How to Read a Dictionary

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


The dictionary invites a playful reading. It challenges anyone to sit down with it in an idle moment only to find an hour gone by without being bored. Recently I noticed an advertisement for a dictionary as a wonder book. “Astonished Actually Means Thunderstruck” was the headline, written obviously in the hope that the prospective buyer would be thunderstruck, or wonderstruck, enough to look further. And the rest of the ad listed such tidbits as a “disaster literally means the stars are against you!” or “to tantalize is to torment with the punishment of Tantalus as told in Greek mythology.”

While I do not think astonishment is the dictionary’s main mission in life, I cannot resist reporting some of the things I learned accidentally while thumbing its pages, in the course of writing this article. I discovered, that the word “solecism” derives from Soli, the name of a Greek colony in Cilicia, whose inhabitants were thought by the Athenians to speak bad Greek; hence, “solecism” was probably the equivalent in Greek slang for a Bostonian’s contemptuous reference to “New Yorkese.” I learned that “coal” originally meant charred wood. It was then applied to mineral coal when this was first introduced, under such names as “sea-coal” and “pitcoal.” Now that mineral coal is the more common variety, we redundantly refer to charred wood as “charcoal.” I was edified by the fact that the drink “Tom and Jerry” derives its name from the two chief characters in Evan’s “Life of London” (1821), that in England a low beer joint is called a “Tom and Jerry Shop,” and, that indulgence in riotous behavior is called “to tom and jerry.” I had always thought that a forlorn hope was really a hope on the verge of turning into despair, but it seems that it isn’t a hope at all, “Hope” here is a misspelling of the Dutch word “hoop” meaning heap. A forlorn hope is a storming party, a band of heroes who willing to end up in a heap for their country’s cause. And most shocking of all was the discovery that one theory about the origin of the magician’s “hocus pocus” accounts for it as a corruption of “hoc est corous” — the sacred words accompanying the sacrament of the Eucharist. This, together with the reversal in meaning of “dunce” — from the proper name of Duns Scotus, the subtlest doctor of the Church, to naming a numbskull provides a two-word commentary on the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times.

The staid modern dictionary is full of such wit even when it doesn’t try to be funny, as Dr. Johnson did when he defined “oats” as “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Look up “Welsh rabbit,” for example, or “scotch capon” or “swiss steak,” and you will discover gentle jokes about national shortcomings in diet.

I find that what interests me most of all are the shifts in meaning of common words in daily use. From meaning an attendant on horses, “marshall” has come to mean a leader of men; though also originating in the stable, “constable” has gone in the reverse direction from signifying an officer of highest rank to denoting a policeman; “boon” has done an about-face by becoming the gift which answers a petition, having been the prayer which asked for it; “magistrate” and “minister” have changed places with each other in the ups and downs of words, for in current political usage, “magistrate” usually names a minor official, whereas “minister” refers to a major diplomatic or cabinet post. It is often hard to remember that a minister is a servant of the people, and harder, still to recall the precise point of religious controversy which caused the substitution of “minister” for “priest” as the name for one who served in the performance of sacerdotal functions. And readers of our Constitution should have their attention called to a shift in the word “citizen” from meaning any one who, by birth or choice, owes allegiance to the state, to the narrower designation of those who are granted the right to vote. Similarly, “commerce” has narrowed in meaning; like “trade,” it once meant every dealing in merchandise, but now is distinguished from industry according to the difference between distributing commodities and producing them.

The word “commerce” reminds me of one other sort of incidental inquiry the dictionary lures you into. You discover that “commerce” and “mercenary” have the same root in “mercis,” wares, and that leads you to the closely related root “merces,” pay or reward, which is embodied in the word “mercy.” If you start this game of research, you will find such roots as “spec” from “spectare” meaning to look at or see, which generates a family of 246 English words (species, speculate, specimen, specify, spectacle, inspect, respect, aspect, etc.); or “press” from “primo”; meaning to squeeze, which has an equally large family (impress, repress, pressing, compress, suppress, oppress, depress, express, etc.).

