A lexicon; a vocabulary; a wordbook.
June 4, 2014 7:57 AM   Subscribe

James Somers thinks you’re using the wrong dictionary.
In 1807, [Noah Webster] started writing a dictionary, which he called, boldly,An American Dictionary of the English Language. He wanted it to be comprehensive, authoritative. Think of that: a man sits down, aiming to capture his language whole. Dictionaries today are not written this way. In fact it’d be strange even to say that they’re written. They are built by a large team, less a work of art than of engineering. When you read an entry you don’t get the sense that a person labored at his desk, alone, trying to put the essence of that word into words. That is, you don’t get a sense, the way you do from a good novel, that there was another mind as alive as yours on the other side of the page.
posted by thursdaystoo (28 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Eh, I think I'll stick with Ambrose Bierce's.
posted by rifflesby at 8:01 AM on June 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

After reading this last week I followed the instructions at the bottom to make Webster's 1913 my Mac's default dictionary and it's been a really fascinating change.

One tip: he links to a tutorial to make Dictionary results appear first in Spotlight searches, but you don't actually have to do this. Type the word you want to look up in Spotlight, then hit ⌘-L to get a pop-up window with the definition or ⌘-D to open the word in the Dictionary app.

The process of installing the dictionary is pretty straightforward, but if you need a hand feel free to reach out over MeMail.
posted by Ian A.T. at 8:03 AM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nice! The article also includes a handy link to an online version of the Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 & 1828 editions) that's definitely going in my bookmarks. Now if only I could find an electronic version of the1953 Roget's Thesaurus ("Masterman" edition)...
posted by Doktor Zed at 8:07 AM on June 4, 2014

What a lovely article!

The most bizarre dictionary definition I've experienced was in college, when I looked up the word "mullet" in my friend's dictionary. The definition (and this is exact, I've never forgotten this) was:
"Red mullet; grey mullet."
posted by Greg Nog at 8:11 AM on June 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

I downloaded Dictionary Universal, the app mentioned at the end of the article, and have the 1913 edition on my iPhone and iPad -- I've been completely obsessed with it.
posted by thursdaystoo at 8:15 AM on June 4, 2014

Well the definition of browsing certainly has shifted in 100 years. I can't recall the last time I heard it used as a synonym for grazing.
posted by fings at 8:19 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I took see the appeal of using an older dictionary, but at the same time, I felt a little insulted on behalf of the lexicographers behind the dictionaries he dismisses because they're not artful enough. Most major modern dictionaries aren't supposed to do what he wants them do; they're academic documents of the lexicon. I'd have a similar reaction to someone who complained that the greenhouse at a university didn't arrange the plants in an appealing fashion like they did a hundred years ago.

It's fun to visit an old-fashioned university greenhouse where showcasing specimens in an aesthetically pleasing way was a major consideration (and I've done so), but that doesn't make a modern research greenhouses with a workaday layout inferior, just different and serving different purposes.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:21 AM on June 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

On the subject of lexicographers - I'd heartily recommend watching the Merriam-Webster "Ask the Editor" series to get a sense of how they answer questions of usage and drift. Great series of videos.

Ask the Editor
posted by drewbage1847 at 8:25 AM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

just different and serving different purposes

On the one hand, I think that this is approximately true. On the other, though, many of Webster's entries--at least the ones presented--display a depth that's missing from the modern entries. You could argue that the "artless" dictionaries are only concerned with the absolute pith of the word, but I think that sometimes that might actually be harmful.

Using a modern dictionary to explain an unfamiliar word, you might think, "Why did he write x when he could have written the-more-common-y instead?" Using Webster's, you might see the nuance that influenced the choice. Maybe that's largely a literary edge case, but it's the sort of thing that, given a young reader, might inspire a love of reading rather than contempt for the writer.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:31 AM on June 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

One of the strange things of the Internet age is the default encyclopedia we all use has gotten amazingly better than what came before, while our default dictionaries have become terrible. It's particularly too bad that the Oxford English Dictionary hasn't done better in the computer age. Or is it as bad as I remember? I haven't looked in an online dictionary in awhile.

I took a quick look for "flummox". OED has a new-to-me site that's not awful, but I can't tell how comprehensive the online data is. The American Heritage Dictionary site is useful too. For that matter Google's result for a word search is quite good, they seem to be showing data from the OED. Even Miriam-Webster's site is good. Unfortunately "flummox" isn't in the 1913 Webster at all, so can't make the comparison.
posted by Nelson at 8:36 AM on June 4, 2014

About 7 years ago I purchased a giant two-volume edition of Webster's Third New International Dictionary. It sits right next to my bed and despite having built-in dictionaries in my kindle and iPad, I still prefer to pull out the Webster whenever I need to look up a word I am unfamiliar with.
posted by Fizz at 8:39 AM on June 4, 2014

Why is that poor man using abridged dictionaries? Of course they're going to go for the essential. They only have so much space (and/or access to the unabridged version is a revenue stream). Any decent, modern unabridged dictionary is going to contain real citations casting a good light on the meaning beyond the basic terse definition.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:44 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Or, in a more chauvinistic way: Nyah nyah nyah nyah!
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:45 AM on June 4, 2014

The most bizarre dictionary definition I've experienced was in college, when I looked up the word "mullet" in my friend's dictionary. The definition (and this is exact, I've never forgotten this) was:
"Red mullet; grey mullet."

