Things You Need To Understand #10: The Dictionary Is Not A Perfect Rhetorical Tool

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.

Untrue.

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.

37 Responses

  1. [...] Things You Need To Understand #10: The Dictionary is Not A Perfect Rhetorical Tool – The Angry Black Woman [...]

  2. I’m sorry to report that the OED definition of “racism” is not much better than the M-W one. It does mention that it can be “the expression of prejudice in words or actions” and not merely the prejudice or antagonism itself; it even extends the meaning to cover antagonism against other nationalities. There is no mention of power structures, however, and it is not clear whether any of the cites would have been talking about power structures in their original context.

    I am able to consult the OED, by the way, because my city library has a subscription to their online edition, such that I can access it by logging in with my library card number. It might be worth checking to see if your local library has a similar arrangement.

  3. I know that it is Not Your Point, but here’s the (online version of the) OED’s definition of racism:

    The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. Hence: prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, esp. those felt to be a threat to one’s cultural or racial integrity or economic well-being; the expression of such prejudice in words or actions. Also occas. in extended use, with reference to people of other nationalities. Cf. RACIALISM n.

    Compared to Meriam-Webster’s:

    1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race 2 : racial prejudice or discrimination

    The following are via dictionary.com. Random House Unabridged:

    1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
    2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
    3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

    American Heritage Dictionary:

    1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.
    2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.

    WordNet:

    1. the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races
    2. discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race

    Obviously, there are some major differences between each of these, and none quite address the power/privilege dynamic.

    To your final point, consider this definition, also via dictionary.com.

    The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition

    The belief that some races are inherently superior (physically, intellectually, or culturally) to others and therefore have a right to dominate them. In the United States, racism, particularly by whites against blacks, has created profound racial tension and conflict in virtually all aspects of American society. Until the breakthroughs achieved by the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, white domination over blacks was institutionalized and supported in all branches and levels of government, by denying blacks their civil rights and opportunities to participate in political, economic, and social communities.

    This one essentially implies that racism was mostly (or most importantly) White against Black. But don’t worry, the (White) government did everything right and it seems that, as Blacks are now legally afforded unfettered access to “participation” in politic, economic, and social “communities”, they are essentially no longer targets of racism.

    Better close up the blog, there.

    The following are the OED’s definitions of “appropriate”, by the way.

    1. To make (a thing) the private property of any one, to make it over to him as his own; to set apart. Obs. exc. as in next.

    2. Const. to oneself: = next.

    3. Hence ellipt. To take possession of for one’s own, to take to oneself.

    4. Eccl. To annex (a benefice) to some religious corporation, as its property.

    5. To allot, annex, or attach a thing to another as an appendage. Obs.

    6. To devote, set apart, or assign to a special purpose or use. Const. to, for.

    7. To assign or attribute as properly pertaining to; to attribute specially or exclusively. arch.

    8. To make, or select as, appropriate or suitable to; to suit. arch.

    9. To make proper, to fashion suitably. (So Fr. approprier.) Obs.

  4. People using dictionary definitions to say “this is what this word means” is never a clever move – but just because I’m determined to get the most out of my university’s access to the OED online, the definition of “racism” as at Sep. 2008 is:

    “The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. Hence: prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, esp. those felt to be a threat to one’s cultural or racial integrity or economic well-being; the expression of such prejudice in words or actions. Also occas. in extended use, with reference to people of other nationalities. Cf. RACIALISM n.”

    I’m actually surprised they only give the one “definition”, though. The 1989 definition was

    “The theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race.”

  5. [...] Things You Need To Understand #10: The Dictionary Is Not A Perfect Rhetorical Tool « The Angry Blac… The ABW nails 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." (tags: web rhetoric howto) [...]

  6. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that most white people really don’t UNDERSTAND the subleties of racism. They still equate it with white sheets, nooses and cross-burnings. Since most of them aren’t into that sort of thing, discussions of white privilege tend to fall on deaf ears. Many wouldn’t “get” why the Avatar casting is another example of Hollywood’s racism. In their minds, it’s simply a case that white=universal. To them, non-white children should still be able to see themselves in these white faces. NOT!!! In this case I tend to flip the script–why can’t white children see themselves in non-white faces?

    It can be maddening to try to engage many whites in discussions of race because they’re simply not hearing you. Also, let’s face it, they assume that any discussions of race means that somewhere someone gets a little heated and/or passionate (namely US). This bothers them because they think acts of physical violence will ensue. There seems to be no way in their minds that we can discuss race like adults. And of course, you simply have the ones who like nothing better than to make any such discussions sound like we’re whining.

