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Dictionary appeals

Appeals to authority are as old as logic, but surely appeals to dictionaries don't go back much further than a century or two. Firstly, there needed to be dictionaries. Secondly, they needed to be cheap enough to be affordable, I would think, which means after the advent of wood pulp paper. Thirdly, they needed to be considered authoratative, the source of definition, rather than the compilation of other peoples'.

Appeals to dictionary definitions are annoying because they imply that the language we speak should be prescribed by, not described in, dictionaries. That language is not living and mutable. Many of my students regularly appeal to dictionaries, goaded by a love of 'fact', even for terms which we have discussed extensively in class. Equally, appeals to dictionaries have been numerous in responses to elmyra's post, "I am an Eastern European".

Annoying as they are, I am, at the minute, more curious about the history of this rhetorical device than I am in eradicating it. Dictionaries are useful sources of consensus about word meaning at the time and place that dictionary was printed - which is why the argument is vaguely more compelling if one provides the name and date of publication of one's chosen dictionary - but they are not strict determinants of meaning; at least, not outside of games with specific rules to the contrary.


( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 29th, 2010 01:17 pm (UTC)
They've tried very hard to be determinants of meaning since the 17th century, though. There really was a cultural move to make dictionaries and their writers arbiters of meaning. Since about the time of Cotgrave, I suspect, or maybe a bit earlier. That's 400 years, which means most of the life of Modern English.
Apr. 29th, 2010 01:31 pm (UTC)
That makes sense. I was aware of historical prescriptivism for grammar, but had never focused on it extending to word meaning too.
Apr. 29th, 2010 01:18 pm (UTC)
No time to comment properly now - but haven't appeals to etymology have been around for far longer than dictionaries? And I'd see appeals to dictionaries as simply a modern variant of appeals to etymology.
Apr. 29th, 2010 01:35 pm (UTC)
I can only remember encountering appeals to etymology in the sense of authors using it to account for a word's meaning, importance, and signification, so I'd love to see an example or two of what you're thinking of.

Is this along the lines of not wanting to use foreign words because they're not from the language we're using? Or is it more along the lines of "by cultivating the fields, we worship the earth a deity gave us, because "cultivate" comes from "cultus", or worship; therefore cultivation can never possibly be bad for the land"?
Apr. 29th, 2010 03:16 pm (UTC)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has fake etymologies to explain the derivation of town names and make them seem properly English - Portsmouth is one that comes to mind.
Apr. 29th, 2010 01:36 pm (UTC)
Yes - I was about to say the same thing. The Romans were very much into their etymologies - see Varro in particular, but also Festus, Isidore of Seville and similar. Their derivations are often spurious, but they clearly think that truths about human experience, history and society can be divined by uncovering the 'real' meaning of words.
Apr. 29th, 2010 01:45 pm (UTC)
It's been a couple of years since I last spent much time with Isidore; I'll go back and browse. (And I've never read much of Varro or any of Festus.)

I can't figure out why, on first thought, appeals to etymology don't feel the same to me as appeals to dictionaries; appeals to etymology do sometimes consider alternative possible origins, but then appeals to dictionaries sometimes allow for alternative listed meanings. Perhaps only because I know so few people who use them today, and I'm one of those few, and tend to do so only for historical or amusement value.
Apr. 29th, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
I think appeals to etymology probably served a pretty similar purpose to appeals to dictionaries in their day, but have now been displaced by dictionaries, which usually cover the etymology of the word as well as defining its contemporary meaning precisely. I've recently been reading and writing a great deal about the pomerium in ancient Rome, which was in practice a fairly vaguely-defined and ill-understood boundary, and it is striking that at least three of the major ancient discussions about it centre around trying to work out what it 'really' is by analysing the etymology of the word.
Apr. 29th, 2010 01:40 pm (UTC)
Plato's Cratylus might be the first instance of this?
Apr. 29th, 2010 01:43 pm (UTC)
Oh - this seems to be the second time today that you and I have bumped up against one another in interesting conversations on mutually-friended journals. Wanna be friends?
Apr. 29th, 2010 01:45 pm (UTC)
Sure! I was just thinking the same.
Apr. 29th, 2010 01:59 pm (UTC)
Apr. 29th, 2010 01:45 pm (UTC)
I think you two would get on quite well together!
Apr. 29th, 2010 01:35 pm (UTC)
I find this very irritating when marking essays, at least when (as is usually the case) the definition is flourished like a banner at the beginning, never to be referred to again. Also, when the dictionary used is a Little Gem, or similar.

