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The genuine purpose of a dictionary is to preserve distinctions despite public misuse.
A good dictionary functions as a ruler, as a constant unit of measurement for meanings to help people acquire a flexibility and subtlety of language and thought, for deeper and common communications and expressions.
A good dictionary warns against such misuse.
An evil dictionary, on the other hand, will descend to affirming popular misuses, even to the point of deleting the original, correct usages. By evil, I mean that which breaks down structures and hierarchies that lead to greater freedom of thought, expression, and awareness.
Which word is correct usage for the following sentence?
“We expect his continual/continuous presence in class this month.”
“Continual” means repeated at intervals while “continuous” means non-stop. Therefore, continuous presence would mean he never goes home, night or day. This is a distinction worth preserving, but evil dictionaries will blur the distinction, calling them synonyms.
Go ahead. Pick up your favorite dictionary and look up continual.
Evil dictionaries allow misuse to flourish and blur distinctions that are freeing. We live in an age that throws out hierarchies just for being hierarchies. Thus, many liberating structures are being reduced to rubble.
Manipulators of power want to blur the language, to keep people from using language specifically, clearly, and effectively because such manipulated people are easy to control. Clear and distinct definitions clarify reality, while unclear and ambiguous usage and misuse blur reality and keep people from seeing what is really going on. (“It depends on what the meaning of is is.”)
In other words, if I can get a blurred meaning into your imagination, you will not see past that implanted meaning. I can then get away with misdirection in reality, while you are blinded by the implant. (Magicians and con artists thrive on misdirection.)
Let me give a politically manipulative example that you can use to immediately classify your dictionary. Look up the word inflation in its economic sense. If the definition given is only that inflation is “a general rise in prices” or something similar, then you have an evil dictionary. If your dictionary defines inflation as “an increase in the supply of currency (money or credit) that causes prices to rise,” then you have a good dictionary.
If your dictionary supplies both without warning you that the first usage is a popular misuse, then you have a partially evil dictionary. You see, there is a profound difference between the two definitions. Inflation is not “rising prices.” Inflation causes prices to rise.
The cause-and-effect relationship is obscured.
There are people who want you to believe that inflation is merely rising prices in order to disguise the fact that it is the government or its appointed designees who “inflate the currency supply” (i.e., inject more money or credit into the economy making the value of all money to go down and thus prices to rise).
If you never knew that governments cause rising prices by printing up more money or providing more credit (to finance wars, foreign aid, parties), then congratulations. You have been taken in by a con game that has been going on as long as there have been governments.
Study Roman history to see how the Caesars did it. Have you ever wondered why so many old coins have holes in them? Once the treasury got low with all the big parties, Caligula, say, would require that the money (gold and silver coins) have their centers punched out so that the metal could be melted down and more coins could be made. And then a law would be passed requiring citizens to use the holed coins as if they still contained the full value of silver or gold of those without holes.
Of course, such laws failed, since the holed coins would immediately be devalued by merchants who raised their prices to account for the difference. One of the reasons why Greek and Roman history and the Greek and Latin languages are being removed from high school and college curricula is that fewer students will stumble upon such truths. A deep study of Greek and Roman history and politics reveals starkly uncomfortable truths.
Of course, a good dictionary should supply the technical definitions as well as the popular reductions or alterations, but it should also make clear when there is a possible problem or potential confusion. That’s one reason I like the Oxford English Dictionary (which gives the complete history of usage) and the Oxford American Dictionary (which for example warns one not to confuse Continual with Continuous).
But the main point I am making is that a dictionary’s primary purpose should be to preserve real distinctions so that everyone has access to those distinctions. As you know, any elite group wishing to alienate the majority and consolidate power construct a technical language that allows them to talk above the heads of the majority.
On October 13, 2020, Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett used the term “sexual preference” to refer to the LGBT community. At that time, Merriam-Webster online defined “Sexual preference” in this way:
It has been demonstrated that this term had been used by the LGBTQ community as the same as “sexual orientation” and this entry confirms that.
But for political reasons, the term was designated by the questioning senator as offensive, revealing how definitions can be redefined, even on the spot, to cause harm to someone for political or economic reasons.
The same day this specious charge was made, Merriam-Webster online updated the definition to bring it in line with the political atmosphere, relabeling it as offensive:
If this does not strike you as particularly evil, then you have either not read or not understood George Orwell’s novel 1984.
Language used in this way as a political weapon always leads, eventually, to mass slaughter, such as that seen in Stalinist Russia, Communist China, and Socialist Venezuela.
We do not want this in anything called a liberal democracy.Published in Education
Or, perhaps, below.
Very interesting post. I have no strong feelings in general. It does seem that dictionaries should be “conservative” in that they conserve the original meaning of words to prevent too many fads from seeping into our language. But at the same time, it is true that change is happening our society faster and faster and that language does change with the times.
Where I think the post in on the strongest of grounds is pointing out some of the clearly political updates to certain dictionaries, and that is much harder to justify, and probably, almost certainly, shouldn’t be justified.
“Technical language…” I guess I’m not that bothered. Phrases and jargon tend to proliferate as groups specialize. We can drain the connotation from the word “elite” and recognize that jargon and specialized terms of art are generic to organizations and actually do help those who are used to hearing them convey a lot by saying very little, even if it is frustrating to outsiders. It isn’t really an obscurantist endeavor but an economizing one.
The evil dictionary definition is the reason that Noah Webster’s original dictionary became popular a few decades ago.
