I read this brilliant article this morning and I’ve been thinking about it all day. It is a discussion by Lynne Murphy on the different ways in which the British and American view their dictionaries.
I can understand how a nation that was creating itself anew and taking in people from all nationalities might want a sort of rule book of how to speak and spell, whereas the British have a huge history of literature and documents surrounding them and would view a dictionary in a different light. We have also watched our language twist and turn and change completely and so may have a more relaxed attitude to the finality of a word, its spelling and its meaning.
I found it interesting that so many law cases in the USA cite definitions of words. To me this was very much the trick of a first year undergrad student. Offering a definition had two purposes, the first was to pad out my word count, the second was to show off that I knew something that I didn’t know five minutes earlier. I suspect that not one of my lecturers was fooled. Defining words in essays faded away as I headed towards my masters and was only used when I was deliberately trying to show a change in historical or cultural perspectives. Otherwise defining a word seemed like something for beginners. Clearly I am not smarter than the professional legal system of America so there is obviously a divide in the way we view a dictionary. I agree with Lynne’s suggestion that a dictionary is viewed as a dry point of reference in the States rather than a collection of curiosites.
I got the impression from her article that it would be a very un-American thing to read a dictionary just for the fun of it, to explore and discover; or to compare one dictionary against another. Maybe to trace a word back and watch the culture change around the word and vice versa?
So do I view a dictionary as a bible? No I don’t, it’s far more important primarily because of its fluidity 🙂