Word Matters Podcast

The Dictionary Does Not Exist

Word Matters, Episode 29

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We're flattered, but we are not "the" dictionary. We're just one among many.

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, a philosophical analysis of the dictionary. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

This might seem like a strange position for a dictionary podcast to take, but there's no such thing as the dictionary. I don't mean that the imposing tome that sat resolutely on the shelf in your childhood home was a figment. What I mean is there's no such thing as "the" dictionary. (You can't see it, but I'm doing air quotes.) In reality, there are a great many dictionaries, of which Merriam-Webster publishes some. Here's Ammon Shea on an all-too-common misconception.

Ammon Shea: Listeners sometimes like to get what they think is inside information about the dictionary, important topics like how does a word get into the dictionary, do words leave the dictionary, things like that. But there is other kinds of, I think, privileged information that is useful for you, the non-lexicographic listeners we have, to know. And among such tidbits we can offer, perhaps the most valuable is, if you ever want to really annoy a lexicographer, and let's be honest, who among us does not? One of the easiest ways to do this is to use the definite article, rather than the indefinite, when referring to dictionaries. And, of course, I mean saying the dread phrase, "I looked it up in the dictionary," or "Is that in the dictionary?" or, "You work for the dictionary," rather than, "You work for a dictionary."

And why is this such a problem? Why does this make lexicographers so itchy and het up? It's because there's been a longstanding tradition of kind of presupposing that all dictionaries are one and the same, they're interchangeable entities, and that it's basically the same similar word lists and maybe you use a different font size or a different type face and you have longer definitions or shorter ones, but you're all working from the same basic stock. And this hurts our feelings. Well, not really because we don't have feelings. But if we had feelings, it would hurt them, because we're not all the same. Every dictionary is different in its own special and sometimes unlovely way. So this is what we've decided to get together and talk about today, is it's a mixture of spleen and information, we hope, where we talk about why you should never say "the dictionary."

Peter Sokolowski: And this has to do with the idea of authority. To a certain degree, it's supported by the publishing conventions, I mean there's a big, fat book that is on your shelf, in some ways kind of like the Bible.

Emily Brewster: I think there's also a general lack of maybe curiosity about where that comes from, or maybe it feels unknowable somehow, that the dictionary just springs from the shelf fully formed, right, that it's just there.

Ammon Shea: We still routinely see highly informed, intelligent commentators, say, journalists, who are completely unable to tell the difference between the Oxford English Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English. Now, granted, the words are the same and they are in slightly different order, that could confuse many people. But they're entirely different creatures. The Oxford English Dictionary is an enormous, hundreds-of-years-long mammoth born of Victorian hubris and scholarship. It's this giant project. It is tens of thousands of pages long. It is among the crowning jewels of lexicographic scholarship ever. And the Oxford Dictionary of English is a great dictionary, but it's just a regular dictionary. You can pick it up, you can put it down, you can look up something. It's maybe 2,000 pages long. It's not tens of thousands of pages for a hundred years.

Emily Brewster: That's right. The dictionaries have different aims.

Ammon Shea: Totally, totally different aims. Right.

Peter Sokolowski: We actually categorize them, in the trade, they're known in different ways. What we call a desk dictionary or a college dictionary are synonymous. And that includes the Collegiate Dictionary from Merriam-Webster, but also certainly the Oxford Dictionary of English, or many other dictionaries that sort of fit in your hand that fit on a desk that are not unabridged.

Ammon Shea: That's true. But one of the reasons I think that this particular lack of distinction bothers us at Merriam-Webster so much is that we have a kind of tortured history with other companies appropriating the name "Webster." And there have been lawsuits and there have been tears and recriminations and all kinds of-

Emily Brewster: Advertising campaigns.

Ammon Shea: Advertising campaigns, nasty letters, strongly worded missives, all kinds of things have gone on. But for decades, a number of other publishing concerns decided that the name Webster was so identified with lexicography, dictionaries, that they would just start using the name Webster.

Emily Brewster: Specifically American publishers. Because Noah Webster's dictionaries were so well-received and so popular that his name, the name Webster, became synonymous with an American dictionary. And so the name was taken and applied to dictionaries made by other dictionary-makers. So that led us eventually to the 1980s when Merriam-Webster, the inheritor or the purchaser of Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary, upon his death, George and Charles Merriam bought the rights to Noah Webster's dictionary after he died. Merriam-Webster, the company we all work for, is the lexicographical heir of Noah Webster. But the name Webster, by then, had become synonymous with American dictionaries, and so there are many other publishers that use Webster in the names of their dictionaries. And sometimes people use those other dictionaries and write to us to complain about definitions that we did not write.

Ammon Shea: Sure. I have a wonderful example of that. I have a dictionary that was published by the Standard Oil Company and it was given out at gas stations in the 1930s and 40s. And it's the Standard Oil Webster's. Lexicographically speaking, it's a bit lacking in some of its definitions.

Neil Serven: Can't imagine why.

