How do you know that’s what that means?

Volume Two of Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of...

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As said by Mark Twain – “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.

Very true. But how ought we to be careful? Quite simple: don’t believe everything you read. Read multiple health books instead of just one, for example. Experiment, research, study. Agreeing with the first thing you hear is not trust – it is gullibility.

Many would concede this point, especially about health. I mean, there are so many different views! How can you possibly be sure you stumbled on the right one on the first try? Just because something is critically acclaimed doesn’t mean it is right… the critics aclaim many things. But…

What about dictionaries?

Think about it. How do you know that is what that word really means?

People often expect dictionaries to be flawless. But they aren’t, of course. And as I continually affirm… the definitions of the words we use are paramount. Our success and failure as a culture depends on lexicology on many levels. But again, dictionaries are not infallible.

A very famous example illustrating the fallibility of dictionaries and lexicographers alike refers to a time when a country woman accosted Dr. Johnson and asked him why he defined ‘pastern’ as the knee of a horse, which is actually called the fetlock (notice that this country lady had evidently been actually reading the dictionary instead of just looking up words she didn’t know, which we rarely do now, unfortunately). He replied that he hadn’t known what the definition was for sure, and so had guessed. This approach was pretty common, actually, until Webster came along and revolutionized lexicography, overturning not only Johnson’s dictionary, but also his methods of lexicology.

See, people tend to look to dictionaries as the end-all of knowledge and debate. Dictionaries define words, so how can they be wrong?

But they don’t. Did you get that? Let me say that again:

Dictionaries don’t define words.

This is imperative to understand. A lexicographer has a tremendous responsibility, but it is not to define words. He does not create definitions out of thin air – he merely transmits and records definitions that already exist.

A lexicographer’s job is to study language, and from that study, discover what the proper definitions for words are, and then record them. But what does he study? How does he discern what constitutes a proper definition? And what indicators and areas of research does he use to distill his knowledge from?

Depends on the lexicographer, honestly. They don’t all agree on what considerations should be considered, and they definitely don’t agree on how much weight each consideration should hold in relation to the others. Just read Webster’s 1828 dictionary, and you will see the conflict written into almost every definition, etymology, and comment. It is quite humorous, actually, the way he continually pokes jabs at other lexicographers (particularly Johnson). He sometimes spends whole paragraphs demonstrating solidly his own view of a particular definition or history. Quite educational and entertaining, I assure you. 😉

Now, I am not a lexicographer. I don’t write dictionaries. Nor am I qualified to do so by any standard (unless you mean a dictionary of a language in my world, of course, hehe). A true lexicographer really needs to know at least a dozen languages beyond fluency, and be a cultural expert like none other. I am nowhere near attaining either of those positions, so my dictionary will have to wait.

But I am a lexicologist, as much as I can be. I study communication with a focus on proper meanings and uses in language. Lexicologists study similar things as lexicographers, but they use their knowledge differently. Rather than seeking to reform language by recording it, they do so by using it.

They weigh their words and seek to create an example of proper communication for other people to be inspired by and emulate.

They examine their assumptions and study the art and science of conveying meaning in the best way possible for their ends.

And so, like lexicographers, they need to have a system by which they discern what words ought to mean.

And so…

Here is mine. * grins *

Yeah, that was just the intro. Hehe. I hope you’ll keep reading, though, ’cause I’ve been wanting to tell you about this for a long time now. It is really awesome.

I got excited when I first figured it out. I’m still working on it, of course, but that just means you get to help me out with it. 😉

There are five categories of considerations that I have resolved out of the quagmire of the world of chaos that is language, and they really bring a lot of sense into the whole picture. At least they do for me. They are:


Contemporary Usage

Traditional Usage

Literary Usage


Each one of these could have volumes written about them, of course, but we don’t need that much to be able to improve our discernment quite a lot. So here is an overview of how to use these.

I wrote those in a specific order for a reason. See, that is precisely the priority order in which you should rank these categories. Contemporary usage takes precedence over traditional usage, literary usage takes precedence over etymology, etc. If there is a conflict, always let the primary definition reflect the higher category of consideration.

The ones lower down can inform use and definition, but they are a very shaky foundation. So a lot of context is needed to help refine and support your communication when using definitions founded on them.

Now to examine each one in a bit more detail, starting first with Propriety.

Most people ignore this consideration entirely. But it is, in fact, quite possible to have a very wrong definition for a word even if it reflects perfectly contemporary, traditional, literary usage, and etc. Especially as Christians, we should pay very close attention to propriety in meanings. I’m not talking about choosing one word over another based on appropriateness, please note. I am talking about crafting the network of available meanings in your language.

See, lexicologists get to say what words should mean. Not just what they do mean, but what they are supposed to mean. That is part of their job: to help guide language in a productive and beneficial path.

Unfortunately, there have been all too many sophists holding the lexicological reigns in recent generations, and not nearly enough solid Christians dedicated to truth. Hencely, our culture of language has deteriorated along a very precise pattern of ungodly obfuscation. Meaning itself has lost its meaning, and the most important words in our language have become eroded to such a degree that we are crippled in our efforts to discuss them, much less live or teach them. Words like love, truth, belief, God, sin, crime, submission, trust, faith, hope, good, evil, life, honor, and equality have been completely twisted, diluted, viciated, and sterilized from the Truth.

We cannot teach righteousness, because there are no words to use to express the fundamentals of righteousness. And thus we have confusion in our pulpits, in our families, in our homes, in our children, in our churches, in our converts, and in our hearts. What else would you expect?

But propriety isn’t the first place we look when it comes to discerning the proper definition of a word. In actuality, it is the last thing I look at, once I have already examined the rest of the stack. And then I use it to mold and craft the definition already arrived at.

The first place I look is Contemporary Use. There are three parts to this: precise (or official, or technical), common, and niche use. Precise use is what is officially proclaimed as the current, technically accurate definition, generally in grammar books and dictionaries. Common use is the way people tend to use it in normal conversation. Niche use is the way people use it when they are stretching the definition – when because of the context, someone uses a word far outside of its precise meaning.

Then I look at Traditional Use. Again, at the precise, common, and niche uses, but this time I look at them in how they have changed over the years from the birth of the word. I look at what these changes reflect, in particular.

After that, I get to look at Literary Use. In other words, I look at how individual books have used the word uniquely. See, in a book, a person can use a word in a completely unique way, in the context of his subject. This is especially true of fiction, particularly fantasy and sci-fi. They can turn the language on their head in those genres, and completely get away with it. Which is fine. That’s the way it is supposed to work. The difference between literary use and niche use is that niche use is looking at the spread out usage across many different people, while literary use looks at each individual book in a unique way.

And then down at the tail end I take a glance at etymology: the history of the creation of the word, basically. Kinda nice and handy, but not really something to base much off of.

This also happens to be the same basic pattern that I use for lexicological dissections of passages of Scripture. But since this is getting really long as it is, I’ll let you all speculate on that in the comments. 😉

But seriously – comment and ask questions. I would love to expound more… so ask away. 😀


2 Responses

  1. I’m printing this out to read again; that was very intriguing, Emeth! Thankyou for taking the time to write it. My family have often discussed the importance of our words, but we’ve never thought about the importance of accurate word meanings. Good food for thought. 🙂

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