aren’t in the business of maintaining a perfect history of words throughout all time. If that’s your thing, OED’s unabridged dictionary is available in a micrographic reprint for just over $300, and it comes with a magnifying glass so you don’t have to squint as much. Or, if you’re a stickler for print—I know I am!—you can slap down $3,000 for the hardcover 20 volume set. Either way you go, you’ll get about a half-million words with over 2 million “illustrative quotations.” No, that doesn’t mean there are pictures. What it means is you can put about 100 years of English Language history on your shelf and never, ever be at a loss for a speech opening ever again.
You need to understand the purpose of a dictionary. You need to understand what it’s supposed to be used for. The old cliché says that if your only tool is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. The converse is potentially more interesting and useful: If all you need to do is drive a nail, everything starts to look like a hammer. You’d be foolish to drive a nail with a loaf of bread. Or your wedding ring. Or a screwdriver. Could you get the job done? Maybe, but the proper tool would be far more efficient, wouldn’t it?
Likewise, if you are engaged in a conversation or a debate or (God forbid) an argument, maybe you shouldn’t point to a dictionary screaming “Nuh uh, the Merriam-Webster says it means this, so you’re wrong!” Because, as you now know, Merriam-Webster doesn’t say it means anything. It only says what other people have said it means. Maybe the dude you’re talking to is using a different definition. Or maybe he’s using it in a specialized way. Or maybe he’s using it colloquially. And since he’s sitting across the table from you (or across the world wide web), wouldn’t it be more appropriate simply to ask him what he means?
But that wouldn’t score you any points, it would only enhance your communication. Hammer, nail. Corkscrew, wine bottle. Dictionary, record of use. The next time someone uses Merriam-Webster to argue with you, find a way to reply with The dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght. It’ll give you that hipster angle that I loathe (#notaphobia), and will serve to highlight the ridiculousness of going to a third party to ask about another person’s intentions.