Thursday, February 17, 2011

"What Does That Word Really Mean?" -- The Misleading Dictionary Ritual

When we Americans disagree, as we often do, whether something should be called "socialism" or "education" or "excellent" or "conservative," we sometimes consult our secular Holy Book, the Dictionary.

But dictionaries are like a magician’s sleight of hand that gets us to look for things where they are not. People are trained to treat dictionaries with deference, as if they were treasure chests with gold coins, meanings, hidden within them. That mere configurations of ink on paper carry meaning is a fundamental superstition of our, and of many another, civilization.

Meanings are much more like paper money. If the cash is Confederate States of America bills, it’s worthless as legal tender. Only currently recognized cash works, unless there are special practices within a community of users, a consensus where, for example, coupons, Green Stamps, and other non-standard media of exchange are recognized.

Even the value of gold, or other hard metal, rests on a consensus that it should be used as a medium of exchange. In many cultures this consensus does not exist. Rarity is not the issue. Many rare substances could serve as a medium of exchange, but there is no consensus, hardened by tradition, that they are to be considered as money.

Dictionaries are basically history books, the history of one tradition or another of language usage. They mention what at some time was the exchange value of a word, which may or may not be usable today in some communities. Just think how such words as "gay," "cock," "bud," and "mother" have changed over the years. (Ask your grandparents, if you are under 30.) It is the consensus that exists in a community of users on how a word may be used to assert, describe, command, imply, question, etc. that gives that word meaning.

This is a disturbing thought for many people. After all, there are so many different communities and so many disagreements among them. Printed words in dictionaries seem ever so much durable than the ideas that people carry about in their heads. But we’re not talking about neurons firing in heads – which we cannot observe – but consistent practices in communities, that is, consensual behavior.

Ask yourself, “Is ‘lko6m*\B" a word?” “It might be,” you say. Suppose it is. What, then, does it mean? Could you possibly say unless you could get some idea how it is or was be used, by a human or a machine, to assert, describe, command, imply, or question?

And wouldn't it make a difference if some one person made it up for himself alone to use, or, on the other hand, if there existed a community of people who lived their lives using it among themselves in a consistent, practical manner; in other words, if there was a consensus about its use?

To examine these issues further, see The Nature of Consensus

--- EGR