How do you know that's what that means?

Volume Two of Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of...
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As said by Mark Twain – “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.

Very true. But how ought we to be careful? Quite simple: don’t believe everything you read. Read multiple health books instead of just one, for example. Experiment, research, study. Agreeing with the first thing you hear is not trust – it is gullibility.

Many would concede this point, especially about health. I mean, there are so many different views! How can you possibly be sure you stumbled on the right one on the first try? Just because something is critically acclaimed doesn’t mean it is right… the critics aclaim many things. But…

What about dictionaries?

Think about it. How do you know that is what that word really means?

People often expect dictionaries to be flawless. But they aren’t, of course. And as I continually affirm… the definitions of the words we use are paramount. Our success and failure as a culture depends on lexicology on many levels. But again, dictionaries are not infallible.

A very famous example illustrating the fallibility of dictionaries and lexicographers alike refers to a time when a country woman accosted Dr. Johnson and asked him why he defined ‘pastern’ as the knee of a horse, which is actually called the fetlock (notice that this country lady had evidently been actually reading the dictionary instead of just looking up words she didn’t know, which we rarely do now, unfortunately). He replied that he hadn’t known what the definition was for sure, and so had guessed. This approach was pretty common, actually, until Webster came along and revolutionized lexicography, overturning not only Johnson’s dictionary, but also his methods of lexicology.

See, people tend to look to dictionaries as the end-all of knowledge and debate. Dictionaries define words, so how can they be wrong?

But they don’t. Did you get that? Let me say that again:

Dictionaries don’t define words.

This is imperative to understand. A lexicographer has a tremendous responsibility, but it is not to define words. He does not create definitions out of thin air – he merely transmits and records definitions that already exist.

A lexicographer’s job is to study language, and from that study, discover what the proper definitions for words are, and then record them. But what does he study? How does he discern what constitutes a proper definition? And what indicators and areas of research does he use to distill his knowledge from?

Depends on the lexicographer, honestly. They don’t all agree on what considerations should be considered, and they definitely don’t agree on how much weight each consideration should hold in relation to the others. Just read Webster’s 1828 dictionary, and you will see the conflict written into almost every definition, etymology, and comment. It is quite humorous, actually, the way he continually pokes jabs at other lexicographers (particularly Johnson). He sometimes spends whole paragraphs demonstrating solidly his own view of a particular definition or history. Quite educational and entertaining, I assure you. πŸ˜‰

Now, I am not a lexicographer. I don’t write dictionaries. Nor am I qualified to do so by any standard (unless you mean a dictionary of a language in my world, of course, hehe). A true lexicographer really needs to know at least a dozen languages beyond fluency, and be a cultural expert like none other. I am nowhere near attaining either of those positions, so my dictionary will have to wait.

But I am a lexicologist, as much as I can be. I study communication with a focus on proper meanings and uses in language. Lexicologists study similar things as lexicographers, but they use their knowledge differently. Rather than seeking to reform language by recording it, they do so by using it.

They weigh their words and seek to create an example of proper communication for other people to be inspired by and emulate.

They examine their assumptions and study the art and science of conveying meaning in the best way possible for their ends.

And so, like lexicographers, they need to have a system by which they discern what words ought to mean.

And so…

Here is mine. * grins *

Yeah, that was just the intro. Hehe. I hope you’ll keep reading, though, ’cause I’ve been wanting to tell you about this for a long time now. It is really awesome.

I got excited when I first figured it out. I’m still working on it, of course, but that just means you get to help me out with it. πŸ˜‰

There are five categories of considerations that I have resolved out of the quagmire of the world of chaos that is language, and they really bring a lot of sense into the whole picture. At least they do for me. They are:

Propriety

Contemporary Usage

Traditional Usage

Literary Usage

Etymology

Each one of these could have volumes written about them, of course, but we don’t need that much to be able to improve our discernment quite a lot. So here is an overview of how to use these.

I wrote those in a specific order for a reason. See, that is precisely the priority order in which you should rank these categories. Contemporary usage takes precedence over traditional usage, literary usage takes precedence over etymology, etc. If there is a conflict, always let the primary definition reflect the higher category of consideration.

The ones lower down can inform use and definition, but they are a very shaky foundation. So a lot of context is needed to help refine and support your communication when using definitions founded on them.

Now to examine each one in a bit more detail, starting first with Propriety.

Most people ignore this consideration entirely. But it is, in fact, quite possible to have a very wrong definition for a word even if it reflects perfectly contemporary, traditional, literary usage, and etc. Especially as Christians, we should pay very close attention to propriety in meanings. I’m not talking about choosing one word over another based on appropriateness, please note. I am talking about crafting the network of available meanings in your language.

See, lexicologists get to say what words should mean. Not just what they do mean, but what they are supposed to mean. That is part of their job: to help guide language in a productive and beneficial path.

Unfortunately, there have been all too many sophists holding the lexicological reigns in recent generations, and not nearly enough solid Christians dedicated to truth. Hencely, our culture of language has deteriorated along a very precise pattern of ungodly obfuscation. Meaning itself has lost its meaning, and the most important words in our language have become eroded to such a degree that we are crippled in our efforts to discuss them, much less live or teach them. Words like love, truth, belief, God, sin, crime, submission, trust, faith, hope, good, evil, life, honor, and equality have been completely twisted, diluted, viciated, and sterilized from the Truth.

We cannot teach righteousness, because there are no words to use to express the fundamentals of righteousness. And thus we have confusion in our pulpits, in our families, in our homes, in our children, in our churches, in our converts, and in our hearts. What else would you expect?