    Sooner or later though, the discussion is going to happen and pretending it doesn’t exist won’t make it so. After all, they’re already the minority in California.

  7. Thank you for this. Sometimes the dictionary can be a helpful tool but when people act as though it is the end all and be all of definitions I want to tear my hair out.

  8. Wow, interesting insight. Looks like I’m not the only one who thinks Dictionaries need to be improved upon.

  9. The dictionary is a catalog of meanings, not a dictator of them. Most people can’t seem to get this, and there is particularly a school of Internet arguer who believes that they are the court of last appeal for every possible controversy, possibly because they have no familiarity with any other reference work.

  10. Well, I’m definitely going to return as a defender of dictionary interrogation. Read: interrogation……If there is no room in a debate for interrogating the origins of the words we use, what point is there in interrogating the concepts? Where do people derive their initial understandings of words and concepts? Do they not come from the vast array of dictionaries on the market? I don’t know what education system ya’ll were brought up in, but in Canada, from kindergarten to university, we utilize dictionaries to gain understandings of words. This does not mean that they are unproblematic, and they certainly do not provide a full picture of any given concept or its usage, but it seems ridiculous to write that by suggesting someone re-examine the meaning of a term beginning with (one example of) its original use, is unimportant to any discussion of the term.

    I would argue that definitions of words as they exist in ALL dictionary formats (which are, in their intent, meant as guides for pronounciation and not necessarily definition), having power and meaning. Quite obviously conceptual arguments cannot be fully explicated by solitary reference to a word’s definition, however, to fully understand the impacts that words have we must at least interrogate their meanings at the most basic level just as we do at their most commonly used level.

    As an aside to a greatly over-generalizing statement made in this blog, the interrogation of semantics is not reserved solely for “white people”, or the uneducated. There is a large body of scholars (self included) who consider the interrogation of words and original meanings very important work. It seems overreaching at best to assume that because someone considers word origins important to a discussion of “more complex ideas, that they lack familiarity with any other reference work.

    Indigenous peoples fight for sovereignty and legal recognition can and MUST address terms at their origins, interrogating any and all sites (even those as seemingly discredited as http://www.m-w.com, if not for the very fact that IS a site used quite readily by thousands – maybe more – for clarification, definition, etc.). For Indigenous peoples, words and their origins have profound effects on legal decisions handed down by Supreme Courts, re: rights to governance and land.

    At many times bloggers and responders to blogs point someone’s attention to particular sites of contestation as they present themselves, whether through critical literature as many here have suggested from various authors, or, in this particular case, to definitions of terms. Perhaps far too many people consider singular postings to be the end all to be all – that no lines of thought continue long after a posting is completed. However, words have power – and our ability to understand what you’ve even wrote here relies heavily on our usage of dictionaries and their definitions. While they cannot ever account for entire webs of meaning (I mean, come on, most standard versions of them if not all, have been written by and for white men), they do play an important role in the way we structure our world of meanings – words have power, especially at the site of their definition. To say that the interrogation of them, or even the mentioning of them in “enlightened discussion”, seems reflective of the ignorance you write of here.

  11. For a white South African, David Theo Goldberg offers a pretty interesting conceptualization of racism in The Racial State that views racism as an entire project linked to systems of subordination and control – which I think helps go beyond overly simplistic dictionary definitions. I’d be interested to know when the word “racism” even made it into the dictionary – given white society’s unwillingness to confront it, I doubt it’s been in their for very long.

    Btw, re-reading the post under Avatar, I don’t really see where your interpretation, ABW, that reference to the dictionary was intended to be a “final say” in a debate. Rather, it was intended (at at least to me), reads as an attempt to extend the discussion perhaps into further territory. It looks like my mentioning that we should discuss “appropriation” and its meanings, usages, etc. more, didn’t fall on blind eyes (deaf ears wouldn’t really work in this context) – because you are proposing a discussion of it, that is both timely to the topic and important. Perhaps it accounts for regional differences or cultural differences in debating styles, but as an Indigenous person, I understand that there is no “winner” in situations like these…..I guess Cree people are unique in that we’re not trying to “win”….we’re just trying to have a discussion……..and understand that bringing in a debate over semantics isn’t a strategy to “win” or “finalize” a discussion….If it was, certainly the scholar that you made reference to would have no career (if it were as useless as you suggest)……..as I said, it’s an attempt to continue the discussion and perhaps redirect it into other areas, which we’ve now, by your post here, you’ve done.

