The Devil’s in the Dictionary

One of the most common fallacies in reasoning is the notion that dictionaries reflect what words should mean.

A quick thought experiment will put this to rest.

Someone is asked to write a modern dictionary.

They respond…

Why do we need a new dictionary? What is wrong with the old one?

Languages and words are not static. They evolve over time. Consider the word “suffer” which used to mean “allow”. I’ve actually heard one female preacher claim that when Paul the Apostle said “I suffer not women to speak”, he was saying that women speaking didn’t bother him, when, in fact, Paul was saying that he did not allow women to speak. Another wayward word is “awful” which used to mean “awe inspiring”. A more recent evolving word is “gay” which disturbs some conservatives when they sing “Don we now our gay apparel” during Christmas.

They respond…

But words contain meaning, don’t they?

Words are simply sounds or symbols. You can have the same sound or symbol understood in vastly different ways. Here in Japan, Kinki University decided to change its name for reasons obvious to most English speakers. The word “smart” means “intelligent”, “fashionable” and “slim” in America, Britain and Japan, respectively. Minds contain meaning, and where you have 2 or more persons who have assigned the same referent to the same sound or symbol, there you can have communication. Individuals can communicate to the degree that they share the same mental representations of sounds and symbols.

They respond…

But how can we communicate if the meanings of sounds and symbols are dynamic and based on convention?

Cautiously. Those living in a shared culture can communicate in their shared language quite effectively since the mental concepts they assign to sounds and symbols are highly common due to common experiences and education. The words “proof”, “critical”, “valid” and “theory” have quite different meanings for academics than for the general population. The more technical or more insular a culture is from mainstream culture, the less there will be convergence in the mental concepts that are evoked by various linguistic tags between the 2 cultures. This is why it is important to stipulate the meaning of more vague or ambiguous word with a lengthier definition when speaking cross-culturally.

They respond…

Then how can I produce a quality dictionary?

By considering the current usage of words in the target language community. By querying convention, various current denotations and connotations of words can be detected as standard. The utility of your dictionary will be determined by how closely it reflects the actual current usage in the language community for whom it was written.

They respond…

But doesn’t that mean I’ll have to update the dictionary every few years to accommodate swings in denotation and connotation?

Yup. That’s the inevitable fact of it. No one owns words. No single person defines words. Words may be coined, but their currency depends on their acceptance by the language community.

So sounds and symbols are not obligated to carry a particular meaning. Dictionaries are not the final authority on meaning. Convention is. To place dictionaries above convention is to invert the reality of language.


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