I have a love-hate relationship with dictionaries. Dictionaries can be an amazing tool, and they can be a great read, but sometimes they also seem to stifle creatively, foster errors about how language works, and generally get very badly used.
What is a dictionary? It’s a list of words with their meanings – the dictionaries I’m interested in here are mainly same-language, where the words are described (people often say defined, and I’ll come back to that) in their own language. Cross-language or translation dictionaries are tools for a different purpose and have their own benefits and misuses. How does a word get into a dictionary? Some people decide to put it there. How do they decide? They look at examples of how the word is being used. There are dictionaries which claim to tell you what use is right and what is wrong, and this can be helpful when it prevents miscommunication. But the rightness and wrongness of the use of a specific word rests on how other people have used it in the past. A word is correctly used when it follows the pattern of use within a specific community, so that it can be understood.
What a dictionary is not is absolute – dictionaries are updated all the time, and can’t keep up with the latest changes. (Have you ever bought a new road atlas and found that it didn’t have an even newer section of motorway marked? Like that.) A dictionary is also not an authority. It’s a source of evidence, and there are cases where you can use an appropriate dictionary to give evidence for your argument that, for example, the phrase ‘shagging machine’ existed as slang for the vagina in 1885. (That’s Jonathan Green’s timeline of vagina slang, based on his Dictionary of Slang.) There are also cases where the wrong dictionary provides no help whatsoever, or even actively undermines an argument. For example, if in a philosophy essay someone refers to an ordinary dictionary (like the OED) for a definition of a technical term, it tends to suggest not only that the author of the essay hasn’t understood the term from other sources, but that they’ve missed the fact that this might be a word with a different use in the philosophical community. (Actually, ‘argument‘ is a case where this sort of misunderstanding might occur!)
So, what are good and bad ways to use dictionaries? In my opinion, a dictionary is great for browsing. It’s great for inspiration (especially if you were, for whatever reason, determined to write two blog posts for each letter of the alphabet, or something dotty like that). It’s great for some kinds of information: how is this word used most often? what is the history of this word? what grammatical patterns does this word usually follow?
It’s not so good when a dictionary shuts down options. There is, Michael Rosen once said, not a noun in English which can’t be verbed – but of course such new coinages, while following perfectly cromulent English rules, do not appear in dictionaries unless they catch on and lots of people start using them. (Cromulent, having caught on from the Simpsons, probably will appear eventually.) If you only use words as they have already been used, there can be a loss of playfulness and creativity, and of course no space to say anything new. We invent new things and start talking about different experiences all the time, so we need to create and establish new patterns of use or entirely new words. Mouse, gay, television, asexual, Brexit, woke… words grow and change as the conceptual needs of the language using community develop.
And a dictionary needs to be a tool. It should be used to build confidence and aid understanding, not overrule instinct or add confusion. Using tools appropriately is part of learning any skill, and the right dictionary at the right time is as important as the right screwdriver for the screw: dictionaries which give history, or current use, or grammatical tips for formal settings, or the use within a particular community, or help to check a spelling, are all very good in the right place. Getting the wrong one, or assuming that they are interchangeable, or that words always have to mean the same thing regardless of context, or that the origin of a word tells you what it means now, can all lead to serious mistakes.