But propriety isn’t the first place we look when it comes to discerning the proper definition of a word. In actuality, it is the last thing I look at, once I have already examined the rest of the stack. And then I use it to mold and craft the definition already arrived at.

The first place I look is Contemporary Use. There are three parts to this: precise (or official, or technical), common, and niche use. Precise use is what is officially proclaimed as the current, technically accurate definition, generally in grammar books and dictionaries. Common use is the way people tend to use it in normal conversation. Niche use is the way people use it when they are stretching the definition – when because of the context, someone uses a word far outside of its precise meaning.

Then I look at Traditional Use. Again, at the precise, common, and niche uses, but this time I look at them in how they have changed over the years from the birth of the word. I look at what these changes reflect, in particular.

After that, I get to look at Literary Use. In other words, I look at how individual books have used the word uniquely. See, in a book, a person can use a word in a completely unique way, in the context of his subject. This is especially true of fiction, particularly fantasy and sci-fi. They can turn the language on their head in those genres, and completely get away with it. Which is fine. That’s the way it is supposed to work. The difference between literary use and niche use is that niche use is looking at the spread out usage across many different people, while literary use looks at each individual book in a unique way.

And then down at the tail end I take a glance at etymology: the history of the creation of the word, basically. Kinda nice and handy, but not really something to base much off of.

This also happens to be the same basic pattern that I use for lexicological dissections of passages of Scripture. But since this is getting really long as it is, I’ll let you all speculate on that in the comments. πŸ˜‰

But seriously – comment and ask questions. I would love to expound more… so ask away. πŸ˜€

I'm Sorry

Aughh
Aughh

No, that isn’t just a catchy title, I really am sorry. I had a topic to post about (a fascinating one on how to properly define a word), but today and yesterday I simply haven’t been able to write. A lot of reasons, but one of them has to do with the subject of these two posts:

http://duchessdaisy.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/in-which-this-blog-turns-into-a-baby-blog/

http://duchessdaisy.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/new-pictures/

Yep, my twin, Carissa Mann (aka Duchess Daisy), has a new baby sister! I can’t express how excited I am about this… little Esther is almost a real sibling to me.

And then, of course, losing power this afternoon kind of threw things out of whack too. And I’ve been reading a lot for the Read-a-Thon as well. But enough excuses, haha. If you know me real well, you can probably guess (or already know) all the other, bigger, reasons why I haven’t been able to write.

I pray I’ll be able to get a post out next week for you though, I really want to set down and have a good chat on lexicology with y’all. πŸ˜‰

God bless!

Jay

A Mountainous Vision

Carrauntoohil. A clear view of Ireland's highe...
Carrantuohill (Image via Wikipedia)

Last week I talked about a concept that I have found life-changing… a life principle that will re-energize your walk with God no matter what you are walking through – exciting or boring.

This week I plan to expand on that principle a bit, or rather add upon it. I want to share with you something that I learned just this last Saturday on the highest mountain of Ireland: Carrantuohill. During my gruelling hike (or climb, whatever you want to call it) to the top of that misty peak (very misty… couldn’t see a thing) I was praying, musing, and thinking.

Mountains are great places to do that.

You are all alone… despite all the other hikers going up with you. The weight and grandeur of nature is so vast that us humans become small. And so in the ultimate colossal world the few humans struggling next to me seem miles apart from my soul… which expanded to sing and rejoice with the hills, giving glory to the Creator God who made us all.

You are brought to the end of yourself. The exertion progressively strips and drains away every kind of energy you have. The constant variety makes each step into a unique challenge, forcing you to continually shift gears and go on with a new method of walking or climbing. You can’t relax into a consistent, easy stride, ever. In the end, your body is exhausted on every level, in every part, and you are going on by hope. And prayer.

And I am able to meet God in a special way. It seemed like each step was a new journey with new things to learn. It was also a powerful dramatization for principles and lessons already learned, grounding them deeper within me.

The principle I want to share with you was both of those: I already knew it, but I learned it again as if it was new, in a new way, with new insights.

If you recall my previous post, the principle I shared with you there was that in every point of your life, you can always ask this question and find a guiding rule for glorifying God in that moment — β€œAm I facing a challenge that I can do in God’s strength for His glory, or am I being blessed with a respite of happiness for which I can thank and praise Him?” In other words… all of life is made up of bumps, big and small.

This next principle builds on that.

All valleys, peaks, and bumps in life are leading up a mountain.

See, on Carrantuohill, I had to watch my footing constantly. I had to plan how to move my body forward, guiding each joint and muscle to work together in efficient harmony. I had to focus on each bump and decide how to best navigate it for the best results.

But if I had only focused on that I would have been in deep trouble. I would have wandered away from the group, gotten lost, become stranded on the side of the mountain, unable to return or go on. Even if I didn’t get lost, my path would have meandered here and there, back and forth, instead of on the most efficient path up the mountain. I had to continually look up, and keep the next goal in sight.

Look up, see the next ridge; look down, see the next step.

And so our lives go.

Do you have a master vision and passion for your life? Do you see the goals and journeys you must take to fulfill that vision? Can you look from those objectives to your day to day life and say, β€œThis is the next step I must take to take me there.”

Without a direction, all the steps you take are merely wanderings. And any success you come across along the way will be mere happenstance… if you even recognize it when it happens.

You can’t write your life story by the seat of your pants… there is no editing in life. You only get one draft.

So plan it.

And take the next step with the light of a vision in your eye.