Ammon Shea: It's not great. Many people, if you said, "Look it up in Webster's," that's what they think, it's this blanket generic term. And there is a world of difference between the Standard Oil Webster's, which you can get in a gas station in Teaneck in 1934 and, say, Webster's Third New International Dictionary published in 1961, which is one of ours. They're not the same creature at all. But one of the things that I always found that was interesting about this is that the lack of care taken with distinguishing between dictionaries, it's not something that people who are uninformed do. It's something that everybody does. And I actually wrote an academic paper in a moment of weakness some eight years ago, I wrote an academic paper on the subject in which I looked at how educated users of the dictionary, when they were using the dictionary as an authority, when they were using it, say, in a paper or in a dissertation or in a published work, when they're using it to signify that "this is the term I'm going to use, a horrible thing that everybody does, "Webster's dictionary defines opprobrium as blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." Don't do that. Bad move.

What I found was that the more educated the writer, the less likely they were to actually cite their dictionaries correctly. And so people who were writing their master's thesis, they were not great at doing it, but they were okay. And then people who were writing their PhD thesis, they were a bit worse. But then it was people who already had PhDs were really just terrible. Only 32% of the ones that I looked at actually cited correctly, as in, "This is the name of the work, this is the year it was published, this is the edition." In other words, how you would cite any other thing in an academic paper.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, they think it's there for the taking.

Ammon Shea: They would just say, "Johnson's Dictionary defines 'slipshod' as this," or "The Oxford Dictionary," or "OUP defines this," or "Webster's," or sometimes they would just say "The dictionary defines 'idiocy' as so-and-so." This is not something that happens just from being poorly educated. It almost bespeaks a certain level of contempt.

Neil Serven: It's sort of reflects that attitude of the dictionary of just kind of being this object of permanence that has always existed. From the day you pick your parents' dictionary off their shelf that has kind of been there for 20 years and from my own memory of the cover being worn off, so I don't even know what the title of the dictionary was, what its actual name was, it was just kind of this thing that was there. And the idea of humans being behind it and having it be a work of scholarship to which other people contributed and would then want their credit, it sort of gets blurred so easily and it's easy to forget the idea that this is something that did not exist before and work had to be done to make it.

Peter Sokolowski: We're talking about from one perspective, kind of almost professional pride, and we're saying they're not all the same. There's also a difference in the purpose of dictionaries, the function for which they're written. In other words, it may be that you're using an inappropriate work. If all you need to know is the meaning of a word, you don't need all the depth of the etymologies of the Oxford English Dictionary, for example. So the fact is, they're different tools and they're used for different purposes, so it really does make a difference. Also, of course, whether it's up to date or not. There's a lot of dictionaries that are out of print, many more that are out of print than still in print, sad to say. Some are made with very particular philosophies, some that tend toward a more descriptive approach or to a more prescriptive approach, some that might be British. It's important to care about this because they're actually written for different uses.

Ammon Shea: That's a great point. And one of the things that I think is particularly charming, and I mean "charming" in a very loose sense of the word, by which I mean not an all charming, is when people get angry with us for, say, when we enter the word irregardless. One of the things you frequently see people say on social media is, "That's it! I'm only going to use my OED from now on." They never bother to check whether irregardless is in the OED. Of course it is in the OED. That is one thing that binds all of us together in the modern era, is that all the dictionaries define irregardless.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: We'll have more on the dictionary right after the break. You are listening to Word Matters from Merriam-Webster and New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Ammon Shea: Typically, we do all have somewhat of a different take on language and there are different roles for different dictionaries. And it is interesting, as you pointed out, that many of them are obsolete because that's one of the other things that people frequently say when a dictionary, a dictionary, does something that they do not like. They say, "I'm going back to the old dictionary." And that was something that we saw time and again. In fact, the New York Times in 1961 so disliked our Third New International Dictionary that they said, "That's it. We're only going to keep using the 1934 Second New International Dictionary of Merriam-Webster."

Emily Brewster: That's right. And sales of that 1934 dictionary skyrocketed because people were so offended by the sensibilities of the 1961 dictionary. So what had been this inventory that the company was concerned would not be saleable actually was. So that was good.

Ammon Shea: But it's such a weird thing that there are so few other things, like nobody says, "Damn it Ma Bell, that telephone book from 1996 was so terrible. I'm going to go back and use the 1961 telephone book." The information isn't accurate. Of course, nobody uses telephone books anymore, but if we did use telephone books, nobody would ever say, "I'm going to go for the 30-year-old telephone book." You would use the one that is up to date.

Emily Brewster: Well, the question is anybody going to the way-back machine to look at an earlier iteration of the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary, for example.

Ammon Shea: I don't think that they are.

Emily Brewster: I don't think so.

