Thus Saith The Dictionary

Thus Saith The Dictionary April 11, 2015

This comic from Robot Hugs explores some of the many reasons why students should not start an essay with “Webster’s Dictionary defines X as…” I had been thinking about blogging on this topic even before the cartoon was drawn to my attention, and so I decided to share it and offer some thoughts on the subject. The punch line at the end of the comic makes it even more relevant to this blog. More thoughts from me below the comic.

2014-11-11-Definition

Quoting the dictionary without showing an awareness that it is not a definitive answer does seem a lot like quoting the Bible without recognizing that it is a human work which offers answers which come from people, not from some objective non-human source.

But there are other reasons why quoting the dictionary is a bad idea in student assignments. One is that this is so common, particularly in weak high school work, that doing so makes your work seem cliché. Another is that, in most instances, if you are a student at a university, words that you may be defining by appeal to the dictionary – whether love, faith, utopia, or something else – are words that you should know, and that you can assume your professor knows. And so you should definitely turn to the dictionary if you don’t know the word – but don’t trot out your prior ignorance as though it were a good starting point for your writing. Inform yourself, get caught up, and then write like an adult for other adults.

But the most important point is one that relates to the cartoon but goes beyond it. When a word is central to academic writing, there is a strong likelihood that the term itself is under dispute, or that someone is offering a particular vision of what it should mean. And so one can wrestle with Paul Tillich’s proposed definition of faith, or the contrasting visions of utopia in capitalist democracies and in Communism. Looking the words up in the dictionary won’t settle those debates and discussions.

Are there other reasons why appeals to the dictionary are misguided, whether in student assignments or other context?

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  • melayton

    When I taught philosophy, one thing I struggled against with my students was the way certain terms seemed to mean different things in philosophical texts than the dictionary – even if the dictionary was basically accurate to how general language used the word.

    For example: Look at a word like “dignity.” In Kant, dignity is a particular status we have as a rational being, which means you can’t do certain things without sacrificing that status such as sacrificing your rationality/freedom to make a choice for the sake of avoiding pain. So euthanasia motivated by avoiding pain when you still have the ability to make decisions is sacrificing human dignity. (Killing mercifully when someone no longer has that ability, like “pulling the plug” on someone in an irreversible coma, is another thing entirely.) Now imagine the confusion when people look to a dictionary definition of dignity that might bring up the phrase “death with dignity” – using it to mean precisely the opposite of what Kant meant.

    I do think dictionary definitions can be useful if used right. In a lot of cases they can be basically good descriptions of what most people mean by a word, especially if you build in the provisos that there’s not enough room in the book to be as nuanced as actual language is. They’re a rough approximation, but a good dictionary is a good rough approximation in many instances. So knowing how people actually use a word like dignity, freedom, knowledge, faith, etc. and comparing that against how a certain philosopher used it may tell us whether the philosopher is relying on popular ideas about a concept that don’t apply to what he’s saying.

    But it was a rare student who could do that kind of work with a dictionary definition, in my experience. Much safer to stay away from that kind of thing.

    • phantomreader42

      In Kant, dignity is a particular status we have as a rational being, which means you can’t do certain things without sacrificing that status such as sacrificing your rationality/freedom to make a choice for the sake of avoiding pain. So euthanasia motivated by avoiding pain when you still have the ability to make decisions is sacrificing human dignity.

      What about euthanasia motivated (in whole or in part) by the desire to end your life on your own terms before you lose the ability to make rational decisions (or to act on those decisions due to crippling pain or paralysis)?

  • Ian

    One big problem is that language is deeply metaphorical. We use words in ways that connote our intended meaning as well as ways that denote them. When such usage is well established, they may end up with their own definition for the metaphorical or abstracted use, but often they don’t.

    This is particularly pernicious with abstract terms, like ‘God’, or ‘love’, where it isn’t clear how deeply the connotation is nested.

  • Dictionary definitions are occasionally a good starting point, but they certainly shouldn’t be the endpoint of one’s research on word usage. Just from looking at some dictionary definitions, it seems most dictionary-writers don’t think very hard about what they’re writing.

  • Michael Wilson

    no a dictionary or an encyclopedia is not the final word.
    However, it seems like the blue haired fellow would not like to talk about racism as defined by the dictionary but something he(she?) Would like to call racism. There is a fraud at work here. I have encountered it in school. Blue hair likes the word racism because when people hear it, it conjures the meaning, “believing that some people are inherently better because of their race” or something to that effect, and people generally think it is a disgusting idea. But Blue wants you to feel that disgust at something you would not agree is racist, so he is trying to redefine the word.

    Blue thinks/says his definition takes into account a wider perspective, but its just his own and other like minded academics. Is he really polling the oppresed? Further, the idea that racism should be defined by the victims of racism, not privileged whites, assumes his own definition of racism as something privaleged whites can’t be a victim of. Now their is a vulgar idea of racism meaning “white superiority” and thus the uneducated will talk about reverse racism or reverse discrimination, but this is a silly by product of the usual form of the discussion. It makes no sense, like the common use of “I could care less” when you really mean, ” I could not care less” . Their is no reverse racism or discrimination, just rascism and discrimination. To believe some races can’t discriminate or be racist toward some other is, racist.

    Now if a bunch of white leftist English professors say it is proper to say “I am” over “I be” is it racist? Blue thinks so because he associates it with blacks, and maybe it is more prevalent in blacks speech, but I say no, because no one has to speak that way. Obama doesn’t, shaquil O’Neal doesn’t, colin Powell doesn’t. It is how ever elitist. When someone says to me, I be this or that, I understand them. That is all language needs to do, make you understood. To say this form is right is elitism.

  • Sheppard

    You give reasons why a student might refrain from starting a paper with . definitions. Accepting the teacher knows the term seems a particularly weak argument. Often the content of an academic essay is meant to demonstrate the student understand concepts the teacher is already familiar with.

    Definitions help set expectations and context. So much confusion might be avoided if folks would clarify (define) what it means to discuss “evolution”. The conversation nearly always (and quickly) rolls over abiogenesis, the origin of the universe and the existence of God. Confusion would likely be averted with a few upfront definitions.

    Not all linguistic changes are profitable. Easy examples are in politics and marketing. Here is one I find particularly interesting. Bene Brown asserted a new dichotomy between the meaning of sympathy and empathy. Here is her speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw. Google charts the popularity of the words here: http://goo.gl/4DuQLv. The principles in the speech are good. The false assertion that people using these words are aware of and intend to convey her novel (unnecessary) meaning sows much confusion–especially in my life. Consider if a linguistic change is surprising to many people and requires a movement to promote it, it may not be authentic or necessary.

    Other instances where discussions need to start with what words mean: Discussion with fundamentalists about sprinkling babies ought to start with recognition that “baptizein” means “submerge”. Likewise, traditions that reserve a meaning for grace (unmerited favor) that contradicts their use of the word in every context other than theology ought to start their defense by addressing the convenient peculiarity. These might be justifiable, but the justification needs to start with definitions.