How linguists think about dictionaries: why the first word that we look up is f…

Hand a linguist a dictionary and the first thing they’ll do is look up a vulgarity. Here’s why.

Trigger warning: this post contains a vulgar word related to sex.

Linguists have a complicated relationship with dictionaries.  On the one hand, many of us were the kinds of kids who would sit around flipping through dictionaries, reading the definitions of random words just for fun.  On the other hand, most of us are very aware of the many deficiencies of dictionaries–it’s the kind of thing that you talk about in a Linguistics 101 class.

When I say “dictionary,” I mean a resource that gives definitions for words.  This is what would typically be called a “monolingual dictionary.”  There are other kinds of dictionaries.  For example, “bilingual dictionaries” give not a definition per se, but an equivalent in some other language.  “Visual dictionaries” give an image of the thing that is represented by the word, rather than a textual definition, per se.

The “Dictionary of the French Academy,” probably the best-known prescriptive dictionary in the world. Picture source:

If you hand a linguist a dictionary, the first thing that they’re likely to do–assuming that it’s a dictionary of English–is to look for the definition of the word fuck.  This is not because of a puerile obsession with sex, but because knowing whether or not the dictionary includes fuck tells you where the dictionary fits with respect to the most primary distinction: between descriptive dictionaries, and prescriptive dictionaries.  In general, a prescriptive dictionary lays out the editors’ take on the proper use of the words in the language.  A prescriptive dictionary would, thus, be unlikely to include a definition of the word fuck. 

Webster’s 3rd, probably the best-known descriptive dictionary in the world. Picture source:

In contrast, a descriptive dictionary has no conception of properness or correctness–its goal is not to “prescribe” how the language should be used, but rather to “describe” how it is used.  You can imagine uses for both of these.  Personally, I almost always want a descriptive dictionary–if I need to look up an English word that I don’t understand (it does happen, even in your native language), I don’t care about how it’s “supposed” to be used–I want to know how it is used, so that I can get back to reading my book.  On the other hand, imagine that I’m trying to write a professional email in French.  I have very little awareness of the social significance of any of the words or constructions that I know in French, and I would love to be able to make informed decisions about whether to use a normal-register word like désormais (now and into the future) or a higher-register word like dorénavant (also now and into the future, but more refined, formal, elegant–or so I’m told).  That’s the kind of thing that would create one of the very rare situations when I would want a dictionary with a prescriptive bent.  Most English-language monolingual dictionaries today are descriptive, but that has not always been the case, and when the monumental Webster’s 3rd came out in 1961–a descriptive dictionary, unlike the preceding Webster’s 2nd, which was prescriptive–it was hugely controversial.  Wikipedia describes it as “the opening shot in the culture wars, as conservatives detected yet another symbol of the permissiveness of society as a whole and the decline of authority.”

Another important distinction between dictionaries is how they order their definitions.  There are at least three options:

  • Historical
  • Centrality-based
  • Frequency-based

It’s the nature of human languages (or, more accurately, the nature of human languages in a social context) to change with the passage of time.  In a dictionary that orders its definitions historically, you have the oldest definition first, and the most recent definition last.

It’s pretty common to think of some definitions of a word as more “central” to the meaning of the word than others.  For example, we had a couple of blog posts a few weeks ago on the role of the prototype in theories of how words have meanings (see here and here).  For example, we recently talked about the French word fort, which can mean “strong,” and also “very” or “quite.”  You might think of “strong” as more central, with “very” being related to that in some way, but not really a “central” or principle meaning of the word.  Centrality-ordered dictionaries give you the most central meaning(s) first, followed by the increasingly peripheral ones.

Thanks in part to the existence in recent years of large bodies of text that have been “annotated” (manually marked) with specific meanings of words that have multiple meanings, we can now do a fair amount of statistical study of the distributions of the frequencies of word meanings, as opposed to just the frequency of the words.  Things like this make it possible for us to order the definitions in a dictionary by how common they are in actual language.  Of course, this raises all kinds of issues: e.g., when we say “common in actual language,” what do we mean by “actual language”?  It’s not like we have a stratified random sample of every word of English out there, and even if we did, it would take an enormous amount of time to mark which words had which meanings, even if we knew what all of the meanings of the words were.  (Often there is not even agreement about how many meanings a word has, let alone what they are.  Susan Brown of the University of Colorado has researched this extensively.)

How do you tell which of these you are holding in your hand–historically ordered, centrality ordered, or frequency ordered?  You pretty much have to read the introduction to find that out.  Yes, dictionaries do typically have introductions–and, yes, there do exist geeks such as myself that read them.

Which dictionary do I use?  Probably not a shocker: I have many monolingual English dictionaries lying around my place, and there are some electronic ones that I use, as well.  As we’ve seen, dictionaries can fill different kinds of needs; the kinds of classifications that we talked about today can you help you pick the ones (or several) that are good matches for what you’re trying to do with it.


2 thoughts on “How linguists think about dictionaries: why the first word that we look up is f…”

  1. It’s anecdotic and I wouldn’t like to spoil your day, but I must confess that “désormais” doesn’t belong to a higher register than “dorénavant” . I tried to recall different occasions, different past situations with all sorts of people, and I can see in my memory both being used by members of any group . Regarding uneducated people, maybe none will come to their mind and they’ll say “à partir de maintenant” or just “maintenant” . Cheers .


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