An American Editor

January 14, 2013

The Dictionary Conundrum: Thoughts About Meaning

I just finished reading The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner, a book about the creation of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (the “Third”), which the author calls “the most controversial dictionary ever published.” He may be right because the dictionary was the first major American dictionary to become descriptive rather than prescriptive. (I am pleased to say that I received a hardcover version of the book as a holiday gift — as I had requested! The book is well worth buying and reading.)

(A tidbit of history: American Heritage Company [AH] wanted to buy the G&C Merriam Company, publishers of the Merriam-Webster line of dictionaries and the Third, and tried to use the controversy surrounding the Third to induce the Merriam shareholders to sell to American Heritage. When the shareholders continued to refuse to sell, AH decided to create its own dictionary from scratch. Thus, it would be fair to say that the Third was the progenitor of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Also worth noting is that the Third is the progenitor of the usage notes that are a hallmark of the AH dictionaries, beginning with the first edition. The usage notes were devised as a response to what critics considered as a major failing of the Third.)

Reading the book and the controversy over what direction the Third should take in light of the overwhelming success of the encyclopedic Webster’s Second, brought me to pondering what a word means. I know that I and other editors rely on dictionaries for more than spelling. It is important to also know that a word with which we are not fully familiar is not only spelled correctly but used correctly — and that is the problem. How do we know it is used correctly?

A significant signpost of correct usage is a word’s meaning. Does the word really mean what the author implies it means via use and location within a sentence? Which leads to perhaps a more fundamental question: How many times have we looked up a word’s definition only to discover that we do not understand the definition any better than we understand the word we are checking on?

The problem is that to understand a word’s definition we must also agree as to the meaning of the words used to define the definition. Consider this definition in Merriam Webster’s 11th Collegiate (MW11) for tautology:

1 a. needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word; b. an instance of tautology; 2. a tautologous statement

What does that mean? How does repeating the word in the definition define the word? (I also love entries that simply say “see ____.”)

To understand what an apple is, we must have some common experience background and universal agreement that the word apple is a symbol for a particular object. If I call a round, red object a glyzzle, it is unlikely that you will know whether I mean a ball or an apple or something else because we have no universal understanding of glyzzle.

The same holds true of dictionary definitions. To say that a tautology is a tautologous statement is the same as saying the aliens are invading; that is, the definition is as foreign to an understanding as aliens invading are to our reality — unless we already understand what is meant by tautologus. But if we already understand what is meant by tautologous, why are we looking up tautology? The latter is incorporated in the former.

My point is that dictionaries can be helpful but are often unhelpful because they make a leap that is unsupported by the very reason for the dictionary’s existence: The dictionary assumes that the user already has an understanding of the terms being looked up and so the definitions can be circuitous. I grant that this is not true of all words and their definitions, but it is true of too many words and their definitions.

Why does this bother me? Because I can’t figure out how to explain a word’s meaning to someone who hasn’t had the same language experience as I have had. How do I define apple to someone who only knows glyzzle when I do not know if glyzzle and apple are synonymous? The immediate response is that we are talking two different languages — but are we?

Think about regionalisms. Words have different connotations, and thus different meanings, even though the same language is being used, when used by persons from different geographic regions of a country. To a New Englander, apple may well mean the Macintosh variety whereas to a Pacific Northwester apple may immediately conjure a red delicious apple. Yes, they are both apples, being varieties thereof, but the meaning of apple is significantly different — the shapes and taste of Macintosh and red delicious apples are significantly different, so much so that one cannot be readily substituted for the other. (In contrast, the Empire and Macintosh varieties are similar enough to be confused each with the other until bitten.)

Dictionaries are supposed to be revealers of meaning. The idea of a dictionary is not just spelling — because if that were its only function, it could be just a list of correctly spelled words — but also to arbitrate meaning so that every speaker of a language can look up a word and instantly know what the user of the word truly meant because both user and reader face the same definition and have the same understanding of meaning.

Yet as each book I edit goes by, I become increasingly concerned that dictionaries are not fulfilling this primary role (regardless of whether the dictionary’s focus is descriptive or prescriptive) because the definitions provided assume the same cultural foundation has been had by all users. In other words, the definitions are themselves so poorly worded that even two people who grew up in the same town and went to the same schools may not have the same understanding of a word’s meaning.

It is not that conformity is the goal or should be the goal; rather, it is that in the absence of conformity, communication suffers. And the goal of the editor-author-reader relationship is clear communication. Which brings me to the need for an editor to have multiple dictionaries. I have found that the quality of definitions differs on a word basis between dictionaries. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) (AHD), for example, gives a much better definition of tautology than does MW11. Consequently, I make it a practice to look up a word in more than one dictionary, whether the dictionary be a general dictionary like MW11 and AHD or specialty dictionaries. (It is probably worth pointing out that the greatest offenders of circuitous definitions are specialty dictionaries. Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 32nd ed, and Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, 28th ed., are prime examples of dictionaries that define a word with another form of the word.) Like all professional editors, I like to be sure that I understand what a word means before deciding whether or not the author has used it correctly. I also want to be sure that it communicates correctly to the reader.

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