To the non-specialist,
dictionaries are the source of authoritative judgements; Iím allowed to use a
word because itís in the dictionary; I know how to spell it and what it means
because the dictionary tells me; I can settle an argument or win some points at
Scrabble by appealing to the dictionary. So I know that regolith
means Ďsolid material covering bedrockí because the Oxford English
Dictionary (OED) tells me so. The dictionary is like judges handing down
decisions about each word of the language Ė wise people interpreting the rules
of the language for particular cases. The purpose of the dictionary is to lay
down the law, to tell you what you must or mustnít say.
The language specialist usually sees
dictionaries as neutral descriptions of what people say and write. The OED aims
to include every English word that has been used since 1150AD. It tries to
establish what each word meant in its original context and gives you the
quotations that attest silly meant
something like Ďunsophisticatedí when applied to people up till the
eighteenth century. Recent dictionaries try to record the words that people are
using today: if i-pod or hammered then they must be there Ė chav is still not in the on-line OED for example. The purpose of a
dictionary is to record what people say, not to tell them what not to say.
Itís more like mapping the human genome than advocating eugenics.
Suppose then you come across the word advisory as a noun and donít know what it means. In most cases of
course you can guess from the context Ė that is after all how we learn the
meanings for most words while children. Or you go to a dictionary and discover
it means bulletin in the USA. This is
perhaps the ideal use of a dictionary, par excellence in translation
dictionaries because youíre less likely to know a word in a second language.
Or someone tells you the word youíve
said is not a word, say humungus. You
look it up in the dictionary and itís not there. Oh dear youíre ashamed and
wonít use it again. Of course this may simply be due to the dictionaryís
ignorance rather than yours. All dictionaries are based on limited information
about English compared to the immense amounts spoken and written every day.
Listen to a person talking constantly on a mobile at a rate of say 200 words a
minute Ė 12000 an hour. Think of a teacher talking for say five hours a day -
60000 words, 300000 a week, say 12 million a year. Now multiply by the number of
mobile users, the number of teachers or indeed the number of people in England.
Or the people that speak English as native speakers, say 350 million, or the
number of people who use English in the world, at last a billion. Despite trying
to take in every word thatís said, the amount of English a dictionary can look
at is a minute fraction of that spoken or written in a day. The seven Harry
Potter novels are something like 1.5 million words
long, the written output of just one person. So any dictionary is
obviously going to miss something, perhaps your word happens to be local to your
environment and not visible to the dictionary-makers Ė say folly
in the sense of alleyway for the
inhabitants of Colchester or chare for
the same for those who live in Newcastle. But thatís their problem, not yours.
New words come into the language all
the time, say shockumentary
or blog; the lead time between
the dictionary makers finding the word in a text and publishing the dictionary
can be considerable. So itís hard to ever say that your word is wrong; it may
not have been recorded in the dictionaryís sample or be more recent. The
practical problem is simply that people may not follow you if they donít know
the word, not that it breaches some rule.
The debate between the specialist and the non-specialist flared up notoriously
with the publication of the infamous Third edition of Websterís Dictionary in
1961. People were shocked that the dictionary
was resigning its role as judge over the English language by including words
such as ainít; linguists were amazed
at the wrong impression the public had of their role.
This is not to say that it is
inconceivable that the dictionary should ever lay down the law about words. Dr
Johnson aimed in his dictionary to Ďpreserve the purity and ascertain (make
certain) the meaning of our English idiomí;
the very fact that the meaning of ascertain
has so changed show he didnít succeed. Yes the French academy has tried to lay
down the permissible words in French, say ordinateur rather than computer.
But itís rather like King Canute showing you canít control the tide; you may
catch a few words but you donít have any influence over the sheer flood
rolling in continuously.
Most modern English dictionaries like the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary
English are based on a definite corpus of English Ė a collection of sentences
amassed from as wide and representative range of sources as possible. EG Their
justification is that they tell you what words are being used today and what
they mean, a kind of opinion poll of words, rather than simply reflect the
judgments and opinions of the dictionary maker. Like opinion polls, they
neutrally provide the data on which other people can decide what should happen
if they want.
Dr Johnson's Dictionary Children's Early Words What does a word mean? Words index Vivian Cook