Authority, Cultural Conservatism, Dictionary, Language, Rhetoric, Semantics, Semiotics, Vocabulary, Words
I am continually amazed at the faith some conservative Christians place in the authoritative pronouncements of a single ancient book. No, not that one. I am talking about the dictionary.
…pardon me, ‘thuh dictionary’.
I have long since lost track of the number of times someone has told me what this or that word means according to ‘thuh dictionary’. It could be any word, but frankly, the most common ones to land me in front of the court of lexicography are ‘homophobia’ and ‘atheism’. Significantly, I don’t think many of the people who launch into this sort of dictionary-whinging gambit have even looked up the words they hold court over. If you ask them which dictionary, they will often tell you ‘Websters’, as if that meant a damned thing!
Dictionary-Whinging (Sorta verb-like, but more gerundy) Pronounce the g like a j, dammit. It means being a jerk, but a certain kind of jerk. …a jerk with or over a dictionary.
Sometimes folks will invoke the power of ‘Merriam-Webster‘. This at least is a real entity, a branch of Encyclopaedia Britannica, so that will at least tell us something about the source, but it doesn’t do much to pin down the book in question. As to the name ‘Webster’s’? That is in the public domain. Anybody can publish a Webster’s Dictionary. You, me, the homeless guy down the street could write out a couple definitions and call it a “Webster’s Dictionary” Hell I could translate my cats noises and call it a Webster’s Dictionary.
In fact, let’s do that!
WEBSTER’S COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY OF ARCTIC CATISMS
Compilerized and Authoritated by Daniel S. Dammit
July or maybe December, 2013.
Editorial Staff: Fido, Junkmail, and Auto-Kitty
Mrrour: Pet. (e.g. ‘Pet me please!’)
Me’a’our: Pet, used with a sense of urgency (e.g. ‘pet me now dammit!’)
Mmmmmeuurrrrrr: Pet, used in a polite way (e.g. “If you have a moment, could you please pet me, …and perhaps change teh literbox. …no hurry.”)
Meow: Ironic Usage. It means; “I don’t actually sound like this human. You are imagining things.”
Meeeh!: Head-Butt (e.g. I’m lonely, human. Please head-butt me this very instant.”)
There. That’s my Webster’s Dictionary. Suck it Lexi-Judges! You have to use that now when you interpret cat. I has spoken.
(Aside over. We now bring you back to your regularly scheduled, cat-free, post.)
The bottom line is that a significant portion of people citing the authority of ‘Webster’s’ are simply bluffing. They haven’t looked anything up, much less thought about it. I guess they figure the meaning of the words in question is so obvious to anyone but the idiot they are talking to (which if often me) that there is no real need to consult the authority of the imaginary lexical-judge; it goes without saying that this good Justice will back their own understanding. I guess the spirit-filled just know what thuh dictionary would say.
It seems to me that some people look upon a dictionary as a judge of sorts, or maybe a legislature, both if they get their way, but most of these folks are happy to admit that ‘thuh dictionary’ is not an executioner. No, that is a role they hope to play themselves.
One thing I find quite amusing about all of this feigned dictionary-deference is that it always works best with the really bad dictionaries. You see a good dictionary will include a number of entries spelling out a variety of different uses of a given term, but the ideal dictionary for the the lexical authoritarian contains just one reference for every word. So, on the off chance that he actually bothers to look anything up, our dictionary-whinging fellow is not going to want to bother with anything resembling choice. He wants a single entry, and (Webster’s willing) he will present that single entry as clear and convincing proof that the word in question has just that one proper meaning. …thus effectively turning the weaknesses of an incomplete dictionary into a virtue. For these purposes Dictionary.com will serve the vocabulary fascists much better than the Oxford English Dictionary. Webster’s Third New International would be right out, …at least it would be if such folks knew enough about dictionaries to realize what that infamous source of lexical permissiveness contains.
Which brings me to a second point of amusement about the art of dictionary-whinging. Its practitioners seldom (perhaps never) understand how dictionaries are actually made. They haven’t studied lexicography, and they haven’t even read the methodology section of any given dictionary. Most, probably don’t even know that such a section exists; it fits in those automatically skipped pages at the beginning of the book they aren’t actually reading anyway. These folks certainly haven’t read Samuel Johnson’s preface to his Dictionary of the English language or any other thoughtful discussion of the topic. If they did, the first thing they would find is that lexicographers generally don’t work the way they think they do, and they don’t intend their dictionaries to be used the way they think they do.
Now let me give you a minute to parse all the ‘they’s of the last sentence. Wait a minute! I sense a new volume of Webster’s coming. Here it is:
WEBSTER’S NEW NOT-SO-COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY OF DANOLOGICAL THEM-ITUDE
Compiled on a Lark, 2013
They2: Those people.
They3: Them other guys.
They4: They (like I sad …dammit!)
They5: I obviously don’t get laid often enough.
Anyway, my point is that with the possible exception of early editions of the American Heritage Dictionary, lexicographers are not legislating and they are not adjudicating language. They are informing us about common usage. In short, their approach is descriptive rather than prescriptive. This is exactly NOT the approach that those seeking to use dictionaries authoritatively would wish it to be.
To put it another way the judge in this instances refuses to do his job as the dictionary-whinging bastards of this world would have him do it. What dictionary-makers consistently seek to do is provide us with a responsible account of the way language is actually spoken and the meanings of words that people speaking a given language actually use. What the dictionary-whinging types consistently want is an authoritative pronouncement delivered from on-high about just what meanings we SHOULD be attaching to any given word. They want the dictionary to tell us how to use language.
That really should be end-game folks. When the judge doesn’t adjudicate; it oughtta be case-dismissed, but that is almost never the case. Pretty much every one hitting me over the head with an imaginary Websters will just go right on doing it after they have just been shown that their weapon of choice is not really meant to be used that way.
Dunning and Kruger should demand that such folks return their effect with interest.
My rant began with a reference to religious folks though, didn’t it? Okay, it did. To be fair, this is a post I dropped several months ago and just picked back up. The sticking point was just that. Do I really want to talk about the general misuse of imaginary lexical authority? Or do I want to explore the specific role of such practices in the thinking of pious people. Tonight, my solution is this. I will make just one point about the religious variation, and that is this:
It is sort of fitting to find that people who wish to approach life as though it must be lived according to a specific set of directives from on-high would replicate that model in their approach to language. This is the prescriptive life well lived. They find an ought-to in every decision and an essential meaning in every word, all hard-wired right into the universe itself. Actual language use then becomes a set of cases fitting clearly into categories of right and wrong, just as anything else one might do in a world defined by an ultimate Legislator. The deus ex machina that some folks look for in a dictionary is thus pretty much the same one they commonly proclaim outright in their other book-weapon of choice.
So much for the arbitrary nature of the sign!