Thursday, 9 April 2009

Words fail me

There are few things more satisfying for a dictionary editor than a definition that neatly explains a difficult word in simple terms. That, after all, is the apparent function of a dictionary.

Yet common words can sometimes defy lucid explanation in this way. What if a concept is so fundamental that it cannot be simplified but can only be explained by increasing the level of complexity? On such occasions a dictionary is apt to struggle. For example, The Chambers Dictionary defines the verb laugh as ‘to express, by explosive inarticulate sounds of the voice, amusement, joy, scorn, etc, or a reaction to tickling, etc’. And the definition of north is even more convoluted: ‘the point of the horizon or that pole of the earth or sky which at equinox is opposite the sun at noon in Europe or elsewhere on the same side of the equator, or towards the sun in the other hemisphere’. These definitions may be accurate, but one wonders if any user will come away thinking, ‘Ah, so now I know what that word means.’

You might even argue that everybody knows what words such as laugh and north mean, and so there is really no need to define them in a dictionary. However, there are good reasons for hesitating before deciding that a dictionary should deal only in hard words.

For it is possible and even necessary to give useful information about common terms: the entry for north explains the difference between true north and magnetic north; the entry for monkey explains the technical distinction between monkey and ape, and so on.

Furthermore, especially when viewed in its electronic form, a dictionary can be used as a resource from which to view the entire language. It is possible to use Chambers Reference Online to find all of the dictionary’s New Zealand words, all of the Shakespearean words, all of the words ending in -thon, and much more besides. The results of such searches would be compromised if editors started to discard words that they felt people would never need to look up.

So the definition of north stays in – although suggestions for a simpler and neater version would still be welcome.

Ian Brookes

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