Thinking outside the dictionary

Look, people, we need to have a talk. If I see one more person pulling the resort to dictionary move to bolster up an argument, I will flip a table. And nobody wants to see that, because I spend a fair amount of time around fragile little antique tables covered in fragile little expensive antique things, okay? I could be destroying priceless artefacts every time you stridently insist that the dictionary definition of a word is the definitive, end all, be all ruling on a discussion, argument, or thesis, because one, you are wrong, and two, that is not what dictionaries are for.

Dictionaries actually have a huge number of purposes, and absolutely none of them are for confirming the smug beliefs of smarmy people. I know, I looked it up in the dictionary. So here are some examples of things dictionaries are for: Collecting a list of known words in a language to create a snapshot of some point in its evolution; actively collecting information on word origins, their history, and the paths they’ve traced (the Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps the most famous example); and a quick thumbnail reference of word meanings, designed to be used as a loose guide (for example, I actually use dictionaries a lot for checking the spelling of unusual words or words I can never learn how to spell, like neighbour). Specialised dictionaries have even more functions. Lexicons, for example, map words in one language to words in another, and are the saviour of many a foreign language student who needs to look up the French word for ‘bridge’ in the middle of the night.

I love dictionaries. I love words, so how could I not love entire books dedicated to words and wording? Dictionaries can offer advice about when a word entered a language and how it’s evolved, about a word’s origins, about how it’s pronounced in different regions, about the different words people use to describe the same concept (get six people from six different regions of the US to tell you what the large cat native to North America is called sometime). They’re tremendously useful references and ones designed to provide fascinating insights into what language is doing and which kinds of words are being accepted into mainstream culture. I get excited by words like ‘selfie’ hitting the dictionary — I don’t think they represent the downfall of the English language, but its evolution, and a good dictionary can trace words in use at any given time. Such snapshots (snapchats of the dictionary world?) can let us see what language looked like — and if the word falls out of use, well, first it gets an Obsc. and eventually it gets dropped altogether.

Think about what you do if you’re writing a book set in the early 1900s. A dictionary is going to be tremendously useful for dialogue to find out what people would have actually said to describe concepts, what slang was in use, and what people of different social classes would have sounded like. Sure, you can guess, using your modernised English to approximate, but you’re going to be wrong, and your anachronisms may throw readers who are familiar with the era off. Plus, half the point of writing historical fiction is having a chance to explore the actual setting — and language is part of a setting. (Think of the ‘valley girl’ of the 1990s, for example.)

Dictionaries are not, however, here for you to rattle off definitions and then slam their covers defiantly shut as though you have made some sort of point. Yes, you have helpfully provided the version of a word’s definition agreed upon by the staff at a given dictionary publishing company at some point in time. That definition is not necessarily complete, it is not necessarily intended to be used that way, and it is not necessarily up to date, either. A dictionary from the 1900s would tell me something very different about being gay than one published now, that’s for sure.

If you want to make an argument and back it up, you need to use your words — and not those provided by someone else. I always get suspicious when someone pulls the dictionary defense, retreating behind a wall of Merriam Websters to hurl nouns at me. If you’re convinced that something doesn’t exist because it’s not in the dictionary when I’m staring right at it, I’m not impressed. If you’re convinced that a documented thing is not a real thing because the dictionary says it’s not, I am likewise not impressed. If you lead an essay with an excerpt from the dictionary, or insert one at random like a little nugget of bunny shit on the carpet, I am not impressed.

This is not what dictionaries are for. Dictionaries are for tons of cool and amazing and awesome things and I encourage people to use and enjoy them, but they are not for this. And people need to stop acting like they are, because I am mighty tired of having to clean up metaphorical bunny poop in real world arguments. If you’re finding yourself turning to the dictionary for anything other than spelling or confirming that a word really means what you think it does (hey, I mix up words myself now and then), then you need to close the covers, quietly back away, go sit in the corner, come back, and restructure your argument.

Languages are mutable and constantly shifting. Dictionaries are out of date the minute they roll off the press. And that makes them monumentally poor grounds for argument.

Image: Dictionary, sAeroZar, Flickr