Peter Sokolowski: With the presumption that it's better. For years, people have come up to me with stories about their dictionary, saying, "I still have my collegiate dictionary," These were at academic conferences or book fairs. And I'd be in a suit at a booth or a table with the Merriam-Webster logo and people would come up and have a story, they almost all had a story, "I still have my copy," and this would be a person in their 60s or 70s. And they'd say, "It meant so much to me," "It got me through school," "We still use it in the kitchen." Sometimes we'd say, "Hey, have you ever bought a new one? Your copy is 50 years old." And to a person they always said, "No." What's interesting to me is that the sales of the Collegiate Dictionary, around 57 million copies in a little bit more than 100 years. And that's a lot of books, that's an enormous number. But if you look at the number of books that the French publisher Larousse has sold, the Petit Larousse, which is sort of the desk dictionary, the equivalent of a collegiate dictionary, they've sold about the same number, about 57 million copies, in a country that has a fifth of the population of the United States. And what that means is there was a pride in getting the new edition, that one customer might in his or her lifetime have bought two or three copies of this to get up to date. And they felt "Oh, here's the new one. I should pick it up." And for whatever reason, and I don't know why, but for whatever reason, Americans don't have that reflex at all.

Ammon Shea: Right. Well, and there's also nothing wrong with keeping any book, a treasured old book, especially.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, you should keep old dictionaries.

Ammon Shea: And nobody's going to say, "If you buy the new book, you have to get rid of the old one." That's something that, interestingly enough, they used to do with early telephone books, is that the telephone company actually had a policy of they would hire, usually young children, to go out and deliver telephone books and they were paid a certain amount for each book they dropped off. And then they would give money to the customer to get the ones back because they wanted to take them out of circulation, which is one of the reasons why it's very hard to find old, old telephone books. And also the fact that they just were made out of junk paper and they fall apart. But there was an active program of destroying outdated copies. We don't have that with the dictionary. We don't want to take your old dictionary. I think you can keep the old one and get a new one.

Peter Sokolowski: But I use them as reference works to see how was this word understood? How was it treated? What were the social prejudices that are, in a sense, embedded in the dictionary? It's so interesting to look at old dictionaries for that linguistic forensic purpose.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely. And when we say there is no such thing as the dictionary, that's not quite true. If you're pointing at a discrete object that's sitting on the floor and say, "That is the dictionary I want to use," then of course, you use that article. But there is rarely such a thing as "the" dictionary. It's usually "a" dictionary. And the other thing that I think we really need to impart to anybody is, if you're writing any kind of term paper or any kind of article or anything, and in the beginning you have the urge to say, "X dictionary defines this as so-and-so," just don't do it.

Peter Sokolowski: However, if you use a dictionary, cite it.

Ammon Shea: Yes.

Emily Brewster: I feel like I have to make a confession here.

Ammon Shea: What?

Emily Brewster: And my confession is this. I have, in a moment where expediency is called for, in a social setting answered the question, "What do you do for a living?" I have said, "I write the dictionary."

Neil Serven: Well, it sounds impressive.

Emily Brewster: If you say, "I write and edit dictionaries," it just doesn't... you know?

Ammon Shea: You know what I say? And I have to admit, you're totally right. I say, "I work for a lexicographic concern," and it doesn't really work out.

Neil Serven: But one of the interesting things about the idea of the dictionary is I also think it goes back to a time in mid-20th century post-war America when a dictionary had a role in your house. It was a piece of furniture along with the encyclopedia. Depending on what kind of household you grew up in, you would turn to during certain debates or arguments or just when you wanted to back up your own curiosity during a discussion or during a cocktail party or something. And so they make these encyclopedias and big dictionaries, they manufacture literal standing desks for the dictionary so you could actually go and consult your Third Unabridged while you were having a discussion with your friend about something. It was supposed to have a role in your room, the same way that a television set did, or the same way that our radio did.

And so I think that's one of the other aspects of this, is that the idea of the dictionary being kind of distanced from the idea of having a publisher, having people behind it, is that it was just kind of this object of permanence lodged in your house that was just always there. This idea of just having this monolith of the dictionary, I think, is rewarded by that. Just like we think of television, I mean you know your television manufacturer is RCA and all that, but you would say, "I saw someone on television." You wouldn't say, "I saw it on my Philco." So I think that was sort of one of the things that made the idea of just a dictionary the dictionary, and not a certain dictionary.

Peter Sokolowski: It has to do with authority. That great addition to the Second Edition of the Merriam-Webster Unabridged first published in 1934, it was a tome. It was meant to be your kind of household reference, your household internet, in a sense. It had all the encyclopedic entries so you could look up things like the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramids of Giza or George Washington. It kind of had everything but the kitchen sink. So it was, in a sense, designed to be this authority, this object of authority.

Ammon Shea: Which also gets into this kind of uncomfortable territory, especially with American uses of the dictionary, that they have quite often an urge, they have a desire for the dictionary to be an authority in a linguistic sense. It's quite honestly a role which we are ill-suited for. And that's maybe a topic for another time, but there is a strong impulse that people want to be told, "This is correct," and they want the dictionary to fulfill that role. And it's not our job to say, "This is right," "This is wrong." It's our job to say, "This is how the language is used."

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. People clearly go to the dictionary for balls and strikes on spelling and pronunciation and such things. And the dictionary does provide that.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at anypm.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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