  12. Oh, lord.

  13. Dear ABW, thank you so much for this. For me, I know someone’s full of shit when they write, “The dictionary defines [the complicated, divisive, age-old and highly subjective social phenomenon we are discussing] as [10-word definition]” — but have never quite been able to express how misguided that is. It’s a short-on-space freshman essay tactic.

    I don’t know what education system ya’ll were brought up in, but in Canada,

    A. Seib, I’m a Canadian, been all the way through the education system, and I don’t find your argument convincing. First off, I’m not going to take anyone’s word on rhetoric who says “derive” for “get”, “utilize” for “use”, “explicate” for “explain”, and “interrogate” for god-knows-what. Second, yes, if you want to understand a concept you need to investigate its name’s origins, connotations, and “official” definition. But all too often people confuse discussing the concept with discussing the name of the concept, and so we have useless, circular comment-thread arguments about “race” without ever touching on race itself. It’s this, I think, that ABW is trying to nip in the bud.

  14. AWB, what should we use if not dictionaries?

    A. Seib, what do you mean with “For a white South African, David Theo Goldberg offers a pretty interesting conceptualization of racism ” ?

    Are you trying to say that all white South Africans are racist, and none of them are able to form unbiased opinions on race and racism?

  15. Susie, I LOLed when I saw your comment.

    Joy, I don’t think we should stop using dictionaries in general. They’re obviously useful to a point. But if you mean what should we use in debates instead of dictionaries? Instead of trying to prove that a word doesn’t mean what the other person thinks it means — which is mostly a strawman/diversion tactic — engage with their ideas. You can disagree with the fundamentals of what they’re saying without agreeing or disagreeing about the definition of a word. And even if you accept their definition of a term, it doesn’t mean that you have to accept their ideas and conclusions about it.

    A. Seib, I don’t have time right now to answer all of that, but since I know I’ll hear from you if I don’t comment, let it be known that I will be back later on.

  16. Thank you so much, ABW, for this post. I might just have to print it out and carry it around with me.

  17. A. Seib wrote: “Where do people derive their initial understandings of words and concepts? Do they not come from the vast array of dictionaries on the market?”

    In brief: no, they do not. Our understanding of words and concepts comes from the way they are used in the world – specifically, in the particular slice of the world we live in. Dictionaries are only a repository of the way a word is typically used by a certain group of people in certain contexts (print, really): college-educated, upper-middle-class people who dominate print media. They are not rulebooks, boundary-setters, or (certainly) argument-enders. And while a dictionary is useful in defining either everyday terms or very specialized ones, complex words like “racism” are so far from being definable by a dictionary that anyone who relies on a dictionary to do so is either extraordinarily naive or astonishingly ignorant.

    But really: you think people get their ideas of words’ meanings from dictionaries? As Morrissey sang, “there’s more to life than books…”

  18. *applauds* Awesome post.

    I have been in an arguments before about the n-word and bitch and cunt, and people will pull out dictionary definitions as if that’s that… “I can use that word whenever I like because this is what M-W or OED says”. And, it’s like, no, there’s huge cultural and historical connotations behind those words that often go completely unmentioned in dictionaries. The dictionary =/= God. Hint: People created dictionaries, we assign meanings to words, therefore dictionaries can be as imperfect as the cultures people create!

  19. [...] Angry Black Woman explains why The Dictionary is Not a Perfect Rhetorical Tool. Bottom line: whipping out a dictionary definition during a discussion of complex issues is [...]

  20. Another important point is the TACTIC of using the dictionary. Basically, by doing so, the person is saying, “I’m going to ignore everything you experienced and everything you understand about a topic that disagrees with what is written in this book.” It just completes the self-referential cycle that concentrates power in white culture.

    You’re wrong because the dictionary is right. The dictionary is right because it is the dictionary. The dictionary is right so you are wrong.

    WTF?

  21. This is a wonderful post. I recently wrote a paper discrediting the authority of the dictionary that so many people give it. Rarely do we ever hear the history of English dictionaries or the process by which they are made. One reason why racism may not have the prejudice + power definition in dictionaries is because some (I know for a fact that the OED does) only include definitions that have been widespread in use for a certain amount of time. Unfortunately, this definition isn’t widespread enough apparently.