It is almost as hard to stop writing about the dictionary in this way as to stop reading one when you are in hot pursuit of the mysteries of human speech. But, over and above such fascinations, the dictionary has its sober uses. To make the most of these one has to know how to read the special sort of book a dictionary is. But, before I state the rules, let me see if I can explain why most people today don’t use dictionaries in a manner befitting the purpose for which they were originally created.

In its various sizes and editions, the dictionary is an unlisted bestseller on every season’s list. To be able to get along without one would be a sign of supreme literacy — of complete competence as a reader and writer. The dictionary exists, of course, because there is no one in that condition. But, if the dictionary is the necessity we all acknowledge, why is it so infrequently used by the man who owns one? And even when we do consult it, why do most of us misuse the dictionary or use it poorly?

The answer to both questions may be that few of us make efforts at reading or writing anything above the present level of our literary competence. The books — or maybe it is just the newspapers and magazines — we read, and the things we write, don’t send us to the dictionary for help. Our vocabularies are quite adequate, because the first rule in most contemporary writing is the taboo against strange words, or familiar words in strange senses.

Of course, there are always people (not-excluding college graduates) who have difficulty with spelling or pronouncing even the common words in daily discourse. That, by the way, is the source of the most frequent impulse to go to the dictionary. There is nothing wrong about this! The dictionary is there to render this simple service — in fact, Noah Webster began his career as the compiler of a spelling book which sold in the millions. But my point remains — the dictionary has other and more important uses, and the reason we do not generally avail ourselves of these services is not our superiority, but rather our lack of need as the life of letters is currently lived.

The history of dictionaries, I think, will bear me out on this point. The Greeks did not have a dictionary, even though “lexicon” is the Greek word for it. They had no need for foreign language dictionaries because there was no literature in a foreign language they cared to read. They had no need for a Greek word-book because the small educated class already knew what such a book would contain. This small group of literate men would have been, like the modern French Academy, the makers of the dictionary, the arbiters of good usage. But at a time when so sharp a line separated the learned from the lewd (which, in an obsolete usage, means unlettered), there was no occasion for the few men who could make a dictionary to prefer one for the others.

George Santayana’s remark about the Greeks — that they were the uneducated people in European history — has a double significance. The masses were, of course, uneducated, but even the learned few were not educated in the sense that they had to sit at the feet of foreign masters. Education, in that sense, begins with the Romans, who went to school to Greek pedagogues, and became cultivated through contact with Greek culture. It is not surprising, therefore, that the first dictionaries were glossaries of Homeric words. The earliest lexicon which is still extant is such a glossary, prepared by a Greek, Apollonius, in the fifth century of our era, obviously intended to help Romans read the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” of Homer, as well as other Greek literature which employed the Homeric vocabulary. Most of us today need similar glossaries to read Shakespeare well.

There were dictionaries in the Middle Ages — a famous Latin one by the Spaniard, Isidore of Seville, which was really a philosophical work, a sort of encyclopedia of worldly knowledge accomplished by discussions of the most important technical terms occurring in learned discourse. There were foreign-language dictionaries in the Renaissance (both Latin and Greek) made necessary by the fact that the humane letters which dominated the education of the period were from the ancient languages. Even when the vulgar tongues — English, French, or Italian — gradually displaced Latin as the language of learning, the pursuit of learning was still the privilege of the few. Under such circumstances, dictionaries were intended for a limited audience, mainly as an aid to reading the most worthy literature. In attempting to compile a standard dictionary, Dr. Johnson derived his norms from the usage of the best writers, on the theory, that is would furnish a guide to others who tried to read them, or who tied to write as well.

We see, then, that from the beginning the educational motive dominated the making of dictionaries, though, as in the case of Dr. Johnson, and the work of the French and Italian Academies, there was also an interest in preserving the purity and order of the language. As against the latter interest, the Oxford English Dictionary, begun in 1857, was a new departure, in that it did not try to dictate the best usage but rather to present an accurate historical record of every type of usage — the worst as well as the best, taken from popular as well as stylish writing. But this conflict between the mission of the lexicographer as self-appointed arbiter and his function as historian can regarded as a side-issue, for the dictionary, however constructed, is primarily an educational instrument. And the problem is whether that instrument is currently well used.

