[guest post] Dictionary Arguments, and Why They Suck

CaitieCat, a frequent and awesome commenter around here, has a guest postI

It’s not news to any activist for any cause that people just love to whip out dictionary definitions as ostensibly authoritative guides to what words mean. Even so august a person as a fellow whose name may or may not rhyme with Shmichard Shmawkins has been known to whip out (pun intended) the old Oxford English when he doesn’t like someone else’s usage being different from the one he learned.

What’s disappointing about it is that it’s really just a common logical fallacy: the appeal to authority.

Now, I hear the defenders of that fellow who may or may not have that rhyming name leaping to their feet, cursing at me and their screens and the perfidy of anyone (especially a much-despiséd FEMINIST OMFFSM!) who’d dare to suggest the emperor would turn out to be naked commit a logical fallacy, but let me (the irony should delight you) tell you as a linguist why it’s exactly that.

First, it’s perhaps valuable to look at what a dictionary actually is. A dictionary is a compilation of language-objects (usually words, sometimes other related entities) – and this is the important bit – compiled by humans at a particular time.

Yes, they’re genuine experts in their field, and yes, they work by consensus, sort of. See, they only work by consensus within the field of dictionary writers who use the same language variety as they do. We tend to view a dictionary as a collection of objective facts: word X means meaning Y (and possibly Z, J, F, and Q). In fact, though, any dictionary is bounded by several biases which we tend not to think about when citing them as major authorities.

First, it is bounded in time. The date of publication provides an absolute limit for when the meanings are considered definitely valid; for proof, consider trying to use Mr. Johnson’s original dictionary for your English assignment today. That we can see this in Mr. Johnson’s 1709 effort, but not in the 2000 Oxford Online, has to do with our monkey-brained habit of filtering out the everyday, in order to make best use of the meat-computer we come pre-installed with.The instant it is sent to print, a dictionary is already badly out of date: words can change their meaning significantly in a very short time, as the quill flies/pixel pulses.

The filters have to do with more than time, though. There is also to be considered the makeup of the editorial board – does it accurately reflect the state of the whole of English, with different sociolects, dialects, jargons, cants, argots? There is a known demographic issue in academia generally, as well as most parts of academia, for the majority of tenured positions currently to be held by white able-bodied middle- or upper-class cis men. Are they always going to catch all possible meanings of a given word, all the nuances, when they aren’t users of a given word themselves? More diversity in such an endeavour would be evidently useful in making the dictionary more accurately reflect the true state of the language, if that were a goal of the project. It’s not: the OED is an attempt at defining what the prestige version of the language is.

Consider the privilege in dictionary-making accorded to written (i.e., “documentable”) usages, and in fact only certain types of documentable usages, which predominantly exclude those who stand outside the power-structure in today’s society. Emails between people, chat usage, comic books, zines, samizdat generally, erotic fiction/pornography, fan fiction, maledicta, rap lyrics, acronyms, and languages for the Deaf, among many other types of language usage, tend to be recorded only in the most conservative ways, and often ignored entirely, dismissed as vulgar ephemera, unworthy of inclusion in the Pantheon of English Wordhood.

Verbal usages are ignored almost entirely, as being “undocumentable”. Yet written language is only ever at its very best a vague approximation of the true richness and beauty of the spoken/signed language; great numbers of expressions and words will never make it into any dictionary, despite their usage in the millions of times daily all over the world, because they’re never written down in “acceptable” documentation. And yet we’re accumulating a humanity-wide store of thousands of hours of video of native and non-native speakers using their languages every day; there’s no particular reason to privilege written communication over spoken any more, now that the data are more readily available. Yes, it would cause a lot more work, but that’s only because we’ve only been doing half the job up til now, not a good argument for not doing it.

The primary problem, of course, is that these nominally objective (but in actuality, wildly subjective) works are cited as prescriptive authorities: they purport to describe the language as it ought to be spoken. I’m hoping that with the paragraphs above, I don’t need to describe the ways in which that view of language is of a tiny window on a huge, living phenomenon: it’s like carefully describing every pitch and swing of a baseball at-bat, and claiming that only that one at-bat, by one player, at one time, counts as a real at-bat, and that all at-bats are like that one, or aren’t real at-bats at all1.