    Also, A. Seib, English dictionaries were solely bilingual or polyglot up until the 1600s, and they were mainly one-way, translating a foreign word into English. So what did English speakers of that time derive their meanings of words from? I don’t know about you, but most of my understanding of words comes from context and practical use. I would be hard-pressed to give someone the dictionary definition of some of the words that I use, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t know how to use them or what they mean in a given context.

  22. Finally, I have some time.

    A Seib,

    I don’t know why you set yourself up as a “defender of dictionary interrogation” as no one was attacking dictionary interrogation or dictionaries for that matter. As BSK points out upthread, this post was about the tactic of using dictionary definitions to prove that a word doesn’t mean X or that the person you’re arguing with is wrong — this approach has no merits.

    Obviosuly there is room in debate for talking about interrogating the concepts behind the words we use, but not to the point of ignoring the actual discussion going on.

    You asked: Where do people derive their initial understandings of words and concepts? Do they not come from the vast array of dictionaries on the market?

    Others have already answered, but it bears repeating: No.

    I don’t know about Canada, but in America they teach us how to derive the meaning of a word from context, usage, AND reference books. Most people learn word meanings through context and usage. Dictionaries determine definitions through context and usage, too. Of course I’ll head to the dictionary if I run across a really unfamiliar word, but I’m not going to rely on a dictionary to explain the concept of cultural appropriation.

    Also, I never stated that “the interrogation of semantics is not reserved solely for “white people’.” In fact, this post is NOT about the interrogation of semantics, it’s about people using dictionary definitions in ignorant and non-useful ways. I think interrogating semantics is fine and dandy, and maybe if that’s what people were doing when they whipped out the dictionary it might be somewhat useful. But instead they are, as BSK pointed out, saying “I’m going to ignore everything you experienced and everything you understand about a topic that disagrees with what is written in this book.” “You’re wrong because the dictionary is right. The dictionary is right because it is the dictionary. The dictionary is right so you are wrong.”

    That’s what it comes right down to — she (or he) nailed it better than I did.

    All that stuff about indigeonous people and word origins is very interesting, but has nothing to do with my post. Also, no one is discrediting m-w.com, I’m just saying it’s abridged, sometimes severely, which may or may not be a problem depending on how deep you need your reference materials to be.

    However, words have power

    Agreed.

    and our ability to understand what you’ve even wrote here relies heavily on our usage of dictionaries and their definitions.

    Not necessarily. Children know what words mean before they can read and thereore look at dictionaries. Your ability to understand what I’ve written more likely has to do with a number of educational, societal and cultural factors, not just a dictionary.

    While they cannot ever account for entire webs of meaning, they do play an important role in the way we structure our world of meanings

    I think you have it backwards. Go look at the original post again and click the link I added at the bottom. Watch that video. It’ll become clear quickly that it works the other way — we create dictionaries by the way we structure our world of meanings.

    words have power, especially at the site of their definition.

    Which is not in a dictionary.

    To say that the interrogation of them, or even the mentioning of them in “enlightened discussion”, seems reflective of the ignorance you write of here.

    And again, I never said: Don’t Interrogate. Dictionaries are basic tools. Any involved discussion of racism or other complex topics has already moved beyond the basics once it becomes heated enough for folks to start whipping out definitions. If you don’t already understand that m-w.com’s definition of racism is inadequate for dealing with the real world affects of racism then the dictionary is not going to help you. At all. Does that mean we ought to throw out all dictionaries? No. It means that we should recognize when to move beyond them.

    I don’t really see where your interpretation, ABW, that reference to the dictionary was intended to be a “final say” in a debate.

    It wasn’t, necessarily. I was speaking more in general terms. Your mention of not being able to separate words from their original meanings reminded me of other eye-roll-worthy discussions.

    And actually, we’ve been planning to have a discussion of appropriation for a while, but not it’s meanings, just how it occurs and how people feel about that.

  23. When it comes to the definitive definition of a word as complicated as racism, I start by realizing that minds far more brilliant than mine have been tackling its meaning and impact for decades. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with tossing our hands in the air on certain subjects, and declaring, “I don’t know.” I’ve read dictionary definitions, I’ve read books and even essays, but the truth is, I still don’t know.

