How to use a dictionary

Updated: Oct 2

I was surprised to realise a few years ago that most people do not know how to use a dictionary. Otherwise intelligent people don't seem to know how a dictionary works, and our education system has failed them. To be clear, they understand just about everything there is to know about using a dictionary. Mechanically, that is, they can use one, but they don't truly understand the most important things: how a dictionary is created and what the entries in a dictionary actually mean. This may seem counter-intuitive. We'll get back to this. First, let's review the various ways most people use a dictionary, if they use one at all.

Making use of the object Consider the physical object we call a dictionary. Whenever we pick a dictionary up, we understand that we must flip pages. This can be disorienting. How do we find the word we want? We look to the alphabetical indexing, the A to Z of words. Without this shorthand compass, as it were, we are lost in the sea of words that is the dictionary. The alphabetical index is a way of using the dictionary that anyone must eventually master, assuming they are using the physical object. Sometimes we even confront the frustration of using the index. Not finding the word we want. Or sometimes we must even find those words that are somewhat tricky to place in an alphabetical order. This is due to the inconveniences of a single language, or the oddness of notation. Such is life with the celtic Mc in McCarthy that is normally placed in Mac: do we look up the Ma or the Mc? Choices like these matter even more than a dictionary whenever you vote and are found on an electoral roll. Of course there's now coming a time, probably here already, when the physical use of a dictionary no longer matters. The internet makes searching a dictionary as easy and as instantaneous as typing a word into a "search engine", an algorithmic driven device that doesn't give away the secrets of its backend easily. Oxford publishers have already stopped making a physical OED. Soon the dictionary as an object may become invisible. This is a disappearance that, from my perspective even as a collector of old dictionaries, may actually be fortunate; given, that is, how so few people actually know how to use a dictionary in a way that respects what language is or even why dictionaries were created in the first place. Why dictionaries were created Few suspect that the alphabetic index might today hold keys to why modern, single-language dictionaries were originally created. The alphabetic index is now old enough that we assume its mastery is a matter of a tradition going the way of the phone book. It's something of a time-hallowed device, this backend we no longer worry too much about. The alphabetical index was an innovation that had its origin in the seventeenth century and the first English dictionary, Robert Cawdrey's

A Table Alphabeticall (1604). Prior to this book, dictionaries were created that were arranged by topic, without regard to alphabet and fast thinking. The reason for this was that the first modern dictionaries weren't written for experts, those slow thinkers who had no need for the haste and bustle of society, but for the so-called 'unskilled persons'. As the extraordinarily long subtitle of A Table Alphabeticall puts it:

With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit & helpe of ladies, gentlewomen, or any other vnskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easilie and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, vvhich they shall heare or read in scriptures, sermons, or elswhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselues. ~ Robert Cawdrey, A Table Alphabeticall (1604).

At the time of the invention of Cawdrey's English language alphabetical dictionary, much like a search engine, the dictionary and its alphabetical index had a clear purpose. Cawdrey's dictionary was a boldly modern effort to be useful to people who were not experts, or who were expected to stay away, at that time, from expert knowledge - "ladies, gentlewomen, or any other vnskilfull persons" - due to institutionalised assumptions and a lack of legislated or socially accepted leisure time. Every child and adult now intuitively understands that a dictionary is for the benefit of "unskillful persons". They seek to use a dictionary just as Cawdrey suggested it would be useful, except that the sermons often come from their own education, rather than from their religion, or sometimes both, and they are seeking to use language 'aptly', to prove their skill in the form of qualifications and discernment. The biggest motivation to flip pages in dictionaries, it seems, is to master your SAT, write assignments or pass vocabulary tests and prove your apt use in the institution of education. Once a student masters a dictionary, they can look up a word that might appear in the paper or in a book they have read, but that is otherwise unfamiliar to them. We might use a dictionary to learn how to pronounce a word phonetically, if we are concerned with such things, for there is nothing more embarrassing than the common occurrence of mispronouncing a word we have read and understood already. Knowledge and performance troubles people who are seeking to demonstrate skills. Or we might pick up a dictionary to learn the meaning of a word that we may think is the authoritative definition, the 'interpretation', as Cawdrey put it, that everyone agrees is THE interpretation. That word might then enter our vocabulary, and remain within the limits of this dictionary interpretation on pain of no longer being seen as skilled.

