Dictionary porn

The only things naked in this post are my foot, and a cat.

A surprise for you: linguists hate dictionaries.  There are attitudinal reasons for this: one gets tired of undergraduates going on about how they must surely be The Official Source For What Words Really Mean.  There are technical reasons for this: there’s an enormous amount of relevant information about words that dictionaries very rarely include–collocations (words that occur together more often than would be expected by chance–strong wind but heavy rain and stuff like that), argument structure (what kinds of things must occur with a word, e.g. to drink is transitive, except when it’s intransitive, in which case it means to drink alcohol specifically), crucial stuff like that.

Despite the fact that we’re not crazy about dictionaries, I would guess that most linguists probably deal with their distaste for them the same way that I do: I have a lot of them.  How many, I couldn’t really tell you.  In fact, I can’t even tell you how many English dictionaries I have.  Do I count the dictionary of lumberjack language?  How about my medical dictionaries (I have two)?  My biology dictionary?  My woefully-out-of-date dictionary of linguistics?

More information on dictionaries:

Which dictionary do I use?  Probably not a shocker to anyone who knows me: I have many monolingual English dictionaries lying around my place, and there are some electronic ones that I use, as well.  Here are some of them, and when/why I use them:

This is my Macmillan Visual Dictionary.  As you might guess, it’s been in my life for a while; I find it humorous that despite being a visual dictionary, it has no picture on the cover anymore, since it has no cover…Visual dictionaries are super-useful for some things.  I used this one to do fieldwork.  Since visual dictionaries group things thematically, they’re great for taking a structured approach to learning vocabulary in a foreign language.  One of the more obscure recent additions to my dictionary collection is a bilingual French/Chinese visual dictionary–why not…
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This is my beloved Webster’s 3rd–picture of my foot included for scale.  When I was a young man, my father told me that if I ever saw one used, I must buy it.  As it turned out, this was my college graduation present to myself.  Based on the writing inside the front cover, I have reason to believe that it began its life as the property of the United States Navy: scrawled in heavy black marker are the words “Oil shack.”  On a naval vessel, the oil shack is the control center for routing fuel to the boiler rooms and for monitoring its purity, or at least that was the case back when US naval vessels still had boiler rooms. 
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This is my beloved American Heritage College Dictionary.  (“College” dictionaries are usually what are called “desk dictionaries”–as far as I know, it’s mainly a description of size.  Picture of a cat included for scale.  Some things that I like about the American Heritage College, which I was introduced to by my second linguistics professor: for usage questions, they have a panel, and they give the statistics on the panel’s votes; in the back, there’s a dictionary of Indo-European roots; there are just enough pictures to be helpful without interrupting the flow of the whole thing.  (Yes, dictionaries can flow–or not.)
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Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary.  This one has a special purpose.  It was published in the early 1960s, and it’s my go-to dictionary for American literature from the first half of the 20th century.  You can find a review of it here.  (Of course people review dictionaries!)
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My beloved compact Oxford English Dictionary.  Books have been written about this one.  Books have been written about its first editor.  You might like Simon Winchester’s The professor and the madman: A tale of murder, madness, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Somebody clearly used mine as a resting place for paint cans.
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Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1959. Picture source: Rogers and Cowan talent agency. Downloaded from Wikimedia.

This being the 21st century, there are also some very good online monolingual English dictionaries, as well as a couple dictionary apps that I like a lot.  For the moment, I’ll just leave you with this Zsa Zsa Gabor quote:

The only way to learn a language properly, in fact, is to marry a man of that nationality. You get what they call in Europe a ‘sleeping dictionary.’ Of course, I have only been married five times, and I speak seven languages. I’m still trying to remember where I picked up the other two.  Source: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/dictionary.html

 

 

 

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