I don't know where this device came from originally, but as far as my students are concerned, I imagine they've been told by their teachers of the advantage of looking words up if they're uncertain of the meaning, and not always realised that this was meant to be preparatory to using it, rather than the whole point. What's worse is that it usually accompanies a sense that language is precise, unambiguous, immutable and universally agreed, all notions I spend a lot of time trying to disabuse them of. For that reason, I tend to get them to look things up in the complete OED, so that they can see that literature is nothing but a house of index cards, built on the sands of time.
Apr. 29th, 2010 01:48 pm (UTC)
It's really irritating, yes, and I've never felt articulate about explaining why it's such bad practice. I think this post is helping me think through this usefully.

After a full semester in a course entitled "history of technology", students should not be resorting to a random dictionary in order to determine what "technology" means. It makes even the most diligent of them look like they haven't been paying any attention at all.
Apr. 29th, 2010 03:13 pm (UTC)
I blame History teachers - there is an "accepted" format for getting marks at AS level which involves starting by defining your terms. I spend two years of AS/A2 teaching trying to stop them doing it for me. Sometimes I even succeed, I think a definition makes them feel safe. *sigh*
Apr. 29th, 2010 02:14 pm (UTC)
Agreed about dictionaries but appeals to authority in use of language are older - in Late Antiquity Donatus was the main arbiter of what was and was not good Latin.
Apr. 29th, 2010 03:09 pm (UTC)
In English law, it is accepted that when seeking to interpret a law or legal document words are, as far as possible, to be given their 'ordinary dictionary meaning' unless the context is unambiguously to the contrary. The dictionary used is the OED.

Of course this becomes difficult when an old law or document has to be interpreted and it is clear that the meaning of a phrase has shifted. For a really spectacular example of this, see Crown Estate Commissioners v City of London in which the Court of Appeal had to try to interpret the charter for Smithfield Market, which dated from 1638. To quote Lord Justice Evans,

"The Vice-Chancellor, like the judge, has referred to the difficulty of interpreting a Royal Charter of 1638 by the rules of construction with which we are familiar in the 1990's. Once the main practical difficulties have been removed, however, by translating the mixed Latin and old English into comparatively modern English, and by re-arranging the text into paragraphs and with some punctuation, then the task becomes less formidable. [...] If it seems presumptuous to adopt current rules of construction, though with due regard to the date and historical background of the document, then I take some comfort in the thought that, if the parties wait three and a half centuries before bringing their dispute to Court, then that is a risk which they must expect to bear."
Apr. 30th, 2010 12:06 am (UTC)
<3 for Lord Justice Evans.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 29th, 2010 03:11 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the link to elmyra's post. I replied there and then went off on a rant on my own LJ too. It clearly touched a nerve with me. I didn't have the stamina to read all five pages of comments, however.
Apr. 30th, 2010 01:05 am (UTC)
Don't. If the post touched a nerve, reading the comments would have sent you out with an axe in search of somebody to kill. I know it did that to me.
Apr. 30th, 2010 01:30 am (UTC)
I feared as much. All I could do was leave a note of support. :-(
Apr. 29th, 2010 08:05 pm (UTC)
There's an equivalent in the East Asian tradition, although I think appeals to dictionaries per se date from the later "Old Text" schools of philosophy, which would be post-Neo Confucianism (which means post-14th century).
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )