Things You Need To Understand #10: The Dictionary Is Not A Perfect Rhetorical Tool
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I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time, but one of the comments on the Avatar post finally pushed me to do it. I am just so tired of people using the dictionary in discussions of complex issues as if the dictionary definition trumps, well, everything. No, people. The dictionary is a good tool, but a very simple one. It will not help you understand complex concepts and it will certainly not win you a debate.
This happens a lot when white people try to have a discussion about the word racism. Any time the concept of Prejudice + Power comes up, certain folks rush to m-w.com to prove that racism means exactly what it says online. “See!!” they shout triumphantly, while anyone who’s had this conversation hundreds of times merely rolls their eyes and prepares to begin another session of Racism 101.
Dictionary definitions are problematic, particularly online definitions. Merriam-Webster Online’s free version is abridged. For those unaware, abridged means:
1: to reduce in scope : diminish
2: to shorten in duration or extent
3: to shorten by omission of words without sacrifice of sense : condense
Most inexpensive print dictionaries are abridged, too. And though I don’t think they say so on the site, some m-w.com definitions are even more abridged than the print version. Most of the time people looking to get the gist of a word don’t need the full, unabridged definition and etymology of a word. However, anyone looking to prove that a word does or does not mean something absolutely, or to say “You’re making up definitions, X word doesn’t mean that!”, cannot turn to the abridged definition to prove their point.
Beyond that, not all dictionaries are created equal. Merriam-Webster is a good dictionary, yes. But comparable to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)? Not quite. Will you find a more thorough definition of racism in the OED than M-W unabridged? Probably. (I can’t say for sure as I do not own an OED.) It certainly won’t be less complex. These are not the only two dictionaries of the English language around, either. And while they certainly will have many of the same definitions, there is a reason why there are more than two.
And then we come to words whose many facets are beyond the scope of a dictionary definition. This is what encyclopedias are for, in part. If you’re looking for a deep understanding of a word or a concept, the dictionary isn’t going to provide it. That’s not a dictionary’s job.
In his essay “Defining Racism“, Daniel Hindes points out that “dictionary definitions are all short and unambiguous (traits desirable in a dictionary),” and take a lot of key things for granted (due to shortness). For the definition of Racism, this includes the existence of Race. Hindes then brings up the functional/sociological definition of race, something that requires a lot more words than you’ll find in most dictionaries. The functional definition is a lot deeper and more involved — not a surprise — and is the result of people’s actual experience with racism and many, many discussions about the issue, amongst other things. Sociology is complex.
One final point to consider: I’m sure that the people involved in editing and updating various dictionaries strive to be impartial and unbiased. After all, it’s just about the words and what they mean, right? There’s no way that could be biased or skewed in some way.
Though I don’t ascribe some vast conspiracy by “The Man” to “Keep us down” or anything like that, I am well aware that if you’re a member of a majority or privileged group, the fact that racism is not just about how one person feels about another might not occur to you. If it doesn’t occur to you, then having that as a definition wouldn’t strike you as odd or incomplete or even wrong. The thing to remember is that not all definitions are absolute or true to the core. The English language is mutable, changeable, evolving. Don’t believe me? Then go throw a faggot on the fire and rape your neighbor’s lawn gnome. The former will not require having to interact with a gay person and the latter has nothing to do with sexual assault. Look them up.
Bottom line: whipping out a dictionary definition during a discussion of complex issues is ill-advised at best. I would even go so far as to say it’s dumb. It doesn’t put you over on anyone else and it doesn’t win the debate. It usually shows that you don’t have any kind of true understanding of the concepts under discussion and usually leads to people either working to educate you or dismissing you outright.
There’s a fine line between trying to understand a foreign concept or different point of view and just being an ignorant ass. Avoid the latter by leaving the dictionary alone.
Update: Here’s video of an amazing talk lexicographer Erin McKean (who is an editor of the OED) gave at the TED conference. Really amazing stuff on language, dictionaries, and the English language.