Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Words, Words, Words

Workmate Henning sent me this video today. It's word-geek and lexicographer Erin McKean pondering the future of "The Dictionary."

It's an amazingly fun talk so you should really watch it, but if you want a brief summary...well, she feels that our concept of "dictionary" is still rooted in a Victorian concept of "appropriate words." This concept started because there simply weren't enough resources to include EVERYTHING in the dictionary. She resents being put into a "traffic cop" role when maintaining a dictionary, and instead looks forward to the day when dictionaries are well-sourced repositories of all available words...not just the words considered dictionary-worthy.

It's a compelling argument and a very current one. Now that we can collaboratively store an essentially unlimited amount of information in forums and wikis all over the world, it makes sense to question whether our information-collection methods are outdated or pointlessly constrained.

But I do find that this discussion tends to overlook something very simple: when people consult a repository of information, what exactly are they looking for? Do they want access to everything, or are they only looking for a subset? And as long as people are looking for a subset we will always require "traffic cops," whether during the information-collection process or during information retrieval.

My objection is that dictionaries are often NOT consulted in order to learn about every word, everywhere, through all times. When I consult a dictionary I simply want to know how to spell a word I already know, and learn the conditions of its use, and perhaps pick up a few synonyms. I need this information because I want to communicate my ideas in as specific and unambiguous a way as possible, especially if I'm writing an essay or -- in my job -- a technical document.

When I consult a dictionary, I am not concerned about interesting regional words or slight differences in spelling ...I want to know what the STANDARD supposedly is for its spelling and usage, so that I can be relatively sure that the reader will understand what I've written...without misunderstanding a word, needing to puzzle over its usage, or having to look it up in the same place I did.

There are obviously places where word standards are less important, sometimes to extreme degrees -- creative writing, emails, texting, blank verse -- but dictionaries do not ONLY serve those situations. Likewise -- to use another one of McKean's examples -- you don't always consult a dictionary because you're just interested in exploring words.

Sometimes you need to know what the STANDARD for the word is. For that you use your style guide, your guide of specific technical terminology...or your dictionary. And for that you also need a "traffic cop."

I think McKean is getting excited about possibilities without stopping to consider the usage. There's certainly a place for a Total Word Repository, but I argue that such a thing is a different concept from the sort of dictionary *I* find useful (except in less formal situations when such a word repository WOULD be useful). I have no problems with viewing language as an organic, ever-changing construct -- that's why we revise dictionaries, after all -- but there are still situations where we require standards within ANY collection as long as it is to be a useful reference -- Wikipedia, a bug list, a technical forum, a book on art history -- and I therefore doubt that a complete, constantly-changing collection of ANYTHING is useful in all (or even most) situations.


Anonymous said...

I remember reading William Zinsser's indispensible “On Writing Well,” which included a discussion of his work on the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. I thought it was a fascinating insight into the work of the “traffic cops” who (literally) “define” what our dictionaries will define.

What a responsibility it must be to begin the process of removing words from common usage! I suppose it’s on a par with deciding which new words are worthy of listing.

These days, I turn to the thesaurus more than to the dictionary. Like you (“because I want to communicate my ideas in as specific and unambiguous a way as possible, especially if I'm writing an essay…”) I sometimes need a better word than the one I was going to use.

I don’t have room for an unabridged dictionary, nor for the obligatory wooden stand. I assume (perhaps wrongly) than an unabridged dictionary never shrinks (?). However, it can certainly become outdated all too soon after its purchase. I am not always content with Microsoft’s idea of dictionary and thesaurus, but they usually suffice.

Nonetheless the hunt for the right word continues!

Adam Thornton said...

I use the Thesaurus far more than the Dictionary as spellchecker takes care of most spelling tasks and I'm literate enough to know most usage rules. The Thesaurus is there to add colour or to find exactly the RIGHT word.

I find online dictionaries -- either software or online -- to be really awful for reference. They're convenient, certainly, but if I'm REALLY curious about a word I use my enormous Oxford paper dictionary.

But I don't have the space, budget, or upper-body strength for an unabridged either. :)

Anonymous said...

There is a cute T-shirt with a dinosaur/thesaurus theme. View it at this link:

Saw this company's ad in the online NY Times.

Hilda said...

I do have an Unabridged Oxford at home - and I use it. I look up words all the time. I read a lot of stuff - varied stuff, and sometimes I don't know what a word means, so I look it up. I use online dictionaries as quick reference, but I prefer good old book dictionaries.