Dictionaries Janet DeCesaris Spring 2021


Janet DeCesaris

As I begin the first installment of what I hope to be many for the DSNA Newsletter, I would like to thank the Newsletter’s editor, David Jost, for giving me this opportunity to write about dictionary-related topics in a more personal fashion than that usually afforded by academic presentations. In this and the columns to follow, I hope to comment on features about dictionaries that I have found to be particularly interesting over the years, as well as provide interviews with people who have worked in our field.

I have met many of the Newsletter’s readers at DSNA meetings, which I started attending in 2003, and for those of you who do not know me this is probably what you need to know: I am originally from the Washington, D.C. area and studied linguistics and Spanish at Georgetown University and then at Indiana University; I taught Spanish at Rutgers University before moving to Barcelona, Spain in 1987; and, I have taught English and translation at the undergraduate level and morphology and lexicography at the graduate level at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona since 1993. Much of what I think about dictionaries is a result of my life experience of needing to write in English, Spanish, and Catalan, and of my academic interest in the structure of words.

One of the features of American desk dictionaries that I have always found interesting is their treatment of synonyms. Synonyms are often part of dictionary entries, especially those for adjectives. Several American dictionaries include lists of synonyms, often with discussion of nuances of meaning, at the end of an article; current American dictionaries that do this are those published by Merriam-Webster (both the Collegiate and the Unabridged, although the information listed in each is not the same) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Discussion of synonyms is a feature of The Century Dictionary, a dictionary for which my admiration only grows. I would like to take a look at this practice of discussing synonyms in two dictionaries from the mid-20th century, The American College Dictionary (first published in 1947) and Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition (first published in 1953). My interest in lists of synonyms, or “synonymies” (as termed in Webster’s New World Dictionary) arose when I realized that most dictionaries of Spanish I had consulted did not include this sort of listing, and in fact, some British dictionaries of current English such as the Collins English Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English do not include them, either. Synonymy in some lexicographic traditions, I gather, is dealt with in a separate reference work and not in a general-purpose dictionary.

The front matter of The American College Dictionary has a two-page essay on synonyms and antonyms by Miles L. Hanley (1893-1954), who was Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at the time of publication.  The essay is insightful with respect to the lexicographers’ thinking behind determining which synonyms to identify and discuss; so often in dictionary research we can only see the final result and are at a loss for information on the decision-making process responsible for that result. The essay touches on several points in semantic research in the context of dictionary production that are still relevant today and especially important: (1) the relationship between the frequency of use of a word and its range of meanings, and (2) synonymy generally occurs at the level of sense and rarely at the level of word. I often recommend this essay to my translation students because it succinctly lays forth the issues in word meaning that make identifying equivalents across language so hard. Of course, this dictionary was based upon the material in The Century Dictionary, so it is not surprising that it included synonym discussions. Here is an example of a synonym discussion from The American College Dictionary, for the headword ‘beautiful’:

beau·ti·ful [pronunciation], adj. having beauty; delighting the eye; admirable to the taste or the mind. —beau’ti·ful·ly, adv. —beau’-ti·ful·ness, n.

–Syn. Beautiful, handsome, lovely, pretty refer to a pleasing appearance. That is beautiful which has perfection of form, color, etc., or noble and spiritual qualities: a beautiful landscape, girl (not man). Handsome often implies stateliness or pleasing proportion and symmetry: a handsome man. That which is lovely is beautiful but in a warm and endearing way: a lovely smile. Pretty implies a moderate but noticeable beauty, esp. in that which is small or of minor importance: a pretty child.

I wonder if lexicographers today would choose the same examples.

Webster’s New World Dictionary includes a brief explanation of “The Synonymies” as the final section to its ‘Guide to the Dictionary.’ This explanation, because it is a part of the guide to using the dictionary and not a separate essay in the front matter, does not address broader issues of semantics, unlike Hanley’s essay. Rather, it takes the user through an example (that for ‘happy’) and explains how the information should be read. The synonymies in this dictionary are often longer than those in The American College Dictionary; compare this quite detailed synonymy for ‘beautiful’ with that given above:

beau·ti·ful [pronunciation], adj. having beauty.

The beautiful, 1. That which has beauty; the quality of beauty. 2. Those who are beautiful.

SYN.–beautiful is applied to that which gives the highest degree of pleasure to the senses or to the mind and suggests that the object of delight approximates one’s conception of an ideal; lovely refers to that which delights by inspiring affection or warm admiration; handsome implies attractiveness by reason of pleasing proportions, symmetry, elegance, etc. and carried connotations of masculinity, dignity, or impressiveness; pretty implies a dainty, delicate, or graceful quality in that which pleases and carries connotations of femininity or diminutiveness; comely applies to persons only and suggests a wholesome attractiveness of form and features rather than a high degree of beauty; fair suggests beauty that is fresh, bright, or flawless and, when applied to persons, is used especially of complexion and features; good-looking is closely equivalent to handsome or pretty, suggesting a pleasing appearance but not expressing the fine distinctions of either word; beauteous, equivalent to beautiful in poetry and lofty prose, is now often used in humorously disparaging references to beauty.

This synonym discussion is not only longer than that in The American College Dictionary, it is also longer than those in both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and American Heritage, the synonym discussions of which discuss beautiful, lovely, handsome, pretty, comely, and fair (though the words are not presented in the same order in each dictionary; the order here is that used by Merriam-Webster).

Synonym discrimination in a dictionary primarily aimed at native speakers is, I think, a feature mainly designed to help users in production tasks. Although the type of information included in synonym discussions is useful in text comprehension, I would argue that knowing the nuances of meaning associated with a particular sense is essential to encoding the language, whether in writing or in speaking. Given that dictionaries for adult native speakers have traditionally been characterized as being tools for language decoding as opposed to language encoding, the lexicographers who thought to include synonym discussions were forerunners of the very modern trend–usually, and perhaps unfairly, attributed to corpus-based learner’s lexicography–of making dictionaries tools for both text comprehension and text production. Very impressive work, indeed.

Note that in the example from the American College Dictionary the synonyms are in small capital letters, not italics.