Our own Noah Webster is in a sense the hero of the story. Alarmed by the state into which learning had fallen after the Revolutionary War, Webster sought to make a one volume dictionary which would serve in the self-education of the semi-literate masses. He was concerned with the masses, not the elite, and with selfeducation, at a time when this country had not yet become democratic enough to regard the public education of all its children as a primary obligation of the state. The Webster dictionary was probably one of the first self-help books to become a popular bestseller. And the paradox is that now, with public education widely established in this country, with literacy as universal as suffrage, the self-help potentialities of a dictionary are seldom realized by the millions who own one. I am not thinking merely of children from progressive schools who cannot use a dictionary because they do not know the alphabet. I am thinking of all the products of contemporary education who, not being taught or inspired to read the great and difficult books, have little use for the dictionary. How much better educated was the self-read man whom Webster helped!

This brief history of dictionaries is relevant to the rules for reading and using them well. One of the first rules as to how to read a book is to know what sort of book it is. That means knowing what the author’s intention was and what sort of thing you can expect to find in his work. If you look upon a dictionary merely as a spelling book or a guide to pronunciation, you will use it accordingly. If you realize that it contains a wealth of historical information, crystallized in the growth of language; you will pay attention, not merely to the variety of meanings which are listed under each word, but to their order.

And above all if you are interested in advancing your own education, you will use a dictionary according to its primary intention — as a help in reading hooks that might otherwise be too difficult because their vocabulary includes technical words, archaic words, literary allusions or even familiar words used in now obsolete senses. The number of words in a man’s vocabulary is as definite as the number of dollars he has in the bank; equally definite is the number of senses in which a man is able to use any given word. But there is this difference: a man cannot draw upon-the public treasury when his bank-balance is overdrawn, but we can all draw upon the dictionary to get the coin we need to carry on the transaction of reading anything we want to read.

Let me be sure that I am not misunderstood. I am not saying that a dictionary is all you need in order to move anywhere in the realms of literature. There are many problems to be solved, in reading a book well, other than those arising from the author’s vocabulary. And even with respect to vocabulary, the dictionary’s primary service is on those occasions when you are confronted with a technical word or with a word that is wholly new to you — such as “costard” (an apple), or “hontzin” (a South American bird), or “rabato” (a kind of flaring collar). More frequently the problem of interpretation arises because a relatively familiar word seems to be used in a strange sense. Here the dictionary will help, but it will not solve the problem. The dictionary may suggest the variety of senses in which the troublesome word can be used, but it can never determine how the author you are reading used it. That you must decide by wrestling with the context. More often, than not; especially with distinguished writers, the word may be given a special, an almost unique, shade of meaning. The growth of your own vocabulary, in the important dimension of multiple meanings, as well as in mere quantity of words will depend, first of all, upon the character of the books you read, and secondly, upon the use you make of the dictionary as a guide. You will misuse it — you will stultify rather than enlighten yourself — if you substitute the dictionary for the exercise of your own interpretative judgment in reading.

This suggests several other rules as to how not to read a dictionary. There is no more irritating fellow than the man who tries to settle an argument about communism, or justice, or liberty, by quoting from Webster. Webster and all his fellow lexicographers may be respected as authorities on word-usage, but they are not the ultimate founts of wisdom. They are no Supreme Court to which we can appeal for a decision of those fundamental controversies which, despite the warnings of semanticists, get us involved with abstract words. It is well to remember that the dictionary’s authority can, for obvious reasons, be surer in the field of concrete words, and even in the field of the abstract technical words of science, than it ever can be with respect to philosophical words. Yet these words are indispensable if we are going to talk, read, or write about the things that matter most.