There are real and invisible-to-us biases we all bear, having been raised in societies which are basically giant machines for inculcating invisible-to-us bias: the privilege of having a background such that one speaks the very high-prestige Received Pronunciation (the so-called “Queen’s English”) might lead one to assume that, since the OED agrees exactly with one’s internal definitions, then it must necessarily be a valid and unshakeable authority. Call it the oligoanthropic principle: “all the highly-educated Oxbridge graduates I know agree with the OED, and nobody I consider important disagrees, therefore it is an inerrant objective compilation of facts.”

But this requires not noticing that there are a lot of people in the world speaking English as their main language, and every single one of them has as much claim to say that their version is “the real one” as any Oxbridge-trained-mouthful-of-marbles has.

Like any compilation of subjective human knowledge, then, a dictionary definition is a poor premise to base an argument upon: it is too easily falsified by the simple act of noting that there are a noticeable number of people in the world using those words differently. As a linguist, I lean naturally toward a descriptive approach to language: to me, language is what the people who speak it want it to be. Language changes, as we adapt it – like any tool, as the good tool-using primates we are – to the needs we’re facing with it today. Insistence on some apocryphal golden-age idea that a given dictionary definition is a universally valid, and objectively and eternally true, premise reveals only a weak ability to recognize the numerous bounds and biases which make it at best subjective, and at worst revealing only a small part of the meaning a given language-object might carry to other people.

And that means, I’m afraid, that showing that your dictionary has a famous person’s or institution’s name on it doesn’t make it any more important or objective an arbiter of language than any random two speakers of that dictionary’s language: thus, the fallacy of appeal to authority.

Sorry, rhymes-with-Shmawkins fans: the emperor’s butt’s hanging out2.

For the turquoise ungulate crowd:




1 Wow, that’s a crap analogy. Anyone got a better one?

2 Big thanks to Miri the Amazing Professional Fun-Ruiner of Awesomeness for the opportunity to guest-post. 🙂

CaitieCat is a 47-year-old trans bi dyke, outrageously feminist, and is a translator/editor for academics by vocation. She also writes poetry, does standup comedy, acts and directs in community theatre, paints, games, plays and referees soccer, uses a cane daily, writes other stuff, was raised proudly atheist, is both English by birth and Canadian by naturalization, a former foxhole atheist, a mother of four, and a grandmother of four more (so far). Sort of a Renaissance woman (and shaped like a Reubens!).

[guest post] Dictionary Arguments, and Why They Suck

32 thoughts on “[guest post] Dictionary Arguments, and Why They Suck

  1. 2

    Certain people complain about misogyny being “defined” by FTBs to be something less severe than out and out hatred of women. So saying person X “did” misogyny they get rather het up and complain that they clearly don’t hate all women so you are libelling me… Blah… In an argument with some of these people I made a similar point that words are not defined by dictionaries, people define them and dictionaries catch up eventually. I even found a sainted magical book that defined misogyny in the “FTB” way. Macquarie updated their defn when Julia Gillard pointed out its a pretty useless archaic definition of the word to limit it to hatred of women. Apparently this means that this *English* dictionary only applies in Australia where the dictionary is published and no where else. Its hard to express how absurd that is, what magical property of the book propagates only through the minds of the people in the place where it is published? Either a word is commonly used in a certain way, or it isn’t …

    Anyway totally irrelevant as the word label “misogyny” has been defined on FTBs in a number of posts and they know this. So completely disingenuous to claim because the dictionary says something different it means something different. Its a pretty crappy way to try and win an argument.

  2. 3

    I think I agree with you about the purpose of a dictionary. It seems that the dictionary is a slave to the meanings of words, rather than the meanings of words being a slave to the dictionary.

    However, the only ‘dictionary argument’ that I can parse from this post is the one that relies on the following premise:

    If a word w is paired with the list of meanings m in the dictionary, then w can only have a meaning from m.

    That’s an appeal to the dictionary, which depends on your view of meaning. I’ve already agreed with you about the role of the dictionary in word meanings, so I think this premise is false. But someone whose theory of meaning is outlined by the premise above would be justified in appealing to ‘authority’, i.e. the dictionary. The appeal to authority is one of those ‘fallacies’ where it is only fallacious if it is fallacious, if you get what I mean.