I still remember paging through a dictionary in middle school and seeing "blackthorn" defined solely as "the sloe". I was partly confused because I had no idea what a sloe was and partly disappointed because when I first saw it I assumed anything called blackthorn would have to have a badass definition. Instead, when I looked up sloe, there was a tiny picture of a bush or something, without enormous thorns dripping plant venom or anything.
posted by Copronymus at 8:48 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Previously linked in a sesquipedalian AskMe about obscure yet useful English words. Now to see which of those are in Webster...
posted by inire at 8:49 AM on June 4, 2014

I received the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus as a gift several years ago and have thoroughly enjoyed it. It includes usage notes and input from David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and other writers that add some of the color described in the post. It's useful as a reference and fun to just browse.
posted by cubby at 8:49 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

And, for instance, the online AHD has a pretty good entry for flash.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:57 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

The American Heritage College Dictionary is the one I chose to buy for our high school. Why? It has thorough definitions and all the etymological information, of course, which you often need to really understand the word. It was a perverse decision, in a way, though, because sometimes the first definition given is not the primary way it is used today (which is what students usually want). It usually has the most essential meaning of the word first, but sometimes the #1 definition has an older meaning, whereas other dictionaries tend to move the most prevalent use of the word up to the top in the interests of modernity.

I don't know if I'm ready to switch to the 1913 Webster's, except during the summer when I live at a slower pace, or when I'm reading text closely preparing an assignment for students.
posted by kozad at 8:57 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

This dictionary, the Webster's 1828 Edition, is the edition I grew up with. I've mentioned before, here on MeFi, that I was homeschooled in the fairly conservative, religious-right, back-to-the-land movement, and for a lot of reasons the original meanings of words have a lot of power for people in that movement. So this was the dictionary we used, because it was the dictionary that revealed, or so we thought, the language which the founders of the U.S. used before the liberals and academics got their hands on the dictionary and started tinkering with the language.

It's interesting to me that, on the Amazon page for that dictionary, the other frequently bought books are Strong's Exhaustive Bible Concordance and Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, both of which we had, in my childhood, right beside that 1828 Webster's and all three of which we understood to hold the real and true meanings of language for those primary texts by which (we imagined) we lived our lives: the Bible and the U.S. Constitution.

I think there's an interesting article to be written about the religious, homeschooling right as a community fundamentally invested in resisting lexical drift, though I have not now the time to write it.

The article posted here makes me want to return to that dictionary of my childhood, which I have associated in my mind primarily with a naive politics of language. I could perhaps re-visit it in a new light, not as a codex of what the Founders Really Meant, but as an open-textured and vivid source of words and meanings which can be put to any good service. For this, I thank you for posting the article.
posted by gauche at 8:58 AM on June 4, 2014 [15 favorites]

gauche, if you write that article, I'd be very interested to read it.

I suppose the originally linked article was hitting the old prescriptivist/descriptivist split in lexicography. Any attempt to nail down the English language (or in Webster's case, document it in the way that he wished it were used) as a static description will seem quaint in short order. Prescriptivist definitions tend to the flowery, but can be contrived or impractical. Descriptivist ones are (nowadays) taken from actual usage, thanks to the wonders of language corpora.
posted by scruss at 9:28 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:47 AM on June 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

When I first saw the title "You're probably using the wrong dictionary" I thought "Oh good! A popular article about how different dictionaries are aimed at different users and purposes! How everyone has unique needs based on: native language, cultural knowledge, skill level, encoding or decoding, etc.! How you should choose the right dictionary for your task. Ok bring it on!"

Instead it's an article about how everybody on Internet should use the same hundred-year-old dictionary that was made by and for native speakers from a single culture. As a person with some skin in this game, this article makes me sigh a bit with disappointment, even though I can see where he's coming from.

The article has a lovely turn of phrase that I disagree with:
The definitions are these desiccated little husks of technocratic meaningese, as if a word were no more than its coordinates in semantic space.
A word is nothing more than its coordinates in semantic space—but this is a beautiful thing, not a wretched thing. The W1913 definitions certainly account for associations and dimensions of meaning that are not expressed in a contemporary defining style. But real semantic space is of much higher dimensionality than what is evident in contemporary defining. A lexical unit's full coordinates in semantic space include exactly all of the implications and associations and contrasts and things that jsomers feels are more prominent in W1913 than in modern dictionaries. Modern lexicographers believe that a word's meaning is the sum of all of its occurrences—as Patrick Hanks, editor of the dictionary on which NOAD is based—has written (in Lexical Analysis: Norms and Exploitations),
[A] model of words in use must show how the totality of the patterns in which each word regularly participates contributes to its meaning on any particular occasion in which it is used.
I think this is fundamentally the same ideal that Somers expresses, and it's expressed by one of the leading people who Somers considers semantic technocrats. In the century since Somers's preferred dictionary was published—largely in the second half of that century—lexicography has radically changed the analytical basis for interpreting language and usage information. Corpus evidence and statistical methods drive most modern dictionaries, but the methods of analysis are still young, and the ways of creating meaning descriptions based on these analyses are in a funny sort of late adolescence.

