The Penultimate Word

The Truth About Dictionaries: Making Words Mean Whatever You Want Them to Mean

“Look it up in the dictionary.”

Sound familiar? As a child, whenever I wanted to know the meaning of a word, Mom would always tell me to look it up. Today, I say the same thing to my kids. It’s embarrassing. You’d think my knowing how much I sound like my mother would make me want to exert some self-control.

ANYWAY … as children, we learn that the dictionary—that venerated guide to language usage—is the ultimate resource for definitions and pronunciations. LIES! ALL LIES! Shocking, I know.Dictionaries are untrustworthy sources for definitions.

Most people assume that dictionaries are prescriptive—that they prescribe or dictate how we use the language. But they’re not. Dictionaries are descriptive—they simply record how people use the language. Now, I ask you, what good is that?! If I’m looking up a word in the dictionary, it’s because I want to know what the word actually means, NOT because I want to know how it’s used by Larry, Moe, and Curly.

In my opinion, modern dictionaries promote illiteracy. Here’s how:

One person mistakenly uses the word “flaunt” instead of “flout.” (Understandable mistake—the words sound alike.) The misuse spreads. Eventually, people everywhere are making the same mistake. Once enough people misuse the word, the incorrect meaning makes its way into the dictionary, leaving us with “to treat contemptuously” as a definition of “flaunt.” Who cares if the meaning is WRONG—everyone uses it that way. Once the incorrect meaning makes its way into the dictionary, more people use the word incorrectly because the dictionary says it’s OK. And on and on. It’s a vicious cycle.

Because dictionaries are descriptive, they’ll tell you that “enormity” is the same as “enormousness,” but it’s not. “Enormity” is really a great evil. The dictionary will also tell you that “disinterested” is the same as “uninterested,” but it’s not. “Disinterested” really means impartial.

Lexicographers defend their actions by pointing out that our language is ever evolving. I’m fine with evolution as long as it doesn’t deteriorate the language. Just because a lot of people misuse a word, doesn’t mean it’s right.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ready to throw out my dictionary yet. (It makes a nice doorstop.) But, in my opinion, to be truly useful, a dictionary needs to dictate how we use the language. And it should shout out for all to hear when a usage is WRONG!

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