    Anyway, on to my main point. I would bet a decent sum of money that Strawkins (apologies for the slight alteration) himself would disagree with the premise I stated above. In other words, he doesn’t simply appeal to the dictionary to provide an exhaustive set of meanings for any given word.

    Now, you might claim that he did this in that Twitter argument about race. Yet, he didn’t. He used a word in a perfectly acceptable way, until other people appealed to authority – authority of a different kind, namely ‘sociologists’ (I put it in quotes because I am told that sociologists differ in their opinions). So he defended himself showing that this was one way of defining the word (but not necessarily the only way), and good evidence for this is the dictionary, which tends to follow the meanings in both common and in many cases technical usage.

    1. 3.1

      Short answer:

      1) There are a LOT more sociologists than dictionary-makers in the world; their (somewhat-, as you point out) consensus then represents more of an obstacle to fallacious use.

      2) Sociologists work generally descriptively: they describe what is in front of them, as linguists do, and try and find ways to organize the knowledge to be useful to society. What they don’t do is say, “The way I define this is the only way it can be defined and if you try and use any other meaning you’re just flat wrong cause my Holy BookRevered Dictionary says I’m precisely right”. Reliance on consensus among genuine experts is the antidote to the appeal to authority; my point is that dictionary-makers aren’t experts on all of English, in the way that sociologists are experts on “all of society”. Since they choose to only accept certain kinds of documentation, the dictionary should be seen as only a definition for a small subset of society’s usage.
      Sociologists should therefore be seen as a more valid authority, not less, as Strawkins would insist compared to The Dictionary.

      Apparently I suck at short answers.

      1. CaitieCat said (#3.1):

        What they [sociologists] don’t do is say, “The way I define this is the only way it can be defined and if you try and use any other meaning you’re just flat wrong cause my Holy Book Revered Dictionary says I’m precisely right”.

        Then maybe you missed reading Miri’s post “On Useful and Not-So-Useful Definitions of Racism” (1) as my impression was that it was largely predicated on just that “flat wrong” and rather dogmatic assertion.

        Or how about the AtheismPlus “Glossary” (2) which has this rather choice bit of dogma that looks to have the grubby fingerprints of some highly questionable sociology all over them:

        In social justice terms, marginalized groups [e.g., women and blacks] cannot be guilty of -isms in regards to the axes of privilege that they fall low on, because they don’t have the power to institutionalize their prejudices.

        Looks rather like “you’re just flat wrong because I’m precisely right” (because of received wisdom) to me.

        And even Oolon’s redefinition of “misogyny” above (#2.0) still seems to be based on an assertion that the meaning supported or promoted by some largely ideologically driven and miniscule subset of the entire population of the English-speaking world should override the common interpretations (3, 4) of that rather larger population. Seems to me that if you want to throw stones at the actions of some people you should go back to your Greek and Latin and define a new word instead of trying to corrupt and transmogrify the meanings of existing ones. A behaviour that seems to have a not particularly credible or honourable pedigree:

        “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

        But, hey, maybe if you burn enough of those dictionaries and, of course, all the other books that rely heavily on those – and, of course, the people who wrote them (6) – then maybe you can insist that your sociological ones are the only game in town.

        … in the way that sociologists are experts on “all of society” ….

        Really? Considering all of the many “schools” and branches one might be forgiven for asking whether any of them agree on anything. Reminds me of the joke that suggests that if you took all of the economists in the world and laid them end to end they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion. But, more particularly, consider this comment on sociology by an apparently well-regarded sociologist (5):

        Irving Louis Horowitz, in his The Decomposition of Sociology (1994), has argued that the discipline, whilst arriving from a “distinguished lineage and tradition”, is in decline due to deeply ideological theory and a lack of relevance to policy making: “The decomposition of sociology began when this great tradition became subject to ideological thinking, and an inferior tradition surfaced in the wake of totalitarian triumphs.”

        While I’m certainly not so “anti-sociology” as to argue that it is entirely devoid of value, where there is such a wide divergence in opinion, particularly where there are wide and obvious differences in the ideological underpinnings, one might be forgiven for taking their prognostications and auguries – and definitions – with a grain or two of salt.

