Fact vs opinion

“That dictionaries engage with the truth is a commonplace in the history of lexicography.”

So says Lynda Mugglestone in her book Dictionaries: A Very Short Introduction (p 93). It may seem obvious that a definition should only contain facts, and that lexicographers should avoid conveying their personal opinions in a definition. But sometimes that’s not as easy as it sounds.

There are several well-known definitions in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) in which he clearly expresses his own opinions. Here are two examples:

‘excise’ – a hateful tax collected by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.

‘patron’ – one who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.

(Johnson is referring here to Lord Chesterfield, who agreed to be a patron of his dictionary, but then did nothing to support him.)

Sometimes Johnson even shows his disapproval of the word itself:

‘shabby’ – a word that has crept into conversation and low writing; but ought not to be admitted into the language. Mean; paltry.

We tend to think that this sort of thing can’t happen in modern dictionaries, but sometimes it is very hard to avoid. Consider this definition of the verb to ‘civilize’, which comes from the first edition of the popular Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, published in 1948:

‘civilize’ – bring out from a savage and ignorant state; give teaching in art, science, culture, good government, good customs and manners.

The use of words like ‘savage’ and ‘ignorant’ look problematical in the 21st century – and what is meant by ‘good’ government, customs, or manners?

It is difficult to define words like this without being influenced by cultural assumptions, which one may not be aware of. In Macmillan Dictionary, the word ‘civilized’ is defined like this:

A civilized country, society etc has developed an advanced culture and institutions.

This may be less contentious than the Oxford definition from 1948, but it is not without its problems: what, for example, is meant by ‘advanced’?

A few years ago, the definition of ‘marriage’ in Macmillan Dictionary website was changed from:

the relationship between two people who are husband and wife (first edition 2002)

to:

the relationship between two people who are husband and wife, or a similar relationship between people of the same sex (current online edition)

This accurately reflects the legal situation in some countries (including the UK). But in many parts of the world, the idea of same-sex marriage is regarded very differently. The point is that it can often be difficult to write a ‘values-neutral’ definition of words relating to areas such as gender, sexuality, disability, religion and other belief systems, and colonialism.

Which brings us to the Urban Dictionary, which we introduced in the first week of the course (Step 1.14). We will meet computational linguist Dr Barbara McGillivray, and she will be telling us about research she has done into the Urban Dictionary. One of the main takeaways from Barbara’s research is that a high percentage of Urban Dictionary definitions make no attempt to describe things objectively, but clearly convey the opinions of the definer. Barbara will say more about this, but to give a single example, the top definition of the word ‘school’ in the Urban Dictionary is:

‘A complete and utter waste of precious childhood.’

Most of the other definitions of this word are equally subjective, including these two:

‘The single worst place in the universe.’

‘An institution originally noncompulsory, now a forced hellhole where otherwise reasonably intelligent people are forced to go for 14 years.’

These may well be ‘true’ definitions in terms of the definers’ personal experience of school, but no-one could claim they are objective, factual definitions of this concept.

References

Mugglestone, L. (2011) Dictionaries: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Further reading

There is an interesting paper on the subject of defining culturally-sensitive words by Rosamund Moon, called ‘Meanings, Ideologies, and Learners’ Dictionaries’, in the Proceedings of the 2014 EURALEX conference.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding English Dictionaries

Coventry University