What Is a Dictionary?

Comments

What is a dictionary

Anonymous

There are two types of dictionary: descriptive and prescriptive. For example, Webster's Third International, considered the great American dictionary by some, is prescriptive. It's prescriptiveness is what led to the creation of the first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.

The argument that "we" are the arbiters of what is language is true only if we are speaking of the descriptive dictionary, because that dictionary (MW 11, for example) describes how we use language and doesn't tell us how we should be using language.

A second problem with the "we" position is that it basically says language is whatever we want it to be whenever we want it to be something -- the Humpty Dumpty approach:

"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'"

In other words, if we do not accept the dictionary as the definer of what a word means, then language anarchy ensues and communication stops. All of us rely on our ability to understand what another person is saying by using agreed upon (albeit subconsciously) definitions that are arbitrated by dictionaries.

A philosophical conundrum, to say the least.

Rich Adin
www.freelance-editorial-services.com
blog: www.americaneditor.wordpress.com
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The argument that "we" are the arbiters of what is language is true only if we are speaking of the descriptive dictionary, because that dictionary (MW 11, for example) describes how we use language and doesn't tell us how we should be using language.

A second problem with the "we" position is that it basically says language is whatever we want it to be whenever we want it to be something -- the Humpty Dumpty approach:

"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'"

In other words, if we do not accept the dictionary as the definer of what a word means, then language anarchy ensues and communication stops. All of us rely on our ability to understand what another person is saying by using agreed upon (albeit subconsciously) definitions that are arbitrated by dictionaries.
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