    I’m usually slower than most when it comes to grasping overly complicated concepts, so I’m not sure I’ll be any closer to the answer next year or the year after. But I will continue to ask questions, read posts like this one, ruffle through convenient pages of the closest dictionary–all the while admitting up front that I have no idea what the word really means or if I am using it correctly–and hope, fingers crossed, that I eventually stumble across the truth. Until then, all I can do is say “I don’t know” and listen from the sidelines as others box it out.

    Very interesting post, and loved the link provided, as it offered a lot of context.

  24. Hi there,

    Happy New Year!

    This is an excellent post!

    Most people who want to toss out dictionary defintions FAIL TO point out that every single “major” dictionary that is widely used in thiis country was compiled by whites and published by whites.

    The notion that ONE group gets to define all words and all concepts for everyone ELSE and that it should become the irrefutable standard is just….plain…. racist.

  25. I too am a staunch defender of dictionaries, and that is why I must take issue with many of the things written by you, A. Seib, since you appear to have a number of misconceptions about both language and dictionaries.

    Where do people derive their initial understandings of words and concepts?

    This is a fascinating question, and one that is hotly debated among linguists using the term language acquisition. However, none of the theories that have been proposed have anything at all to do with dictionaries. I suggest you read these . If, after doing so, you still wish to support a dictionary-based method of language acquisition, please explain the existence of languages with no writing systems. While your own life and development may be heavily influenced by dictionaries, your experience is atypical. Moreover, you may be attributing more weight to the act of using dictionaries (which you do consciously and deliberately, and thus remember more clearly) than to the more common act of natural language acquisition (which you do unconsciously and thus have no memory of).

    [I]t seems ridiculous to write that by suggesting someone re-examine the meaning of a term beginning with (one example of) its original use, is unimportant to any discussion of the term.

    It may seem ridiculous, and yet, doing so very often is both unimportant and distracting. This process is usually referred to as the etymological fallacy. This version, of course, only refers to pointing to the history (sometimes false history) of a word to override the current meaning, not what is generally being discussed here: using a “dictionary definition” to override the current meaning. However, the effect on the discussion is generally the same, especially when an argument regarding the meaning of the word is being used in conjunction with an argument regarding the significance of its use.

    I would argue that definitions of words as they exist in ALL dictionary formats (which are, in their intent, meant as guides for pronounciation and not necessarily definition), having power and meaning.

    Although I don’t have time to survey the front matter of all my dictionaries, I can quote the “Guide to Pronunciation” (PDF link) in M-W’s Collegiate Dictionary, the first sentence of which is:

    Pronunciation is not an intrinsic component of the dictionary.

    As an aside to a greatly over-generalizing statement made in this blog, the interrogation of semantics is not reserved solely for “white people”, or the uneducated. There is a large body of scholars (self included) who consider the interrogation of words and original meanings very important work. It seems overreaching at best to assume that because someone considers word origins important to a discussion of “more complex ideas, that they lack familiarity with any other reference work.

    Your discussion of language seems divorced from very basic concepts of linguistics, which is why I (and I presume others before me) question your familiarity with other reference work. For one thing, you appear to be falling into the etymological fallacy again, combining the study of semantics (generally, the study of meaning) with etymology (generally, the study of history, or “original meanings”). For another, you seem to be mistaken regarding the role of semantics in lexicography. Quoting again from M-W Collegiate in the essay “The English Language” under the section “Semantics in the Dictionary”:

    But while definition is central to the dictionary and quite obviously is involved with semantics, for the most part it deals with individual words in isolation from other words and thus ignores, to a considerable extent, the systematic, relational side of English semantics. Another problem is that . . . our understanding of the semantic system is imperfect, and much of what we do know about it does not obviously come into play in a dictionary.

    As the M-W lexicographers themselves explain:

    The first thing we need to remind ourselves of is that when we speak of the meaning of a word we are employing an artificial, if highly useful, convention. Meaning does not truly reside within the word but in the minds of those who hear or read it.
    In short, a dictionary is a wonderful resource that provides most readers with handy access to a very brief summary of a great deal of linguistic information in a format usable in their everyday lives. But to use all that research as an authority in an argument, one must first understand what its compilers claim (and, more often, what its compilers do not claim). Otherwise appeals to the dictionary are taking quotes and arguments drastically out of context, and appeals to the actual authority of the dictionary are fallacies.

  26. BSK, on December 31st, 2008 at 1:25 pm Said:
    Another important point is the TACTIC of using the dictionary. Basically, by doing so, the person is saying, “I’m going to ignore everything you experienced and everything you understand about a topic that disagrees with what is written in this book.”

