George Walford: Power to the People

Are we to submit to the dictionary or to master it? The orthodox view is that only one definition of a word can be correct; the one approved by the dictionary. One person one vote, one word one meaning. But the slightest enquiry reveals complications. The Shorter Oxford defines a triangle as a figure having three sides and three angles, but it also gives seven subsidiary meanings. Eight people giving eight different definitions of ‘triangle’ can all be in agreement with the dictionary.

We commonly speak of ‘the’ dictionary, but which one? For English words it must of course be English, and English of the correct variety, British, American, international maritime, Caribbean, Newfoundland, pidgin or another. It must be up to date – except for words from older texts, when it is more scholarly to use a dictionary of the period. It had better be from a reputable publisher; according to the purpose and the urgency it may be necessary to travel to the library to consult the full OED or it may be more efficient to use the pocket dictionary at hand. All very reasonable; but if the users are to be held responsible for selecting a suitable and reliable dictionary then credit for a successful outcome is due largely to them rather than the dictionary.

Having made a careful choice we still do not get a precise and indisputable meaning for each word for, even among modern British-English dictionaries, each will define most words differently from the others. The Penguin English Dictionary (1971) defines socialism as the theory that the means of production should be owned ‘by the nation.’ The OED (1961) disagrees, saying ‘by the community as a whole,’ a phrase suggesting that socialism must be international. It was on this question, whether socialism is possible in one country, that Stalin and Trotsky split, with consequences affecting world history. Had they been consulting different dictionaries?

The precision attainable when words are defined by words is inescapably limited. The Shorter Oxford defines ‘gas’ as ‘any aeriform or completely elastic fluid,’ ‘fluid’ as ‘a general term including both gaseous and liquid substances,’ and ‘gaseous’ as ‘having the nature or in the form of a gas.’ This standard work uses ‘fluid’ to define ‘gas’ and (indirectly) ‘gas’ to define ‘fluid.’ That is of course a selected example; circularity does not appear every time one looks up the words used in a definition. But the alternative is little better. If a definition is to be precise then the words used in it must themselves be defined. And the words used in those definitions need defining, and so on without end. Definition of words by means of words leads into either circularity or infinite regression, and each of these precludes final precision.

Words are constantly being used, by poets for example, to convey precise meanings, yet we have found it impossible to define, as ‘definition’ is usually understood, the meaning of any word precisely. The solution begins to appear when we note that words are nearly always found in linked groups, and it is these that carry meaning. The words in a sentence, a chapter or a book stand to each other as do the institutions of a society, each of them affecting the way the others work. Every text is an extended definition of the words appearing in it.

The meaning of a word can also be affected by influences outside its verbal context. The October Revolution changed the meaning of the words in Das Kapital, and that giant step taken by Neil Armstrong altered the meanings of all words, by invalidating the assumption that they are used by an earthbound race. The precise meaning of each word, each time it is used, is defined by its total context, non-verbal as well as verbal.

Much of the context changes slowly enough that for most words there is a relatively stable core of meaning, and this can usefully be recorded in dictionaries. But lexicographers do not allocate these meanings; what they do is to encapsulate, as precisely as possible, the central meanings with which words are endowed by the groups that use them. It was the physicists, not the dictionary-makers, who decided that ‘atom,’ at least in nuclear physics, should cease to mean an indivisible particle and indicate instead an assemblage of indeterminacies, electrical charges, holes in space and the like.

The general body of English-speaking people exercises the same power, as appears when they begin to use a familiar word with a new meaning. The authorities may try to maintain the established meaning against the popular misuse but this misuse, if persisted in, imposes itself upon them. ‘Nice’ and ‘awful’ have changed radically, ‘aggravation’ has started to move, and ‘hopefully’ has gone far along this path. Popular movements tow the dictionaries behind them. English, like all other languages, is totally democratic; where the meaning of words is in question it is no mere aspiration but present fact that power belongs to the people.

(Reprinted, by permission of Cambridge University Press, from English Today, No. 6, April 1986)

from Ideological Commentary 52, Summer 1991.