What are dictionaries for?
Vivian Cook

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.  Of course dictionaries have to sell themselves to purchasers. Every year dictionary publishers parade this seasonís fashionable accessory. One makes a fuss of the new words that have had to be added, another of its new enormous data-base Ė in actual fact this is just the dictionary makers doing their normal job. Another highlights its new system of including bad spellings to help bad spellers; perhaps a useful little trick but most people nowadays probably donít need a dictionary for this, just a spelling checker. In other words dictionary makers have to balance their core scientific duty against their need to sell books Ė dictionaries are vast moneyspinners.

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