    That’s pretty much how I feel everytime someone introduces the Bible into a conversation, actually.

    As abw says, anyone who thinks a dictionary is a rulebook doesn’t understand how they’re put together. A dictionary is only a rulebook when you’re playing Scrabble, the rest of the time it’s a catalogue, a record of how words were being used at the time it was compiled, defined as concisely as the lexicographers can manage within the limits of their own abilities and understanding. Dictionaries are always playing catch-up, forever trying to stay abreast of current usage. The English language belongs to everyone who uses it, every last one of us. There is no English equivalent of the Acadamie Francaise to proclaim correct usage from on high. English is a democratic ‘bottom-up’ language, with common usage defining meaning. Of course, with no central authority this also means different groups are sometimes going to have sometimes quite different understandings of some words.

  27. It’s funny – I mean, nobody invoking the Almighty Dictionary in such a way would say that the Merriam-Webster or the OED were handed down from the heavens, carved on stone tablets or plates of gold, Platonic Forms unalterable as multiplication tables.

    And yet that’s the assumption behind “The Dictionary Says!” – that they were assembled without the involvement of actual, limited, fallible human beings with biases and ignorance and space limitations and editors with their own issues riding herd on them, and that reference books are unchanging entities instead of artifacts of the cultures that produced them.

  28. bellatrys, on January 2nd, 2009 at 11:25 pm Said:

    ‘And yet that’s the assumption behind “The Dictionary Says!” – that they were assembled without the involvement of actual, limited, fallible human beings with biases and ignorance…’

    So, just like the Bible, then.

  29. Great post. It’s hard to convince some folks that dictionary definitions and the compilation of words are not the final defining word.

  30. Belatedly: Hear, hear! Excellent post.

    I’ve been meaning to write something along these lines for years–not the specific parts about people pulling out dictionary definitions of racism, but the general parts about people attempting to bolster their arguments by pulling out the dictionary. I think you said everything I would have said, plus excellent discussion of use of this tactic in discussions of racism etc, so now I can just point to your entry. Thank you!

  31. I like words and language, their use and origins. I like simple common usage language and multi-syllabic, euphonius prose. I like reading well constructed, well thought out ideas that reflect or challenge my own experience.

    What I don’t like is reading and re-reading what someone wrote to try to figure what they were intending to communicate.

    First and foremost, words and language are tools of communication. If an author’s audience fails to understand what the author is trying to convey, then I believe it is the failing of the author.

    I believe ABW is saying, having experienced and thought about issues of power imbalance including race and gender her entire life, is “…in discussions of complex issue Y the experience and reflections of people affected by Y should not be trumped by an abridged definition of a word describing Y. And anyone using such tactics is failing, consciously or unconsciously, to take into account the others point of view…” ABW you can correct me if I’m wrong, no hard feelings here.

    I agree, sometimes whole-heartedly, with most of the arguments ABW shares with us. And even when I disagree, I love the way she communicates her ideas. Often I am humbled with her ability to write so eloquently on a topic I have been thinking about for years.

    A Seib, I really can’t understand how what you have written has anything to do with this blog. I guess, and I am guessing, you are saying “..dictionaries are important tools in understanding the definition and meaning of our words and language. And anyone debating this point is failing to understand this..” What does this have to do with ABW’s post?

    Please, if you post again, stick with the topic. And leave the Thesaurus alone. Tools can either help or hinder, depending on their use or misuse. Which I believe is the point of TYNTU #10.

  32. ABW’s analysis for the use of the word ‘Racism” reminds me of how the word “Freedom” is often emptied of its content in dictionaries and in popular use.

    Freedom is often defined and discussed as not being under constraint by some entity. And the defintion stops there.

    Historically, across many cultures, the notion of Freedom implied not being under constraint AND having purpose and direction toward something.

  33. I can’t say that I agree with this at all, and in fact, it is this trend of ignoring the lexicographical meanings of terms and expressions that I believe has inflicted harm upon the quality of many different types of relationships.

    Whether we’re talking about efficient and effective business communications, or a girlfriend trying to talk to a boyfriend, the increasingly connotative use of language creates more instances of misunderstanding and therefore, more discord.

    In a debate, you have to start with words that everyone has already agreed upon as its meaning and then use symmetrical logical and empirical facts. The dictionary, therefore, is a starting point. If a person needs to take liberties with the meaning of an expression to make a point, the discussion then actually must begin with an explanation building the premise for the alternate use of that expression.

