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The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Checking a “Dictionary”

The Daily Devil’s Dictionary seeks to highlight how the sense of a particular word spoken by a public figure or reported by the media contains a meaning that other dictionaries miss.

We have been composing The Daily Devil’s Dictionary five days a week since October 2017. It may be time to revisit the one word not many people bother to define: dictionary.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Dictionary:

A tool created by learned people to restrict thinking about elements of a language

Contextual note

Dictionaries attempt to clarify the meaning people attach to words, but in many ways it’s an impossible task. Meanings belong to contexts as well as to shared pools of the signs called words, which is one way of defining the word “language.”

Human communication always plays on ambiguity. In real life, we expect people to understand intention in ways that often have nothing to with the dictionary meaning of the words we use. “That’s great!” spoken with sarcasm, means the opposite of its “literal” meaning. Sarcasm generally points to an inversion of meaning. But there are many other ways of twisting the apparent meaning of what we say.

Every word in context conveys values that no dictionary can account for. A quick solution in one culture can connote efficiency and conscientiousness, eliciting immediate approval. In another it can connote laziness and imprecision. It may even vary within a single culture, according to context.

Public figures, media and business people constantly hedge their bets. The words they choose often draw on positive feelings, but the intention expressed may hide a sinister motive pointing in the opposite direction. When someone says, “believe me” (as Donald Trump often does), it means “don’t expect any evidence or proof — just accept what I say.” Or the phrase, “in my honest opinion,” tells you that, yes, there is an opinion, but you have no reason to believe that it is true or even honestly expressed.

In more extreme cases, invoking “democratic action” to solve a recognized social problem may, in some contexts, be a rallying cry for a lynch mob. That’s a basic trick of populists. From the idea of contradictory discussion and deliberation associated with democracy (which we are taught to believe is positive), the populist incites the crowd to mob rule.

The Daily Devil’s Dictionary — contrary to a standard dictionary — seeks to highlight how the sense of a particular word spoken by a public figure or reported by the media, when examined in its context, contains a meaning that other dictionaries miss. That is why we always present the context of its use and place it in a larger, more complete context.

Historical note

Plato defined man as “a featherless biped,” which seemed reasonable to Greeks, unaware of any other known bipeds that didn’t grow feathers. The story goes that Diogenes plucked a rooster clean and brought it to the agora announcing, “this is Plato’s man.”

Plato’s could have offered his definition to a Devil’s Dictionary. First, it sounds ironic. Good irony works not to establish a truth or contradict a fact, but to make us think differently, more broadly about the relationships between concepts we take for granted. In two words, Plato reminds us that humans are animals, rather than beings separate from the animal world, like gods or angels. Featherless emphasizes the material nature of our being. Biped draws our attention to the physical stature, the distinct visual image of humans. We tend to define the world by what we see. Most of all, Plato’s definition surprises by drawing attention away from what we humans spontaneously think distinguishes us the most, our intelligence. He treats our evolved brain as just another secondary attribute.

In short, Plato’s definition makes us think differently about ourselves and our language.

Diogenes brilliantly one-upped Plato, demonstrating how misleading our definitions can be. Just as he one-upped Alexander the Great, who one day approached Diogenes to offer anything he wanted to a man who claimed he needed nothing. Diogenes replied, “stand away, you’re blocking my sunlight.” Alexander later said, admiringly, “But truly, if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”

When Alexander offered “anything” he meant “any thing”. Diogenes took anything to encompass Alexander’s posture and position. Alexander understood. That’s what words do in context.

In 1755, Dr. Samuel Johnson published the most famous dictionary of English compiled by a single man. A very serious work, it contains a few slightly devilish (though not diabolical) entries, including one about men who make dictionaries.

Sock, noun: Something put between the foot and shoe.

Oats, noun: A Grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

Lexicographer, noun: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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