The dictionary as dispute settler The common understanding of the dictionary as an aid to demonstrating skill with language is also supported by an altogether different approach that seems to characterise the dictionary as a kind of dispute settler, or a final authority. The dictionary is a truth dealer, and a provider of unquestioned interpretations that no one - not even the "unskilled" - can dispute. We find this way of using the dictionary in areas of human endeavour that range from quirky pastimes and hobbies to deadly serious and spiritual activities. In bookish religions, law courts, and in debates and social movements, the dictionary becomes a serious object of use. It's also serious enough in a game like scrabble. If you've ever played scrabble, that game of letters on a board in which you spell words, you'll understand how serious things become when players resort to a dictionary to decide whether a word one player disputes is a word. In this case, the dictionary is the final arbiter of the rules and the difference between winning and losing. Life of course is not scrabble. It's not governed by rules in any sense that a closed board game is, so using a dictionary to settle disputes - away from board games - is not advised. This is of course exactly what sometimes happens in situations of power and decision. There are times when the dictionary has deadly consequences. Words can be used to spread hatred, promote violence, pass judgement and exile people from society. And I'm not just talking about social media. The dictionary when it is carried into the religious sphere carries the burden of understanding. It is used to settle the meaning of words that may themselves be translations of meanings that we cannot easily find in a single-language dictionary. The differences in interpretation due to dictionary meanings could be staggering, and if we are dealing with the word of God, it's obviously a premium to get the words right. According to Randolph Quirk in Style and Communication in the English Language (1982), dictionaries are highly similar in format and in cultural use to a bible. It may be simply an accident of history that we are not given the option of swearing on the dictionary when we witness in court:

The time-hallowed format [of the dictionary] helps to place it mentally with the Bible (alongside which it is likely to find itself physically), and the advertiser’s warning that ‘no home should be without it’ finds a ready response in the natural awe that we rightly have for our language faculty and further contributes to the implicit belief that the dictionary is one’s linguistic bible. ~ Randolph Quirk

If no home should be without a dictionary, apparently no court of law should be without one either. In courts and jurisprudence, dictionaries take on the tremendous burden of settling disputes of interpretation. An entire field of legal scholarship (see here and here and here and here and here and

here) seems devoted to the use of dictionaries in courts which, apparently, has risen to prominence in interpreting constitutions and other legislative documents that, especially in the United States, hold the difference between locking people away for months or years. Dictionaries really can be used, like bibles, to condemn people, and they can even incarcerate them. It's for this reason that an often quoted ruling by Judge Learned Hand warns against the misuse of a dictionary as an abuse of jurisprudence:

[I]t is one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of the dictionary. ~ Judge Learned Hand (Cabell v. Markham 1945).

The dictionary as a fortress Wherever debate happens and passions rise, there's a tendency to look to the dictionary to be a kind of fortress to settle and oversee combat. In social movements such as veganism, I've seen his happens often enough, especially on social media and in small factions or cliques, in which to question the definition of veganism is akin to some kind of heresy. I remember vividly a debate in one large vegan group on Facebook about whether or not vegans should be tolerant of small lapses in using animal products by vegans struggling to transition to veganism. The discussion was moderated by one particular administrator of the group, who told people in all seriousness that:

"Kindness is not required to be vegan. Check the dictionary".

I did check the dictionary, and I didn't find that kindness wasn't required, but perhaps I wasn't looking hard enough.

For passionate vegan activists, of course, it's deadly serious that they police interpretations. Words such as veganism and vegan matter so much because, for them, the word must reflect their own beliefs in the purity of veganism and, in a non sequitor, to confuse or dilute the meaning of words is to use and abuse animals. Language can be treated as a kind of fortress in a police state of meaning, for in chaos and confusion, in the lack of authority that sometimes troubles small subgroups, people lurk and get away with acts that properly inquisitorial leadership must, so some think, chase down. More broadly, language can be a guarantor of identity and community, which matters in small groups, and so many vegans invest in language all the importance of stability, belief, and meaning that they seek to preserve. Another problem is that without clear definitions, the sacrifice and effort of vegan advocates to give up all animal products wouldn't matter to other people. They wouldn't be able to find their honoured and secure place in the fringe movement that, one day, will be the new norm of the world in the radical transformation of all values. The payoff for these vegans just wouldn't be there, no matter what their effort would do for animals, and sadly I often find that linguistics is more important than actual impact on animal suffering for the sake of the football team or a legion of vegans who must shoulder the collective fears of being different. After reading that kindness wasn't required to be vegan, along with nuanced interpretation, I decided then and there that I was plainly a bad vegan and an apologist for understanding how language actually works. After years of studying literature for pleasure, not just for marks, I didn't want to stand idly in the fortress of veganism and shore up its leaky interpretations by telling people off for welcoming in foreigners and making borders insecure. I still believe today that one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed veganism is that it does not make a fortress out of the dictionary or veganism itself. Of course, collective confusions in social movements are common, and concern about them seem to point to the general misuse of ideas that characterises what people do with both dictionaries and language. How dictionaries are made The linguist S. I. Hayakawa made dictionaries a topic in his classic work, Language in Thought and Action (1949). Hayakawa noted that there is a common misunderstanding of how dictionaries work - "How Dictionaries Are Made" - that leads many people to think that definitions in authoritative dictionaries are the only correct meanings for words:

It is widely believed that every word has a correct meaning, that we learn these meanings mainly from teachers and grammarians, and that dictionaries and grammar books are the highest authority in matters of meaning and usage. Few people ask by what authority the writers of dictionaries and grammars say what they say.