        … as Strawkins would insist compared to The Dictionary.

        Rather a cheap shot isn’t it? Rather petty to corrupt his name like that? Much different from those who do similar things with the names of Watson, Myers, and Benson? You think that people are going to think your argument is better than his because of that? Pot meet kettle ….

        1) “_http://freethoughtblogs.com/brutereason/2013/05/24/on-useful-and-not-so-useful-definitions-of-racism/#comment-9094”;
        2) “_http://atheismplus.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=2632”;
        3) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misogyny”;
        4) “_http://www.thefreedictionary.com/misogyny”;
        5) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociology#Sociology_and_the_other_academic_disciplines”;
        6) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bebelplatz#Nazi_book_burnings”;

        1. Dude, I’ve seen more than enough of your crap in more than enough places to know better than to engage with your bullshit trollery. Go shit in someone else’s sandbox, you’ll get no other response from me.

          1. CaitieCat said (#

            Dude, I’ve seen more than enough of your crap in more than enough places to know better than to engage with your bullshit trollery.

            Likewise, I’m sure. At least as far as the first part is concerned. The case of Martin Niemöller might be relevant to my response to the last part.

            Go shit in someone else’s sandbox, you’ll get no other response from me.

            Apart from noting in passing that this isn’t exactly your sandbox either – you can’t go to PZ and fink on me to get him to use the banhammer, I was thinking that your argument basically boils down to the fact that people aren’t using the dictionary that you – and others – want to use to peddle your own rather odious and empty ideological crap. You only think “dictionary arguments suck” because it’s not your dictionary that everyone is using. Which looks rather self-serving, and like a rather odious and stark case of special pleading, aka “stacking the deck”. (1) Charming bunch.

            But you – or more particularly others as you seem to be a lost cause – might want to pay real close attention to the above mentioned quote from Horowitz.

            1) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_pleading”;

          2. Sorry, dipstick, I should have said the more official version:

            Go blow a goat. If the tales are true, there’s one trying to cross your roof any moment now. Watch out for the big one, though, he’s got a bit of a temper.

            I don’t have to “fink” on you to anybody, and I didn’t claim the sandbox, I just said you should go shit in a different one – your lack of ability to read simple English, also evident from your usual disingenuous bullshit. If you still, after the number of times you’ve had them, can’t tell a contemptuous dismissal from being banned, then your intellect is even less impressive than i thought it was, which, in a triumph of the infinitesimal, is an impressive thing in its own right.

            In any case, I’m just done responding to you, here, there, or anywhere else. Caitie don’t play that game.

            *klip klop, klip klop*

            Well, I won’t keep you, your date’s here. Enjoy your evening, and try the cheese. I hear it’s quite good.

          3. CaitieCat said (#

            Sorry, dipstick, I should have said the more official version: Go blow a goat. ….

            And you are a stupid ignorant fat twat.

            I don’t have to “fink” on you to anybody, and I didn’t claim the sandbox, I just said you should go shit in a different one ….

            Apart from being unclear on the concepts of dictionaries and adjectives, among others, you also seem to be unclear on the concept of ownership. As you don’t own this particular sandbox your imperative is only further evidence of you blowing smoke out of your ass.

            Caitie don’t play that game.

            Ok, go back to putting your head in the sand. Or some other place where the sun don’t shine.

            I hear it’s quite good.

            I expect the recommendation is probably more from the personal experience of tasting it ….

          4. No calling people fat on my blog. I will have none of that. Y’all can resort to whatever other creative insults you would like, but any insults based on anything like weight (or disability, or sexual orientation, etc) are firmly against my commenting policy. This is the only warning you get. Next time you’re banned.

          5. Ok. Your blog, your *privilege*.

            However, I might suggest that you would have fewer incidents of gratuitous insults if all of them were off the table or if none of them were. *Privileging* some over the others looks rather chickenshit to me. Like taking a cheap shot at someone and then running to hide behind mama’s skirts to evade the inevitable response.

            It’s ok to hurt someone else with a particular insult, but they can’t return the favour? Maybe “CaitieCat” could provide me with a list of insults that would hurt her and that you would find acceptable? Maybe you could rate the insults by damage points, and the people by the thickness of their hides?