    I consider arguing any other way to be intellectually disingenuous.

  34. “Dairenn Lombard”: please report for reprogramming. Seriously: you act as if language is something that followed after the invention of dictionaries, when in fact, dictionaries are a haphazard attempt to keep up with language. Talk to any lexicographer about your theory: if they’re polite, you’ll be gently corrected; if they’re not, you’ll be laughed at, loudly. The “trend of ignoring the lexicographical meanings of terms and expressions” has been going on longer than dictionaries existed.

    I mean, if you fall in love with someone, do you worry because it didn’t happen exactly as it says it’s supposed to in some guide to modern romance? Language is human behavior, not a game we play according to rules we made up. The world is what it is; it refuses to conform to our definitions (which, etymologically, means “to set bounds or limits to” – precisely what the world will not give to us).

  35. ABW is right and wrong. First, the argument that dictionary definitions are faulty because they are abridged is perplexing when considering her own Prejudice + Power definition. Fortunately, it turns out that her abridged definition is superior to that of the dictionaries.

    A better argument against the use of dictionaries as rhetorical tools is that dictionaries define words without context or bias and therefore they must necessarily be an inferior and secondary source compared to the actual and contextual usage of words in the real world. As a result, an argument based on dictionary definitions is an inferior argument at best. It is bereft of any basis in reality and can only be applied to abstractions. To properly explore what a word means and does not mean, one should look to the actual, contextual, widespread (and scholarly, especially when the word is complex, such as racism or irony) usage of the word by the people who actually use it. Otherwise one is merely relying on the experience of those who wrote the dictionary. And as brilliant as dictionary writers might be, they are neither all-knowing nor always right. Not only that, they probably don’t get out all that much.

    Accordingly, I searched the websites of the NAACP, ADL, and Asian-Nation for the contextual usage of the word racism and came up with the following pages:

    http://www.naacp.org/youth/college/end_campus_racism/index.htm

    “Over the past few years, students of color have reported a dramatic increase in acts of racial discrimination, intolerance, hate crimes and insensitivity amongst different cultures at institutions of higher education. Hateful and racially insensitive incidents have occurred on some of the most prestigious campuses in the country – Clemson University, Tarleton State University, Texas A&M University, University of Texas at Austin, University of Connecticut and Johns Hopkins University just to name a few. Often, these acts can be attributed to many factors; including a lack of knowledge of what constitutes acts of racial intolerance and hate and a lack of appropriate consequences brought forth from university officials.”

    Note that although the power component of racism is not directly mentioned, the statement does strongly infer it with the phrase “a lack of appropriate consequences brought forth from university officials”, which clearly speaks to acquiescence or at least indifference from those in a position of authority.

    Many other references to racism on the NAACP site either discuss it in the context of a position of authority or as a historically institutionalized practice, strongly supporting the claim that a proper definition of racism, as far as the NAACP is concerned, should include the “power” component.

    http://www.adl.org/hate-patrol/racism.asp

    According to the ADL: “Racism is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics.”

    Furthermore: “It may be defined as the hatred of one person by another — or the belief that another person is less than human — because of skin color, language, customs, place of birth or any factor that supposedly reveals the basic nature of that person. It has influenced wars, slavery, the formation of nations, and legal codes.”

    The last sentence of the second definition very clearly states that racism involves a position of power and privilege. Without these, how else can one make war, enslave others, form nations or write legal codes? In addition, the page goes on to discuss racism in the context of power and privilege such as when it mentions “cultural control”.

    Also instructive is the phrasing of this somewhat controversial statement: “At the same time, some public figures in the American Black community have championed the supremacy of their own race and the inferiority of whites – using nearly the identical language of white racists.” Note that the word “racist” is not applied to “some public figures in the American Black community”.

    Thus, the ADL seems to agree with the NAACP: racism involves a “power” component.

    http://www.asian-nation.org/racism.shtml

    The page begins with: “As the section on Asian American history discussed, numerous acts of discrimination against Chinese immigrants culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For the first and so far only time in American history, an entire ethnic group was singled out and forbidden to step foot on American soil. Although this was not the first such anti-Asian incident, it symbolizes the legacy of racism directed against our community.”