Regarding technical terms, I was once given a course in preparing clear technical writing at my workplace. The examples of poor writing were mostly taken from environmental documents. The instructor told us that we should not say such things as “there was a finding of no significant impact” – that it would be preferable to say “there was no significant impact”. Actually, a “Finding of No Significant Impact (or FONSI)” means that specific defined issues were investigated and evaluated according to Federal environmental guidelines. To express it any other way would cast doubt upon whether an acceptable evaluation was made. Environmental studies are among the most jargon-filled pieces of technical writing I have ever encountered.
It’s so wonderful to have another believer in the constancy of language to communicate through generations at Ricochet.
Dictionary.com was also caught red-handed, redefining “court packing” to provide cover for the Democrats.
Details here: https://www.bizpacreview.com/2020/12/09/dictionary-com-feels-the-heat-after-redefining-the-term-court-packing-1003897/
Maybe I need to learn a different dictionary site.
Webster’s International Dictionary is open on my computer all day every day–except on the days that are good for gardening. :-) I’ve been a subscriber since they launched their online version. It frightens me, frankly, how often I’ve seen them change definitions depending on the political winds of the day.
This problem of how to have a secure source of truth has been a problem since the Internet was born. It’s why I love printed and bound books and always will. They can’t be changed at some person’s whim.
I once worked for the company that created and produced the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD). The best edition is the 1985. For me, that book is equivalent to the authoritative Riverside Shakespeare, which the company also published.
I write this in jest, but there’s some modicum of truth to it. Boston (Houghton Mifflin Company and the old Riverside Press) was conservative. Springfield (Merriam-Webster’s) out in the western part of Massachusetts was not. Webster’s was driving the Boston editors positively crazy with their constant redefining of words. A war broke out, and Houghton Mifflin decided to write their own dictionary. (I’m not sure if there was ever actually any blood shed. Editors can be an emotional bunch so I wouldn’t be surprised if there were.) They approached the project intelligently. They assembled what they called a “usage panel.” It consisted of two or three hundred writers and editors to whom they would send word usage examples and who would then vote on whether those were acceptable usages.
For example, the entry for the word hopefully read something like (a) it is hoped–Hopefully it will rain next week and water our spring flowers–and (b) full of hope–We hopefully embarked on an arduous journey to save the language. The usage note then said something like this: Sense a is acceptable to only 80 percent of the usage panel. That note gave writers the information they needed. No, don’t use the word in sense a for a Boston Symphony printed program, but it’s probably acceptable in your informal writing.
At my house, we use the AHD for Scrabble. And by the way, Scrabble is a good metaphor for the life of language. You have to set up your rules ahead of time and stick with them.
Language is merely a code. It works only if the sender and recipient agree on how to use it. :-)
Conversations like this one, though, always make me nervous. The most ornery Boston editor would have said, even in 1985, that good manners, which means putting people at ease, always trump correct word usage, and it is never acceptable to make someone uncomfortable about his or her choice of wording. :-)
Also, the law of the universe means that as soon as I decided to jump into this conversation, I ensured that I would make a grammatical error in this comment somewhere. :-)
MARK’S LAW: There are always more typos than you expect—even when you take Mark’s Law into account.
Gender. I love my 1971 Oxford English Dictionary. In its entry for “gender” is specifically says that gender does not refer to sex, “except jokingly”. I was glad to see yesterday that at the eye doctor that this office at least asked me to tick off my sex rather than to specify a gender.
But now everyone uses gender to refer to biological sex. Even here on Ricochet. The is influence being too strong to resist, I suppose.
Now I suppose it’s a real thing. But even if gender were a real thing, given the way it’s used, it’s still not a real thing.
I suspect that the change occurred because at heart, editors are Puritans who don’t like the word “sex” in polite language. :-)
The Brits are determined to keep the distinction alive. :-) But they have never liked the prudish Puritans. :-)
I don’t know if the OED has changed its definition of “sex” or not. “Gender” has only been used recently as a substitute for “sex” specifically because they wanted to confuse “sex” with other considerations such as “sexual imaginings”, “sexual preference” and “sexual identity”.
This is the “descriptivist” versus “prescriptivist” debate. A descriptivist reference merely describes the way the language is used; in my view, this is the purpose of a dictionary. If I come across a word that I don’t know, or a word that is being used in a way I’m not familiar with, I need to be able to look it up and find out what people mean when they use it. I might not like the word, or the meaning, but it’s essential that I be able to find out what it is.
A style guide, on the other hand, is prescriptivist. It tells you how you should use the language, usually in some specific context. (I write by profession, and in the writing I do at work, I am obliged to conform to my employer’s style guide. I often disagree with its guidance, but I follow it, because that’s part of my job.)
In practice, most dictionaries straddle the line: they are primarily descriptivist, but they often include “usage notes” that caution that some uses are nonstandard. I have no problem with a dictionary including such usage notes, but they should not get in the way of its descriptivist purpose. A dictionary that intentionally omits information it disapproves of is no use to me.
No, this change is legit, reflecting real scientific advances in how vaccines are created.
We no longer need to use the blunderbuss approach of injecting a hashed-up pathogen and hoping for a useful immune response.
paid for by modeRNA
Why not just ask Humpty?
Great post! Personally, I use Ambrose Bierce’s “The Devil’s Dictionary” as a supplement for whatever dictionary I am using at the time.
A problem with “dictionaries” quickly adopting “new” meanings is that doing so makes it less likely that sender and recipient will have a common understanding of the language, and thus make misunderstandings and conflict more likely. If we don’t have some mechanism such as dictionaries to maintain consistency in language, language will cease to have any utility as an agreed-upon code to permit communication. Particularly when, as in the cited example of “sexual preference” the change is driven almost entirely by one side of a political or cultural advocacy project. A dictionary that makes quick changes to word meanings may not even realize that they are being played by advocacy groups.