            Special-pleading, indeed. No wonder the credibility of FftBs – and Skepchick – is going down the toilet.

          6. Oh, I don’t mind people insulting each other. There are plenty of insults out there that don’t involve someone’s marginalized status. Asshole. Fuckwad. Poophead. Asswipe. Nincompoop. Jerk. Irrelevant fuck. Get creative!

            But this is a space to break down oppression, not build it up. Insulting people is rude, sure, but it’s not my job to teach y’all manners. As long as insults don’t perpetuate oppression, they’re none of my business. Play by my rules, or don’t play at all.

          7. There are plenty of insults out there that don’t involve someone’s marginalized status.

            In your opinion, from your “privileged” position. Which is hardly naked fact.

            As long as insults don’t perpetuate oppression, they’re none of my business.

            Apart from suggesting that insults are intrinsically a case of oppression, I would say your assertion manifests a fairly selective definition of “oppression”, not to say a self-serving one.

            Play by my rules, or don’t play at all.

            Sort of like that mythical creature, the “Patriarchy” ….

          8. Absolutely no hypocrisy. Both you and CaitieCat (and everyone else) are allowed to use the exact same types of insults: those that do not rely on the target’s gender, race, sexual orientation, weight, ability, ethnicity, etc. I decided long before you ever showed up here that I don’t want insults like “fat twat” in my space. I even gave you some examples of insults you can use. CaitieCat’s insults were like the ones I listed; yours were not. If you don’t like the rules here, you are very welcome not to comment here. I really don’t care what you think of these rules, so you’re also welcome to stop providing your irrelevant opinion on them.

  3. 5

    From what I’ve seen, the biggest problem with dictionary arguments is not that they’re arguments from authority; it’s that some people just paste a dictionary definition into a comment, and expect the rest of us to take it as the last word, without even bothering to connect it to the topic of conversation. The logical fallacies I’ve seen are mostly non-sequiturs, not arguments from authority; i.e., “what X said is not really ‘sexist’ because [copypasted dictionary definition of ‘sexism’];” where the definition has no impact at all on what X said. Then, when others point out how the offending statement is still “sexist,” the dictionary-troll just re-pastes the same definition over and over again, and just flatly refuses to even talk about how the offending statement might actually fit the dictionary definition.

    PS: Your final bit comparing dictionaries to holy books is very appropriate: many of these dictionary-trolls really do use dictionary citations like right-wing Christians use Bible quotes.

  4. 6

    Yea, I’ve never seen it as a appeal to authority but as a downright distraction. Basically, it’s shifting the conversation to argue about Connotation and Denotation. It’s a pure distraction argument. As long as they know what you’re referring to, they can talk and discuss it. But they don’t want to, so try to have a completely different argument.

    Sometimes you may end up disputing definitions, which a conversation you should refuse to have. Instead you should immediately settle on a definition and connotation and move on with the conversation. There’s an amusing Less Wrong article on Definition Disputing which comes to similar conclusions:

  5. 7

    I agree with the overall point of this, but I am going to have to disagree with one thing.

    I don’t think that this quite qualifies as a fallacious appeal to authority without some hedging. After all, the dictionary is an authority on the definition of words, and an appeal to authority is only a fallacy if the authority lacks expertise or if the authority is going against the consensus.

    I would say this qualifies more as an equivocation and strawman fallacy. A hypothetical person, let’s call them Shcmuckins (tee-hee) this time, may state a (or the) dictionary definition of the term as if it was the only possibly definition, and then argue against that term.

    It actually reminds me of creationist arguments. Problem with evolution? Claim that evolution means we should find a crocoduck somewhere in nature, notice we haven’t, and you’ve won the debate!

    Of course there is a bit of the appeal to authority, but I think it has to be mentioned in relation to the other two fallacies I’ve just brought up.

    1. 7.1

      The reason I say it’s fallacious appeal to authority is that, for instance with racism, there’s much more authority to the sociologist’s definition than the dictionary’s, because the sociologists are the experts on racism, not the dictionary-makers. The dictionary-makers are experts in determining which small subset of language-objects gets listed.