Another negative rule is: Don’t swallow the dictionary. Don’t try to get word-rich quick, by memorizing a lot of fancy words whose meanings are unconnected with any actual experience. Merely verbal knowledge is almost worse than no knowledge at all. If learning consisted in nothing but knowing the meanings of words, we could abolish all our courses of study, and substitute the dictionary for every other sort of book. But no one except a pedant or a fool would regard it as profitable or wise to read the dictionary from cover to cover.

In short, don’t forget that the dictionary is a book about words, not about things. It can tell you how men have used words, but it does not define the nature of the things the words name. A Scandinavian university undertook a “linguistic experiment” to prove that human arguments always reduce to verbal differences: Seven lawyers were given seven dictionary definitions of truth and asked to defend them. They soon forgot to stick to the “verbal meanings” they had been assigned, and became vehemently involved in defending or opposing certain fundamental views about the nature of truth. The experiment showed that discussions may start about the meanings of words, but that, when interest in the problem is aroused, they seldom end there. Men pass from words to things, from names to natures. The dictionary can start an argument, but only thought or research can end it.

If we remember that a dictionary is a book about words, we can derive from that fact all the rules for reading a dictionary intelligently. Words can be looked at in four ways:

1. Words are physical things — writable marks and speakable sounds. There must, therefore, be uniform ways of spelling and pronouncing them, though the uniformity is often spoiled by variations.
 
2. Words are parts of speech. Each single word plays a grammatical role in the more complicated structure of a phrase or a sentence. According to the part it plays, we classify it as a certain part of speech — noun or verb, adjective or adverb, article or preposition. The same word can vary in different usages, shifting from one part of speech to another, as when we say “Man the boat” or “Take the jump.” Another sort of grammatical variation in words arises from their inflection, but in a relatively uninflected language like English, we need pay attention only to the conjugation of the verb (infinitive, participle, past tense, etc.), the case of the noun, (singular and plural), and the degree of the adjective (especially the comparative and superlative).
 
3. Words are signs. They have meanings, not one but many. These meanings are related in various ways: Sometimes they shade from one into another; sometimes one word will have two or more sets of totally unrelated meanings. Through their meanings words are related to one another — as synonyms sharing in the same meaning even though they differ in its shading; or as antonyms through opposition or contrast of meanings. Furthermore, it is in their capacity as signs that we distinguish words as proper or common names (according as they name just one thing or many which are alike in some respect); and as concrete or abstract names (according as they point to some thing which we can sense, or refer to some aspect of things which we can understand by thought but not observe through our senses).
 
4. Finally, words are conventional. They mean or signify natural things, but they themselves are not natural. They are man-made signs. That is why every word has a history, just as everything else man makes has a time and place of origin, and a cultural career, in which it goes through certain transformations. The history of words is given by their etymological derivation from original word-roots, prefixes, and suffixes; it includes the account of their physical change, both in spelling and pronunciation; it tells of their shifting meanings, and which among them are archaic and obsolete, which are current and regular, which are idiomatic, colloquial, or slang.

A good dictionary will answer all your questions about words under these four heads. The art of reading a dictionary (as any other book) consists in knowing what questions to ask about words and how to find the answers. I have suggested the questions. The dictionary itself tells you how to find the answers. In this respect, it is a perfect self-help book, because it tells you what to pay attention to and how to interpret the various abbreviations and symbols it uses in giving you the four varieties of information about words. Anyone who fails to consult the explanatory notes and the list of abbreviations at the beginning of a dictionary can blame only himself for not being able to read the dictionary well. Unfortunately, many people fail here, as in the case of other books, because they insist upon neglecting the prefatory matter — as if the author were just amusing himself by including it.

I think these suggestions about how to read, and how not to misuse, a dictionary are easy to follow. But like all other rules they will be followed well only by the man who is rightly motivated in the first place. And, in the last place, they will be wisely applied only by the man who remembers that we are both free and bound in all our dealing with language, whether as writers or readers.

“When, I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Originally published in The Saturday Review of Literature, December 13, 1941.

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