Painting With Words

Posted by Derek Chamberlain on Wednesday, February 1, 2012 Under: Writing

I was teaching a class the other day and had my students checking their definitions of the words on a vocabulary list by looking them up in the dictionary. One of the words was ‘debt’. I was surprised to find that the primary definition provided by the Webster’s American English Dictionary (New Edition) was ‘sin’, the secondary being ‘something owed’. 

I wondered if this particular take on debt was a particularly American understanding, or whether someone with extreme fundamentalist views had been employed by Federal Street Press (the publisher) on the day that debt came up for definition. I checked half a dozen other dictionaries, including British, American and Australian English editions, and found that none of them included ‘sin’ at any level of definition.

I then contacted an American friend and asked him about it. He was just as surprised as me and asked for time to do a little checking of his own. He came back to me with the information that the only other dictionary that mentions sin as a possible definition for debt is an on-line dictionary and it specifies that it is only valid for theology, specifically, canon law and church history. He also said that he didn’t think it was all that common a usage amongst Americans generally. That brings back the question of why such a strange definition makes it into a paperback dictionary. Not only makes it in, but is left unqualified by any hints that it pertains only to specific usages. 

How exactly do dictionaries come up with their definitions? Does the dictionary provide a definition that we are all then bound by, or do they provide something closer to the results of a poll of common usage? 

Dictionaries of modern languages have to be more than just lexicons. Modern languages are living languages, meaning that they are constantly changing, growing, redefining themselves; unlike ancient or ‘dead’ languages like Latin, ancient Egyptian, or classical Greek. Dictionaries have to mirror that by reflecting the changes in language over time, which is why we need to keep buying newer editions if we don’t want our language to become dated.

On the other hand, if we follow some branches of Linguistic theory, dictionaries provide the definition that we all are bound by because the dictionary definition is the only we have of knowing what someone means by the sounds they utter or the marks they make on paper. And this is, only to a point I think, true. All the sounds and marks we make are, strictly speaking, arbitrarily assigned to represent the ideas for which they stand. The only way any communication gets done is because we all accept those sounds and marks as representing something and agree on what each of them represents, an agreement that is delineated, for the most part, by dictionaries.

The fact that language is constantly changing is one of the reasons that I tell my students to reference recent versions of dictionaries is they want to write or speak with a modern voice. I also tell them to reference more than one dictionary, and this incident with the Webster’s is a good illustration of why that is necessary. I also tell them to reference English-English dictionaries as much as possible because there are differences in the order in which nuances are placed within the definition. Usually, in a normal English dictionary, the prime spot is given to the current main usage, with secondary and tertiary spots going to the older definitions or nuances. In bilingual dictionaries, this order is sometimes muddled; and this muddling can cause misunderstandings.

I had a conversation recently with a student who complained about the complexities of English punctuation and claimed that it wasn’t really necessary to learn it for conversational purposes. I agreed that a lot of the punctuation rules are byzantine, that there are so many exceptions in common usage that, really, it was almost not worth the trouble. But then I pointed out that, while a lot of the punctuation fixation that some people had was excessive, there was a solid reason behind it. Punctuation, or the lack of it, can change the meaning of a sentence completely. e.g. “Let’s eat grandma.” vs “Let’s eat, grandma.”

If one comma can so transform the meaning of a sentence, what can one misdefined word do? Wars have been fought because of such nuances of meaning, which shows the stupidity and belligerence of certain people, but also shows just how important proper definitions can be. 

As writers, words are paint we use to give form to our ideas (genre being the canvas). If we wish our art to rightly express the vision we see, then words, correctly defined words, rightly used, are our only means of doing so.


In : Writing 


Tags: writing "word choice" "art of writing" language 
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Meet the scribbler


I'm a writer, editor, indie publisher, and dedicated Magic Spreadsheet user. Originally from Adelaide, Australia, I've been living in Japan since 1995. I've had a life-long interest in writing and in speculative fiction. My first book was published in mid-2014.
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