      For instance, take “teal deer”, or “tl;dr”. It’s unlikely to show in any formal dictionary for a good long while, but it’s a perfectly cromulent word: people say it, people understand it, it’s a word.

      My complaint is that people point to dictionaries and say,, “but the definition you’re using isn’t here, so it doesn’t exist”. I say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and that dictionary-makers are no less biased than anyone else, and no more specially equipped to see past those biases than anyone else. That they compile a dictionary, and we then accord it too much respect as objective fact; my contention is, let’s trust the expertise of the people who are experts, not the expertise of the people who collect a specific subset of words.

      1. But being an expert on racism doesn’t make you an expert on the widely understood meaning of the word “racism.” The latter is a linguistic question, not a sociological question.

        Dawkins didn’t claim that the word racism had no meanings other than the ones in the dictionary. He simply claimed that his meaning was one of the meanings of the word “racism” and supported his contention by citing a dictionary.

        1. Actually, no. He claimed that their approach – saying racism as a societal process, and thus, worth studying and for activists dismantling, involves a power dimension – wasn’t in the dictionary, and his version was, yah-boo sucks to you silly sociologists for thinking you can define things in useful ways that go against my Holy Dictionary.

          Textbook (excuse the pun) version of appeal to authority.

          His claiming not to understand the difference is just the disingenuous shit icing on the ordure torte, and is meant for nothing more than empty taunting. It doesn’t deserve respect.

  6. 8

    I completely agree.

    People just have a habit of misusing the appeal to authority fallacy, to mean that any time you point at an authority you are committing a fallacy. So there’s a bit of a bait and switch equivocation fallacy involved with the appeal to authority.

    I just feel a need to be super explicit in cases of the appeal to authority: it’s not that dictionary isn’t an authority on words (in the same language as the dictionary). It clearly is. It is that the dictionary is not an authority on terms as they are used in other fields (or internet slang/short-hand, as in your example).

    Seen too many times of people shouting, “You brought up an authority, therefore you have committed a fallacy.” Bringing up an authority is not a fallacy if they are an appropriate authority and they are within the consensus of their field. The issue is that our hypothetical Schmawkins (and real schmucks elsewhere) has conflated the term being used in a specific sense with the dictionary definition of the term, thereby committing an equivocation fallacy to defend against an easier claim.

    1. 8.1

      Exactly – my contention is that, in a contest of authority between dictionary and experts, it’s illogical to insist the dictionary is the only possible choice. We too readily confuse dictionaries with objective fact.

  7. 9

    This is a pretty convincing argument for why the dictionary isn’t god. Ok, great. I don’t think Dawkins said it was, though.

    But anyway, if you’re really a hardcore descriptivist, you’d probably favor the dictionary’s definition of X word regardless, because that’s what most people go by.

      1. I don’t see how my opinions are sexist. You can think I’m wrong or misguided but they don’t really have anything to do with gender roles or essentialism or anything.

        1. I think many people here view you as sexist because every time we’re talking about something that concerns women, you derail it to talk about something that concerns men (specifically you). This is a derailing tactic. Read about those here: http://www.reddit.com/r/SRSDiscussion/comments/qf33g/effort_derailing_101/

          The reason this comes across as sexist is because it’s such a common thing that sexists do when they don’t want to talk about women’s oppression. They insist that men have that problem (or other problems) too, that men have it worse, that what we should REALLY be talking about are YOUR problems, etc.

          You sound like someone who’s basically a good person who’s gone through a lot of shit. But many of us have gone through shit. When other people are talking about THEIR shit, it’s rude and disrespectful to try to get them to talk about yours instead. Over on the other thread I linked you to some books and blogs that might help you. Read those. Find a therapist who can help you. Please don’t expect US to do the work of fixing problems that you should be fixing on your own.

          1. All right, I’ll try not to derail the discussions here anymore, the other day was kind of an accident, or more I wasn’t really thinking about it. And I will read those books… thanks for recommending them.

  8. 10

    I found the OP’s article true, but rather pointless.

    Instead of using labels, then arguing about dictionaries, replace the label-word with your precise meaning. Or, better yet, as Voltaire put it long ago, “Before we converse, let us define our terms.”

    Of course, Voltaire said that in French, probably because he was French, which in the view of many Americans makes his advice worthless.



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