To question a dictionary definition, as we have seen, can be akin to a heresy, but to question the authority of dictionaries (and their cousins grammars) is altogether akin to a revolution. Of course, Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action is no revolutionary work, or even a postmodern classic. It's simply a study of linguistics that favours a pragmatic and functional way of understanding how language is made and put together. As Hayakawa suggests, an erroneous belief in the infallibility of a dictionary belongs to a ideological understanding of exactly how dictionaries and definitions are made. A long classic passage in Hayakawa's book sets us straight, and shows us the 'backend' of a dictionary:

Let us see how dictionaries are made and how the editors arrive at definitions. What follows applies, incidentally, only to those dictionary offices where first-hand research goes on — not those in which editors simply copy existing dictionaries. The task of writing a dictionary begins with reading huge amounts of the literature of the period or subject that the dictionary is to cover. As the editors read, they copy on cards every interesting or rare word, every unusual or peculiar use of a common word, a large number of common words in their ordinary uses, and also the sentences in which each of these words appears, thus: pail The daily pails bring home increase of milk Keats, Endymion I, 44-45 That is to say, the context of each word is collected, along with the word itself. For a really big job of dictionary writing, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, millions of such cards are collected, and the task of editing occupies decades. As the cards are collected, they are arranged in alphabetical order. When the sorting is completed, there will be for each word anywhere from two or three to several hundred sentences, each on its card. To define a word, then, the dictionary editor places before him all the cards illustrating that word; each of the cards represents an actual use of the word by a writer of some importance. They read the cards carefully, discard some, reread the rest, and divide them up according to what they think are the several senses of the word. Finally, they write definitions, following the hard-and-fast rule that each definition must be based on what the quotations in front of him reveal about the meaning of the word. Editors cannot be influenced by what they think a given word ought to mean. They must work according to the cards or not at all. The writing of a dictionary, therefore, is not a task of setting up ruling statements about the “true meanings” of words, but a task of recording, to the best of one's ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past. The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver. If, for example, we had been writing a dictionary in 1890, or even as late as 1919, we could have said that the word “broadcast” means “to scatter” (seed, for example), but we could not have laid down that from 1919 on the most common meaning of the word should become “to send out programs by radio or television.” To regard the dictionary as an "authority," therefore, is to credit the dictionary writer with gifts of prophecy which neither they nor anyone else possesses. In choosing our words when we speak or write, we can be guided by the historical record provided for us by the dictionary, but we should not be bound by it, because new situations, new experiences, new inventions, new feelings are always making us give new uses to old words.

In short, dictionaries don't provide simple true meanings or authoritative views that can never be questioned. They put together common usages and interpretations of language that exist as they are when the dictionary is made. Dictionaries are historically bound. They provide historical interpretations of words, and these interpretations may not last beyond a season of usage on radios or television or, indeed as today, on the internet. A dictionary maker is not a judge and cannot settle disputes even if some judges, activists, scrabble players, and some users of language we could call pedants (see dictionary) are out there with their dictionaries pretending that they have that power.

Against common pedantry

I started this blog post by saying that most people don't know how to use a dictionary. I think that's true. If we don't know why something like the dictionary has been invented, and how it is made, can we really say that we are using it in any effective way? The problem we are dealing with is not simply with how people use a dictionary in a mechanical way, which is fast disappearing anyway, but with common and, in fact, institutionalised understandings of what a dictionary is or does. This common misunderstanding of the power of the dictionary only appears to be more strongly held in an age of instantaneous search engines. We may use a dictionary to shore up certain beliefs in a display of dull pedantry, but a fallacious use is just that and certainly a sure index of immaturity and poor development, as Judge Learned Hand suggested. Interpretations are obviously important, but the definition is something that may change. "There is nothing more fatal in language", as Isaac D'Israeli put it in 1822, "than to wander from the popular acceptation of words; and yet this popular sense cannot always accord with precision of ideas, for it is itself subject to great changes." Various "fatal" attitudes are best avoided, but are also the hardest to shake. An unshakeable belief in dictionaries, words, classifications and tables is clearly a delusion that has a grip on those people among us - many of us - who never learned to enjoy education for its own sake. Pedantry is one of the hardest attitudes for anyone intelligent to shake. But shake it we must. Understanding how a dictionary is made and what it is just one antidote to the temptation to insist on a single correct interpretation for all times. Last week I experienced another antidote to fatal attitudes, this delicious radio broadcast from the legendary comedian, actor, and writer Stephen Fry. Fry in this video is positively reveling in the pleasure of words. It's a joy to see and hear. Let's use dictionaries, similarly, to find our joy in language. Let's be active not passive in creating meanings and interpretations that matter for our lives. To do that, we must make the most of the quiver and wobble of our dictionaries.

Join my mailing list

© 2023 by The Book Lover. Proudly created with