Friday, October 16, the birthday of Noah Webster, Revolutionary patriot, lexicographer, and spelling reformer, is commemorated as Dictionary Day. So that you should not be taken by surprise, here are some remarks to prepare you for the occasion.
The next time you are in church and some person in a pulpit starts to say, "Webster's defines …" get up and walk out. You have been advised by the stalest device in homiletics that no original thought can be expected to follow. Similarly, "Webster's defines" in an editorial or letter to the editor broadcasts a paucity of thinking and suggests that you should turn the page immediately.
"Webster's defines …" is suspect for additional reasons. There is, for one, no Webster's. Merriam-Webster holds no copyright on the name, so anyone can cobble together a word list and slap Webster's on the title page. More seriously, speaking of Webster's reinforces a misguided sense that there exists the dictionary. There is no such entity.
Various dictionaries serve various purposes, by various methods. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, is an* historical dictionary that lists the oldest sense of a word first and develops later meanings in subsequent entries. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, widely used by students, and Webster's New World College Dictionary, beloved of the Associated Press, are both desk dictionaries, focused on the most common words currently in use.
Desk dictionaries are limited in size and scope by the economics of publishing, so when newer entries come in, older ones must be sacrificed. It's a bloody business. The same brutal economic decisions mean that we will probably never see another print edition of the OED, which would be too expensive for nearly all potential customers, and likely not Webster's Unabridged. Both are online, available by subscription.
The American Heritage Dictionary provides extensive notes on nuances of usage. The Urban Dictionary, online, is helpful in puzzling out current slang, though one has to be cautious. It is crowdsourced, with varying degrees of reliability. The Oxford Dictionaries—not the OED—periodically include vogue words, giving rise to shirty complaints from the peeververein.
There we come to a primary caution about understanding dictionaries. Lexicographers want to tell you what words mean and how people use them. They are not on a membership committee appointed to vet the respectability of words and admit them to the club.** They will tell the "not-a-word" people that there is indeed such a word as irregardless, and that it is regarded as non-standard English. (And they will likely murmur to themselves, "Besides, you knew bloody well what it meant.")
That is, lexicographers are not bouncers but custodians. And the language in their care is organic, sprouting new meanings every day and applying new senses to old words as the lexicographers struggle to keep up. Some words drop out of use, and they are preserved lovingly in the unabridged texts for anyone who comes across them in historical works.
The online dictionaries are not as much fun for serendipitous discovery—W.H. Auden liked to take a volume of the OED to bed and browse—but you can still make delightful discoveries—etymologies, changed senses over the centuries, evocative sounds and senses.
On Friday, pick one up, open it at random, and discover things about the English language you never knew before. And if you know a lexicographer, stand them a drink.
*Yes, I wrote an. Shove off.