Is There Such A Thing As “The Dictionary”?

No. Here’s why:

When I was developing MooT, I observed many groups of people debate questions like:

Is urine pith?

Often, they would disagree with the answer I gave, and if the disagreement was vehement, someone would say:

"What does THE DICTIONARY say?"

The players would then look up the word in question in the Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD) - the dictionary upon which MooT is based - and accept whatever verdict was given.

Usually, when someone says that they are going to look up a word in THE DICTIONARY, they will grab any available dictionary; the assumption being that all dictionaries contain the same information. This is interesting because there is no such thing as THE DICTIONARY.

Actually, there are many dictionaries - the COD, Random House, the Century, etc. - each compiled by different people and each containing different information. In fact, each book is so different that if I’d based MooT on a dictionary other than the COD, many of my questions would have had different answers.

For example, take the MooT question:

Are the words ENORMITY and ENORMOUSNESS synonyms?

According to the COD, they aren't: it defines enormity as "monstrous wickedness, dreadful crime, serious error" and enormousness as "extreme largeness."

However, if I’d based MooT on Merriam-Webster's 9th Collegiate Dictionary, the answer to that question would be "Yes" because its definition of enormity, adds the additional sense: "the quality or state of being huge."

Now, how could this happen? Is one of the dictionaries wrong? If so, how do we find out which one is right?



Is there an even higher authority - a meta-dictionary - that dictionary makers go to?

Yes, there is – it is us.

Lexicographers (dictionary makers) get their word definitions by observing how we, the people, use words. To do this, they collect samples of our discourse, and from these samples they compile definitions. These samples are almost always drawn from writing because:

(1) written discourse is easier to collect, organize, and examine than is spoken and

(2) until this century, writing was the only way to preserve discourse.

The result is that when we look up a word's meaning, what we find is a distillation of how people (especially writers) have used that word. This presents an apparent paradox: to discover the meaning of words, we consult a book that itself discovers the meaning of words by consulting us.

The paradox is resolved by realizing that when we look a word up in the dictionary, we do not find the word's "meaning" - some ideal Platonic definition existing outside human discourse - rather, what we find is a summary of how people have used this word to communicate with other people.The dictionary supplies us with this information by taking a sample (albeit non-random and writer-biased) of how these people have used it.

This explains why different dictionaries can define the same word differently: their samples are different.

For example, the COD skews its selection in favour of writers writing thirty or more years ago, whereas Webster's 9th uses more up-to-date written sources, as well non-literary sources - they even quote Mae West.

In the case of the word enormity, this is important because more and more people, writers included, have come to use it solely to mean "extreme largeness" (a use, by the way, that goes back to the 18th century and which became disreputable in the 19th). For this reason, Webster's 9th decided that this usage had become sufficiently prevalent to warrant its inclusion in the definition.

Now, some semantic hard-liners argue that this is an enormity: that by including what they believe to be a vulgar and superfluous sense of the word enormity, Webster's 9th has legitimized its misuse. The result: the language is less precise and communication more difficult. However, this is moot, and that’s also what my board game is called.

Ahem. In any event, when I was creating MooT, I quickly learned that I would not be able to depend upon THE DICTIONARY, and that if I wanted to give precise and indisputable answers to questions like "Is urine pith?" I had better choose one dictionary as my authority and stick to it. I chose the COD for no better reason than that it was the one I had always used.




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