Saturday, November 05, 2011

Dictionary, Lexicon, Encyclopaedia

Sometimes, I am asked on what authority it is that I give definitions for terms. Why should my definition of 'science', or 'humanities', or 'education' (etc., etc.) be used instead of that found in the venerable Oxford or Merriam-Webster or whatever dictionary tome is the flavour of the decade?

The answer is a simple one.

A dictionary is a compilation of diction — that is, the uses to which words have been put. Most dictionaries are alphabetized lexicons — that is, they are lists of words in alphabetical order, with notes on their usual meaning and usage attached.

Some are encyclopaedic, which is to say they are meant to be both descriptive and prescriptive — they provide enkyklios paideia, as the Greeks would put it, an 'all-encompassing education' (literally, 'a (full) circle of child-rearing').

All definitions are provided by lexicographers who examine the typical diction (in the sense of usage) of a given word and from this describe the uses to which it is put. They do not tell you that you must use a word that way; they only tell you what it would probably mean if you used it in a given context. You are at liberty to essay a new meaning, and if that becomes a common usage, the next generation of lexicographers may include your meaning in a dictionary.

What I do is simple. I define words the way I use them, while keeping an eye on their pedigree and the uses to which other people put them. When I define a word, it is usually in historical and functional context, for the purpose of some practical use (for example, writing an essay on a given topic). Anybody can do this, but the test of validity is whether the reader will accept the word as you use it.

So I suggest this: anyone who reads this blog and disagrees with any definition I give should educate me more fully by counter-defining or re-defining the term. You should explain the amendment you wish to make, and I will certainly agree with you if it is a reasonable one that makes the definition more useful in its context of use.

I don't mean that sarcastically, ironically, or in any other perverse sense. I'm being honest here. The point about teaching is trying to nurture better outcomes, and you can't get better outcomes if you refuse to improve your word-hoard, stock-in-trade, or other parts of your armamentarium. So, teach me, and I will learn. Thanks!

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