Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Words Defined by Words Alone

In Chapter Three of The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, Gleick (2011) wrote:
The dictionary ratifies the persistence of the word. It declares that the meanings of words come from other words. It implies that all words, taken together, form an interlocking structure: interlocking, because all words are defined in terms of other words. This could never have been an issue in an oral culture, where language was barely visible. Only when printing—and the dictionary—put the language into separate relief, as an object to be scrutinized, could anyone develop a sense of word meaning as interdependent and even circular. Words had to be considered as words, representing other words, apart from things. (p. 66)
This passage had the unintended effect of moving me farther away from Gleick's views than I was before reading it. It's an old rule to "define" words by using any other words but the one currently being defined, and a synonym for "definition" is "meaning," so it can be easy to think that some correct string of other words is what constitutes the meaning of a word. Gleick carries this to the conclusion that any given word only has meaning by virtue of other words which themselves only have meaning by still more words, or maybe the original word. He considers this as an insight gained through literacy and dictionary making; preliterate people simply weren't in a good position to notice that word meaning arises from a network map of individually meaningless words.

I consider this sort of view an illustrative overreaction to the crude philosophy of language that all words stand directly for things. Gleick would have us believe, instead, that all words stand for words. Not only would this fail to hook up to the world of things, it fails to hook up with the world of ideas. (At least, any ideas which can't be captured by graph theory.) A moderate take is that perhaps some words stand only for words or only for things, but many words stand for ideas. If I want to convey a certain idea to you, I select words intended to evoke that idea — or a similar enough idea — in your mind when you hear my speech or read my writing.

What are dictionary entries under this moderate view? Acts of communication. Dictionary writers are trying to evoke the ideas which are usually intended to be evoked by the use of a word. A good dictionary definition does two things: it correctly identifies the list of commonly-intended ideas behind the use of a word, and it successfully communicates these ideas to dictionary readers. Dictionaries may be artifacts of literate culture, but I would find it very hard to believe everyone waited for dictionaries to be invented before thinking to ask speakers for clarification of strange words. So under the moderate view, an analogue of dictionary use was probably already happening in oral culture. I suspect the major difference in written dictionaries is that authors were expected to define common words, and may have found unexpected challenges in that task.

Gleick, J. (2011). The information: A history, a theory, a flood. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.


  1. He wasn't making a philosophical claim at all. He's definitely not the sort of guy who would espouse the sort of claim you seem to be reading into what he wrote.

    He was just pointing out the natural inferences that someone can make when thinking about a dictionary. I know I had that same reaction when I was 8 or 9, and my kids have all observed the same thing. There is a common reaction kids have: "Wait! You mean that every word is officially described in words? How do you bootstrap that?!?"

    What he is explaining is that this seeming puzzle of circularity or bootstrapping simply never would have occurred to someone before the first dictionaries were made. He's obviously not arguing that words actually stand for other words; he's just pointing out that our ability to conceptualize things this was was an inflection point in human culture.

  2. I've always thought of dictionaries as an interesting exercise in approximation. There are a lot of words which are difficult to define in an exact way using other words. Otherwise, we might just use those other words. The aim of a dictionary writer is to get as close as possible.

    For instance, you might define "azure" as "a certain shade of blue," which leaves the reader wondering which particular shade of blue. You could then say it is the shade of blue found in the sky on a sunny, clear day. This is more accurate, and aids the reader in understanding the word, but it is only useful if they have actually experienced a bright, sunny day. The definition itself is just a signpost to the thing.

    I'm reminded also of foreign language teaching methods. A lot of the French I learned was through a French to English dictionary. I would look up a French word, say, jambon, and it would be defined according to an English word or phrase, in this case, ham. But language immersion is often a more effective technique in which a teacher speaks no English, but simply uses the word "jambon" while perhaps pointing at a picture of a ham. In either case, if you've never seen or eaten ham, the lesson will be terribly confusing.

  3. JSA,

    I suppose it's possible that Gleick isn't personally endorsing the view he is expressing in this excerpt, since it could all be under an understanding that dictionaries *seemed* to show that language has a certain nature and Gleick isn't judging whether this view is right.


    Now I'm hungry.