    The page then goes on to discuss the case of the baseball bat beating death of Vincent Chin in 1982 by two whites who subsequently received probation in state court and were acquitted in federal court. In context, this page written from an Asian American viewpoint is crystal clear: racism involves not only hatred but power as well.

    Based on the above, most dictionaries appear to provide an insufficient definition of racism given the contextual use of the word by the three groups arguably most affected by it. Furthermore, the poor dictionary definition does not appear to be the result of it being abridged but rather because the definition is not being written from the perspective of those who actually use the word most often, and perhaps more importantly, those for whom it is the most meaningful and relevant. To them, racism very much appears to involve Prejudice + Power.

    Perhaps the Prejudice + Power definition does not make sense to many whites (and ironically to some Asians as well) because they view Affirmative Action as “two wrongs do not make a right”. While it may be appropriate to dismiss such feelings at the GROUP OR SOCIETAL LEVEL on the basis that they co-opt the real suffering of some by substituting the imaginary and non-existent suffering of others, such a dismissive position is untenable at the INDIVIDUAL LEVEL. The fact is that sometimes the most qualified individuals are passed over for specific positions under an Affirmative Action program on the sole basis of race, and to them as individuals this might (dare I say understandably?) seem unfair. Yet clearly the intent of Affirmative Action at the society level is not racism — in fact the intent is the exact opposite, it is anti-racism.

    My purpose in going down this landmine-strewn path is not to argue for or against Affirmative Action but to perhaps elicit some thinking about possible definitional improvements that could be made to address the nuances of this group/societal vs. individual aspect as it applies to Affirmative Action and other similar situations. To me at least, this appears to be the crux of the disagreement over the meaning of racism.

    In closing, I’d like to use ABW’s analogy to drive home the above point: it would be insensitive and inappropriate to use the word faggot, even in reference to cigarettes and even if you are an old British fogie, when around gay people. In other words, absent a mutually agreed-upon definition of racism, it may be inappropriate and insensitive to call a white person racist because he or she
    opposes Affirmative Action solely on the basis that it affects him or her personally. Such accusations ring similar to the reflexive “playing the race card” dismissals made by so many white people.

    • First, Tom, the power+Prejudice definition is not Mine. I didn’t come up with it, I don’t own it. Second of all, I and most others who use that definition know full well that there is a LOT of stuff behind it, as we have explored many times on this blog. therefore, calling me out on using an abridged definition is silly, because I actually don’t. there’s a difference between abridged and shorthand.

      Second, why are you bringing up Affirmative Action?

  36. ABW,

    Only because you claim I did something silly that I feel compelled to indulge in this semantic splitting of hairs. You are right that Prejudice+Power is technically shorthand, but it is shorthand for an abridged definition such as “racism is dominance in society, business or politics by one group over another based on a preconceived notion of ethnic or cultural superiority”. Thus, the shorthand Prejudice+Power is indeed an abridged definition. I obviously don’t have a problem with this definition, and I know it is not yours but one that is widely used by those who study and fight racism.

    Please allow me to make my point again, which I probably nuanced too finely in the original post. I wasn’t “calling” you “out” because the definition Prejudice+Power is abridged (or as you retort, shorthand) and thus presumably full of fluff (i.e., not a “LOT of stuff behind it”). I was simply pointing out the futility of the main argument in your post, that the dictionary definition is inadequate primarily because it is abridged. Clearly, a definition can be abridged and more than adequate, as is “Prejudice+Power”.

    To repeat what I stated in my original comment, the dictionary definition is lacking because it does not consider how the word racism is used by those for whom it has the most relevance.

    If it appears I am disagreeing with you, it is only in the sense that I think you should actually take an angrier tack given such a blatant example of institutionalized ignorance. In other words, how can racism be adequately addressed by society if the dictionary can’t even get the definition straight?

    The reason I bring up Affirmative Action is that it is a focal point, consciously or otherwise, for many white people’s (and some others, such as Asian families with kids going to college) concept and understanding of, not to mention personal experience with, racism. Their definition is much closer to the dictionary definition than to the Prejudice+Power definition.

    In my opinion, the gulf between the two definitions is itself one of the fundamental problems when dealing with racism. Misuse of the word racism can effectively bury its relevance to most people, such as the spectacle last year involving the “racist” Reverend Wright. Never mind white conservatives, many black commentators were tripping all over themselves to be the first to dismiss Rev. Wright’s controversial comments as fringe lunacy and yes, even “racist”. This is very similar to the dynamic that is at work in the Affirmative Action debate.

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