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Mapping meaning to usage

An interview with linguist and lexicographer Patrick Hanks, on the subject of mapping meanings to usage.
I’m delighted to welcome Patrick Hanks. Patrick is a corpus linguist and a lexicographer with a very distinguished record. Patrick has been chief editor of three groundbreaking dictionaries, the Collins English dictionary in the 1970s, the COBUILD dictionary in the 1980s and the Oxford Dictionary of English in the 1990s. He’s also professor of lexicography at the University of Wolverhampton, which is the only UK university which offers a master’s programme in lexicography.
Patrick’s book, “Lexical Analysis: Norms and Exploitations”, is a brilliant and very important contribution to our understanding of how people make meanings and understand meanings. So we’re very fortunate to be able to talk to Patrick today on that topic. Patrick, I’d like to start by asking you, how we as human beings, create meanings when we’re writing and speaking, and how other people understand what we mean. Right. And how other people understand what we mean. Well, we certainly communicate using words, but we don’t use words in isolation. We don’t normally just shout out ‘block’, ‘slab’, ‘tile’. We say things like, ‘Bring me some tiles.’ or ‘Bring me some of those tiles over there.’ or something like that.
So we embed words in phrases. That’s how we normally communicate. Now, I think dictionaries - traditional dictionaries - have done a disservice to humanity by fostering the belief that meanings are associated with words in isolation. And meanings are actually more associated with words in context, phraseology. And that’s how we make meanings - we make meanings by uttering phrases and we understand meanings by comparing the phrases that we hear with all the phrases that we’ve heard throughout our life from birth, which are somehow stored in our subconscious and somehow arranged, but this is not well understood. In your work you talk a lot about how dictionaries divide words into separate meanings.
But you make a distinction between meanings and meaning potentials and I wonder if you could explain a bit more about that. If we look up a word in a dictionary, you will see a list of possible meanings that that word has. But firstly, dictionaries don’t normally tell you how to distinguish one sense from another. And actually, what’s actually going on is that a word has many possible meanings, many meaning potentials, which are distinguished according to the context in which they’re used. So if you ‘hazard a guess at something’, meaning is different from ‘hazarding your life’, or ‘hazarding a fortune’ in a casino. The phraseology helps you to decide what the word means in a particular context.
You hear the words around the word, the keyword that you’re interested in - and then you’re able to interpret it unambiguously. In your book lexical analysis, Patrick, you talk about norms and exploitations and I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about that. People not only use words in the normal, in the most normal way, in the normal phraseology, but they also like to play with the phraseology, or use words in unusual ways, or to make new meanings.
Dylan Thomas talks about “a grief ago” and a pedantic linguist might say: ‘You can’t use, ‘ago’, without an expression of time, so ‘grief’ is being forced, it’s being exploited with the additional meaning of a period of time. You not only have stored in your head a set of normal uses of each word that you use, but also you have the potential to exploit that in interesting and creative ways. This is the root of poetry but it’s also observable in everyday conversation.

In this video, Michael Rundell interviews Patrick Hanks, a corpus linguist and lexicographer with a long and distinguished record.

Watch the video interview which is approximately five minutes in length. You may wish to watch it a couple of times to make further written notes which will help you in the next step of the course.

Patrick discusses issues around word meanings, and shows how context plays an essential part in our understanding of what words mean.

His book, Lexical Analysis – Norms and Exploitations, is a brilliant contribution to ideas about word meaning.

Further reading

Hanks, P. (2013) Lexical Analysis: Norms and Exploitations. MIT Press, US.

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