Lexicographers will likely agree with Somers that modern definitions still have room to improve. But the way forward is forwards, not backwards.
posted by xueexueg at 10:48 AM on June 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

I took see the appeal of using an older dictionary, but at the same time, I felt a little insulted on behalf of the lexicographers behind the dictionaries he dismisses because they're not artful enough. Most major modern dictionaries aren't supposed to do what he wants them do; they're academic documents of the lexicon. I'd have a similar reaction to someone who complained that the greenhouse at a university didn't arrange the plants in an appealing fashion like they did a hundred years ago.

But one of the strongest points of the article was that Webster's definitions weren't just more artful, but more illuminating. In what might seem a contradiction, they achieved precision by allowing words breathing space; room to be explored and have their nuances and subtle differences divined.

'Swag' gets used a lot in hip-hop, and is, I think, a delightful and multifaceted term. The OED Online doesn't have an entry for Swag, but part of the puzzle can be found in Swagger, a related term of which Swag is sometimes merely an abbreviation. The Oxford definition of Swagger gives us this:

A very confident and arrogant or self-important gait or manner

But that isn't quite it, in the case of Swag. Swagger, in the modern sense, has as much to do with self-possession as self-importance. Confidence, yes - but also a mixture of physical stylishness and joie de vivre that make someone difficult to deny.

I don't think this is simply a 'prescriptive vs. descriptive' rehash. Whatever the reasoning behind its brevity, the OED and other modern dictionaries are failing some of our modern words. I don't want to get in too deep, but I can imagine that some of the condemnation for young words comes from the threadbare way they are introduced to those outside the subcultures in which they are coined or modified. The OED 'Swagger' is how my parents view A$AP Rocky, and the simplistic arrogance they see in his presentation matches their lexicon.

As a footnote, notice how much of the 'Schlock Songs' FPP comment thread is devoted to trying to understand the author's definition of 'Schlock'. Far from being quaint or a relic of a different era, I would argue that revealing, detailed understandings of English words are more relevant than ever.
posted by AAALASTAIR at 10:50 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I first read the link title as Jaime Sommers, the Bionic Woman.
posted by Melismata at 10:58 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think he is being unfair to other dictionaries when he suggests that they are soulless and compiled by committees. Any dictionary that defines "widgy" as a "A female bodgy" [Collins] or "melancholy" as "Indulgence in thoughts of pleasing sadness" [Chambers] reveals something of the nature of the lexicographer ("A compiler of dictionaries - a harmless drudge" [Johnson]).
posted by mikelynd at 1:49 AM on June 5, 2014

Instead it's an article about how everybody on Internet should use the same hundred-year-old dictionary that was made by and for native speakers from a single culture.

Not everybody. His blog is aimed at writers.
posted by empath at 3:56 AM on June 5, 2014

Some other commenters have the right idea, but they're being too nice about it. I'll come right out and say it: James Somers is an idiot. His idea is exactly as brilliant as saying "You're using the wrong science texts; the ones from the eighteenth century are far better written and more fun to read." If you enjoy old-fashioned definitions, by all means read old-fashioned definitions, but if you try to use them as your basic tool for understanding English you're going to come a cropper, hopefully publicly, in which case I will laugh at you. I have within arm's reach the latest editions of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate and the American Heritage, Webster's Third New International, and the OED (though I use the online one when my computer's turned on, since it's more up to date), and I use them all constantly; the idea that I should discard them and rely on dusty relics that James Somers thinks are more piquant is laughable, and shows a misunderstanding of both language and lexicography I can only liken to the ignorance of the creationists. Bah, James Somers, and humbug.
posted by languagehat at 10:34 AM on June 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

I read this when it first came out, and as one of the developers for wordnik.com, it was fun to go to the site and meditate on the differences among the various dictionaries we source there. The Century Dictionary is roughly the same age as the Webster’s 1918, and it does have nicely florid definitions as well as obsolete meanings that are fun to read. For example, to take an example at random, one sense of “sinistral” is given as “in conchology, reversed from the usual, right, or dextral curve, as the whorls of a spiral shell; whorled toward the left; sinistrorse; heterostrophous.” The definition from the American Heritage has the more understandable “(zoology) relating to or being a gastropod shell that has its aperture to the left when facing the observer with the apex upward.” The Wiktionary senses are more varied in their style, as you would expect. I’m not a student of gastropods, but I assume the AHD definition is more correct — the important thing is not that it is a “reverse” from the “usual,” but just a leftward whorl.

But don’t you just want to start using the words “sinistrorse” and “heterostrophous”?
posted by willF at 12:30 PM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

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