Review of the Idea of the Dictionary
by G. David Schwartz
My dictionary defines “paradox” as a statement, or behavior, or any other action or possible action now known or yet to be discovered, which initially appears to be absurd, self-contradictory or otherwise inconsistent with known experience but in reality contains a substratum of truth.
The possibility exists, of course, that the dictionary definition is incorrect. This is indicated by the fact that human beings create essays and monographs, which explain us to ourselves. It is true that these papers use a number of words contained in the dictionary; but the fact that they are written suggests the dictionary is not adequate to our needs.
Another possibility is that my particular dictionary is not adequate to our needs. Investigation into what our needs are may lead too far astray. Nevertheless, my dictionary defines “need” both as “lack of something” and “necessary.” I admit to being slightly piqued by this definition.
(Editor’s note: Mr. Schwartz had attached an appendix purporting to explain that religious experience is the result of arbitrary and random lists of definitions, which follow alphabetical order and contained etymologies and suggested pronunciations.
Schwartz argued that confusions and errors composed the religious experience. His prime example is that the word “piqued” may refer to either irritation or the choosing of a prophet, which, he claimed, was a different order of irritation. Inasmuch as this paper was accepted for its logical and epistemological merits, we did not see fit to include the appendix, which was largely a exegesis on the books of Jonah and Isaiah.)
I fail to understand how one word can describe both a lack and a necessity. This seems a paradox.
You may, of course, choose not to believe my dictionary, preferring to consult another edition, or another publisher. Dictionaries abound. The Webster, named after either Noah, Daniel, or Ezekiel, has probably the best name recognition. My library contains several versions of the Webster dictionary, including the Concise Edition.
It is noteworthy that each of the seven or so dictionaries I possess from Mr. Webster is different, even the concise version. Words change and grow, expand, shrink, or drop from sight from year to year. Dictionaries, which purport to tell us what words mean to us and how we should use them are, in fact, composed from the day to day actions and behaviors of petty human beings.
Should one desire to undertake a study of dictionaries, however, one should not ignore the American Heritage Dictionary nor the New American Dictionary, although each contain virtually the same words. Also worthy of study are the various Funk and Wagnall editions, although they differ from year to year and, I am made to understand, from moment to moment in the printing room. There are numerous other dictionaries, the titles of which one may learn from a casual perusal of their favorite bookstore.
I do want to mention two hybrid productions. First, there is the bilingual dictionary. Bilingual dictionaries are those which carelessly assume a proficiency in a single language and attempt to make correspondences between two languages. Rarely presenting bilingual etymologies, or even pronunciation codes, these editions are arranged alphabetically, which leads us to believe that the alphabetical listing is the essential element, which qualifies a production to be called a dictionary. This may be verified by investigating insurance sign-up sheets, soccer roosters, employee payrolls from various corporations or businesses, and other lists of names, dates, or mineral compounds.
In my library, which you may by now assume I am recommending as the ideal library for beginners, I have the English-Spanish, Spanish-English dictionary, as well as ones containing a large number of words from French, German, Hebrew, Swedish, Russian, Chinese and Pig Latin. I frequently use these texts as reference works although, from month to month, I have difficulty finding them. (This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Random House published many of the dictionaries I own.) For example, the Russian dictionary used to be placed on the lowest shelf, to separate it from the English (and various American) dictionaries as well as The Dictionary of the Western World. Now these two dictionaries are next to each other. My Glorious Arabian Language Dictionary is in another room entirely than my Yiddish dictionary. The Swedish dictionary found a spot in the midst of all the other dictionaries. As my library grew, however, I found it necessary to purchase several copies of the Swedish dictionary. This enabled me to put one in the middle of every shelf on which I housed my dictionaries.
As an aside: your library may be arranged differently. Proper planning should allow you to purchase several languages in their concise editions. Although these are not necessarily slimmer volumes (The Categorically Handicapped Edition of Chinese Explanations is a much thinner volume, for example, than the Book of Zen Explanations, even though the latter text is composed of blank pages), it is logically possible to extend all of your dictionaries on a single shelf. If necessary, the shelf in question may be twenty feet long.
* * *
The second hybrid product I wish to discuss is the idea of the dictionary. In this classification we find texts that may be labeled special interest products; however, that would imply that the texts we have looked at thus far have no special interest. In the special interest category we find such titles as: Aeromechanics Dictionary ; Bartlett's Dictionary of Quotations (alphabetically listed, of course); Bioscopic and Bipartisan Dictionary; Businessman's Dictionary ; Devil's Dictionary ; Reversionary Tactics and Procedures Dictionary, and the like. It is notable that each of these special interest editions are adamant about inserting the word “dictionary” in their title.
