The Definition and Use of the Dictionary

There is some controversy about the definition of the word “dictionary” and its supposed wide-spread usage. Some dictionaries use the word in its modern sense, whereas others still use it in a narrower sense of the word. Webster’s defines the dictionary as “a book containing words arranged for study or reference” (Webster’s College Dictionary, 3rd ed.). Oxford English Dictionary, published by the Oxford University Press, uses the term in a slightly narrower sense, indicating “a collection of words for use in the study of languages”. In this latter sense, the dictionary now includes literary works and, to a certain extent, modern grammarians’ terms.


It must be remembered, however, that the dictionary is the supreme authority in defining words and, to a large extent, in determining the meaning of words. It is true that many words have multiple definitions, and that these definitions are frequently contradictory. This can be illustrated with an example taken from common use: “A plain old dress shoe was the greatest thing since sliced bread.” However, the meanings of words such as plain old, shoe and sliced bread are highly contextual, depending on the use to which the words are put.


The dictionary use is thus a very broad one, taking into consideration both the meaning of words as we commonly use them and their social and professional contexts in society. To illustrate this point, consider the following passage from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”: “Tom Sawyer said he had been looking for a dictionary ever since he was a boy, but I never found one in the street.” The passage obviously is a playful allusion to the fact that dictionaries were very rare. However, the passage also clearly indicates the author’s rejection of common approaches to language interpretation, which in this case is the dictionary use. Twain seems to reject the entire basis of the art of translation, relying on his ability to discern and describe the truth in pictures rather than in words.


The definitions and examples given above clearly indicate that the dictionary is a valuable tool, and even a necessary part of our daily life. However, it is also true that there are many who take great pleasure in criticizing everything, including the dictionary, as though they were the enemy of man. This is not helped by the tendency of people to equate the dictionary with knowledge itself, and to treat words, particularly those in the English language, as nothing more than code for speech. Of course, the dictionary does not give information about what the Bible actually says, but merely provides a means of communication for those who read it. It therefore falls under the classification of “linguistic medium,” since it is primarily a means of communication.


A final criticism of dictionary use comes from a group who would be considered to be the intellectual heirs of Darwin: revisionists, those who believe that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is not scientific fact. For these people, dictionaries are tools that help the uninitiated learn the meanings of words, and are not to be used to replace the spoken language with a literary language, as is done with the dictionary. In fact, dictionary use is highly recommended to this set of thinkers, because it allows them to avoid too much involvement with the theory of evolution, while gaining a better understanding of how words and language function as a system.


It must be said, however, that dictionary use is not without its problems, and those who are unfamiliar with the workings of the dictionary, or who find that their new vocabulary is suddenly appearing with no explanation are likely to feel intimidated. This is not helped by dictionaries that are stuffed with hundreds of undeservedly named synonyms for particular words, making it difficult for the less knowledgeable user to distinguish between the good and the bad. Worse still, some people will argue that such problems do not affect dictionary use, because the words are printed in all languages. While languages are not equal, it would seem that there are some words that are universally printed, such as “water” or “hanging”, and that they should not be replaced by gainful synonyms. However, even if all language were identical, it would be difficult to predict which words would be printed in a dictionary from a given language.

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