Thursday, April 13, 2017

How Do We Define The Dictionary?

I recently wrote a piece about how Oxford Dictionary was distorting and bastardizing the English language by letting too many new words into its collection, especially given some of these words have not been around for very long nor have they been adopted widely by the masses.  A few angry linguists and word-lovers didn’t seem to take kindly to my insights. Some of them believe that our dictionaries should, as a matter of obligation, introduce words to the public.  Others, like myself, believe the dictionary should reflect actual usage of words.  What do you think?

Does the dictionary merely reflect the words out there, or does it lobby for the widespread adoption of such words:? Does a dictionary hope that by having a new word by itself will lead to society's use of the word? 

Dictionaries introduce new words on a regular basis.  However, the dictionary is usually playong catch-up, inserting words that may have been used for years, even decades.  Now, some dictionaries are increasing the frequency in which they update their collection, and they are greatly expanding the number of words that make the cut.  Is our language really changing that quickly?

Look how long it took mainstream dictionaries to finally include words like ain’t or fuck?  Some would say the dictionary failed us in not letting them in sooner, while others would say obscenities or crooked contractions have little place in a Bible of words, the dictionary.

I decided to research dictionaries.  What I found was this:  There are so many dictionaries floating around!

You have some of the more legitimate, long-standing, well-established ones such as: Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Oxford English Dictionary, Cambridge English Dictionary, American Heritage Dictionary, and Random House Dictionary of the English Language.

Then there are specialty dictionaries, such as The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, Crossword Dictionary (, The People’s Law Dictionary (, and Investor Words (

Wordnet, UrbanDictionary,, The,, Wordnik, and are some of the many online dictionaries that have become popular.

Do you want a dictionary edited by the public?  Try Wiktionary.

We have more dictionaries than ever available.  Do people even look up words anymore?  They rely on technology to edit and spell-check for them.  With an increased use of dictation software, users no longer have to type or read what they write, or look up words.

When I grew up, in the 1970’s and 80’s, a dictionary was big, heavy and a solid tome whose oversized dimensions gave it some gravitas. It had yellowed pages filled with black and white illustrations, tabs, and charts.  It looked official, because it was.  It didn’t change words overnight nor did it compete with so many other versions.  If dictionaries reflected our language, they now hope to create it.

Dictionaries became activists.  They will change with every newly-minted phrase uttered by a booze-fueled, tech-happy teen-ager.  321 million Americans will soon lose their ability to communicate clearly with one another.

Which dictionary should get to define the meaning of dictionary?  What should a dictionary even do?

At the very least, a dictionary shows us which words are available for use, what they mean, examples of usage, proper spelling, pronunciation, and related things such as etymology (word origin), proper conjugation and tense application, synonyms, and antonyms.  But now they show us something else, revealing a new society that a few lexicographers want to push upon the masses.  Dictionaries are moving away from being descriptive to prescriptive.

The history of the dictionary is fairly lengthy.

Over 4,700 years ago word lists were created by the Akkadian Empire.  They were preserved in the form of cuneiform tablets with bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian words.  However, it wasn’t until four centuries ago – in 1611 – that the first monolingual dictionary was written in Europe.  Spain published the Spanish dictionary written by Sebastian Covarrubias.  A year later, the first Italian dictionary was published. It served as a model for similar English works.

The word “dictionary” was invented by Englishman Jolon of Garland in 1220.  He penned a book, Dictionarius, to help with Latin diction.

In 1582 a non-alphabetized list of 8000 English words was created, Elementarie, by Richard Mulcaster in 1582.

In 1604 the first English dictionary, alphabetized, A Table Alphabetical, was published by Robert Cawdrey, an English schoolteacher.

It wasn’t until another 150 years – in 1755 – that a more reliable and comprehensive English dictionary was published, Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language.  He didn’t write the first English dictionary, but it was accepted as a leading authority upon its arrival.

The 17th century saw numerous attempts to create English dictionaries, including these:

1616 – John Bullokar – English Expositor
1656 – Thomas Blount – Glossographia
1658 – Edward Phillips – The New World of English Words
1676 – Elisha Coles – English Dictionary

But it wasn’t until Noah Webster arrived on the scene that the great American English dictionary came to be.

In 1806 he published his first dictionary, A Compendium Dictionary of the English Language.

A year later he began a two-decade long quest to compile and expand a fully comprehensive dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language.  In order for him to understand and evaluate the etymology of words, Webster learned 26 languages, including Old English, Greek, Latin,  Italian, German, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Sanskrit.

His book set the gold standard for dictionaries and is still widely used today.  His book included 70,000 words, including 12,000 that had never appeared in any dictionary.  He also reformed the spelling of words, introducing American English spellings. He replaced colour with color and made theatre read as theater.  He put in American words that had not appeared in British dictionaries, such as squash and skunk.  In his bid to capture language accurately he was also a reforming force who forever altered our language.

Although I’m thankful to Mr. Webster today, I don’t know that I would have applauded all of his efforts back then.  He singlehandedly altered the way people communicated and their ability to exchange ideas and thoughts.  What if someone came in today and messed with our spellings and suddenly added tens of thousands of words never before found in a dictionary?

Of course, language is not static.  It moves with the changing world around us.  The questions that need to be addressed are:

·         Who or what determines what’s a word -- and what it means?
·         On what criteria is such a decision made?
·         How will having multiple dictionaries – over a dozen large ones – help or hurt us?
·         Does expanding our language help us communicate better?

Maybe the biggest change yet is to come.  Will we move to some kind of numerical alphabet?  Will we add letters and sounds to our language?  Will we combine words with images or emojis, the way 14-year-olds text each other? 

I wonder what the dictionary of 2057 will look like. It surely will define itself.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2017©. Born and raised in Brooklyn, now resides in Westchester. Named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby 

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