As should be obvious, each special interest dictionary is one which is concerned with only a selection of the available words in any language, and presents these words with a unique or exceptional definition, of or for a particular occasion, purpose, etc. Forgive my confusion; I thought this was the primary purpose of each dictionary.
Special mention, under this head, must be given the Crossword Dictionary. I have several Crossword Dictionaries, but not one of them have the words bitch, (tarnished term trajected out), scumbag, or the like. In fact, the term “dictionary” for these texts is a misnomer.
The first part of every Crossword Dictionary is ... a thesaurus. Rather than define words, both the crossword “dictionary” and the thesaurus tell your other words for the words in question. So, for example, my Dell Crossword Dictionary, under “seize,” lists nab, grasp, grab, usurp, arrest and collar. This will only confuse the beginner because, under collar, for example, we do not find the word “nab” as a corollary, but we do find eton, fichu, gorget, rabat, rabato, and rebato — words which are not in my DICTIONARY! To make matters worse, my thesaurus, under the word “seize” lists a total of fifty-five words or by-words. The thesaurus, then, is much more explanatory without collaring the word “dictionary” and making no pretensions to being a dictionary.
Nevertheless, the crossword books do serve a purpose, which the thesaurus does not. Listed therein are several words and thesaurastic instances, which are found together nowhere else. I need give a single example: Hamite... Somal, Berber, Somali. For the majority of us, who need words without being burdened with precise meanings, the crossword texts are a wonderful addition to our library.
The second part of every crossword production is, I assume, a mystical text, which reveals itself only to the initiated. Without attempting to suggest that I understand the codes of the production (or what the codes are meant to produce themselves), I quote at random from p. 280:
“B - - P blip, bump.
Again, a short poem from p. 310:
--IH ch'ih, shih
I--H IHVH, inch, itch, Ivah
Again, as support for my contention above, the only reason these crossword books have a right to call themselves dictionaries is because they are arranged in alphabetical order. Initiates may confirm or deny that the various placings of the dash marks (--, - -, etc) are a nullity which does not affect alphabetization. As such, they must indicate a periodicity, or shall we call it a dashaticity, in the universe of phenomena. In any other universe, they may represent something entirely different. We can only speak about what we know!
Any dictionary is a physical manifestation of every word, which it contains. My statement does not contain any conscious theory of the relationship between words and speech, nor the spirit and the pantheistic fact. My contention is that if the dictionary is the embodiment of a paradox, and if paradox is in the dictionary, then every word, which is in the dictionary, is embodied in the dictionary. My contention requires that I prove the sense in which the dictionary is “liquid,” for example, or “prosaic,” “nepotistic,” or “DIsCreTIONARY.” I believe I have laid out the essentials of this argument in the above paper. Nevertheless, I promise my faithful readers that I will publish a more elaborate justification of my claim.
(Professor Wiggland D. Bartholomew, who read portions of my paper, has been very helpful in locating weak areas in my argument. In fact, he seemed to wished my project well with the assertion that much of what is herein contained is an excellent example, his words, of specious reasoning. I am very indebted to Professor Bartholomew for his encouraging words. I have given a lot of thought to both our species and the way we use language, and am proud to have a man as redundantly great as Professor Bartholomew provide encouragement much needed by a young scholar.)
Fifty-three years of study have led me to the following conclusions: The dissimilarity and ambiguity inherent in the idea of the dictionary would be eliminated if people would simply cease speaking and stay at home to study their, or my, or another's dictionary.
The truth is (truth: the quality or state of being true; formerly, loyalty; sincerity, honesty, conformity with fact or the conditions of reality. Agreement with standard rule; an established or verified fact), words mean whatever we deem them to mean. I may choose to define truth, for example, as the thrashing spinach of the everlasting indignation or, alternatively, as the weasel lantern mulch of good, green earth. If I can convince you that I am making sense, then my definition is valid. If this is so, dictionaries are obsolete.
A dictionary, then, is something, which is both necessary, and something, which we, in a rigorous and precise sense, lack. The idea of a dictionary is a wild hypothesis, which may be good in theory, but would make an appalling fact.
Copyright © 2004 by G. David Schwartz