Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Guest Post: The Dictionary as Slave, Not Master

I'm excited to share our first guest post on Palmer Language Blog! This is a post by Ann Anderson Evans, from one of the first language teaching blogs I started reading - Linguistics in the Classroom. Check out her blog and check out the bio at the end of the story!
Slave? Master? Slave master?


“That’s what the dictionary says,” ends the dinner table disagreement. Doesn’t it?

Maybe the answer should be “Which dictionary?” Dictionaries have different goals, methods and styles, and may have different agendas. One editor might believe that emerging language should be honored while another believes that words should be well proven before they are enshrined in the dictionary – no bling and bro for her. These decisions reflect competing views of language, art, and politics.

The editors of the 1971 The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary present the following categories of meaning: Common, Literary, Colloquial, Scientific, Foreign, Dialectical, Slang, Technical. They treat each word by noting its “Main Words, Subordinate Words, Combinations, including the Identification, Morphology, Signification and Illustrative Quotations” with senses presented chronologically. In other words, they want to provide everything to everybody. In the hard copy, the information has been “reproduced micrographically” and for many human beings is accessible only through a magnifying glass. A more visually accessible OED is available online, but it costs around over $900 for a subscription, so most people use their local library or university’s subscription.

The editors of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 5th edition, on the other hand, tailor their dictionary to the needs of the college student and of the general reader, with encyclopedic knowledge specifically excluded. If you want to know the meaning of bathukolpian (deep-bosomed), you will be better off with the OED.

There are also differences between British and American dictionaries (not to mention Indian, Australian, Jamaican, etc.). The British legal system, for example, distinguishes between solicitors and barristers, while in America, there is no such distinction, thus the definitions of the word attorney differ.
British: OED: A professional and properly-qualified legal agent practising in the courts of Common Law …; one who conducted litigation in these courts, preparing the case for the barristers, or counsel, whose duty and privilege it is to plead and argue in open court.
American: Webster’s: One who is legally appointed by another to transact business for him; a legal agent qualified to act for suitors and defendants in legal proceedings.
Collins has published a new, freedictionary online. It has a multitude of features, including:
  1. Definitions, of course, and the phonetic representation of the word.
  2. A comprehensive list of synonyms and of related terms. For the word “beat,” for example, related terms include “beat it,” “beat up,” etc., and for nearby words there are “beat a retreat,” and “beat around the bush.”
  3. Audio files which give the pronunciation of the word using standard American English and standard British English. (Not all words have this feature.)
  4. Translations of the word into 24 different languages, from Finnish to Korean, to Arabic. I noticed that Hungarian, Swahili, and Hindi were missing.
  5. Usage examples: for “doggie” (or “doggy”) there is “A close friend describes their Kenmore Hills home, on Brisbane's westside, as doggy heaven.” COURIER, SUNDAY MAIL (2004)”
  6. In the case of doggies and many other nouns, there are photographs.
  7. The origin of the word is also given, though not as comprehensively as in the Oxford English Dictionary.

(The iPhone app for this dictionary costs $12.99, which puzzles me, but I am easily puzzled when it comes to the interaction of various kinds of equipment these days. Are they counting on making their money on the App, not the online version?)

Too much thinking about dictionaries can be dizzying, and can remove a source of what you once thought was absolute authority. They are fascinating and useful, but you should treat your dictionary as your slave, not your master.

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Ann Anderson Evans’s blog, www.linguisticsintheclassroom.com is read around the world by teachers and people interested in how language is constructed, how meaning is made, and the role of language in our lives. Ann is a writer, linguist, and teacher of writing at Montclair State University. Her article, “Beyond Grammar: Linguistics in the Writing Classroom” appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of the Duke University journal Pedagogy.

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