Looking to Dictionaries for Questions as Much as Answers

Anne Curzan

University of Michigan

Dictionaries have immense pedagogical power: They open up some of the most fundamental questions we as instructors often want to address about language authority, language change (semantic change as well as phonological), linguistic diversity, morphology, and the social valences and power of words.

I have never had the opportunity to teach an entire course on dictionaries, but they feature prominently in the first few classes in both my introductory English linguistics course and my History of English course. Students express initial surprise to see dictionaries on the syllabus. What in the world could be interesting enough about dictionaries to merit multiple class days? But once we get started, the questions cascade over each other: How does a new word get into the dictionary? How often do words get taken out? Why isn’t my pronunciation of a word in the dictionary? How does one become a dictionary editor? What do you think of Urban Dictionary? How many words are there in the English language? Why are compounds sometimes written as one word and sometimes two? And the questions keep coming.

The very first thing that we address is the phrase “the dictionary,” which is embedded in some of the questions above. The phrase captures the authority that we give this category of reference works, treating them as if they were equally authoritative and almost timeless. I sometimes send students to the university libraries to see which dictionary is on the pedestal in the reading rooms—and what year it was published. And we read about the history of English language dictionaries, which immediately denaturalizes the idea that a dictionary necessarily should try and include every word in the language. (In different classes I have used chapters from Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything, Kory Stamper’s Word by Word, David Crystal’s The Fight for English, and Sidney Landau’s Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography, among others.) Addressing the phrase “the dictionary” puts on the table key questions about the human hands behind these important, authoritative—yet deeply human and fallible—works.

One of my favorite participatory classroom activities to reinforce the human decisions that lie behind dictionary entries is asking students to decide on the usage labels for taboo or otherwise potentially label-worthy words. I describe the activity more fully in this Lingua Franca post for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Once students have tried their hand at usage labels, they are more highly attuned to the difficulty of capturing in a dictionary definition the social power of words in context—and they become more critical consumers of the labels they find in dictionaries.

As a fun way to engage students in creating definitions, I sometimes ask students to read this delightful New Yorker column “Not a Word” about the made-up word esquivalience in The New Oxford American Dictionary. Adopting the definition format of a standard dictionary that I provide, each student then makes up one word and creates a definition, submitting it alongside two other words they find in that dictionary that they did not know. I compile a list of both real and made-up words for the class and we guess our way through them, talking about what clues in the words or definitions tipped us off that the word might or might not be real. Through this activity, students are paying very close attention to the details of a dictionary’s defining practices.

Students and I dive into the online version of the Dictionary of American Regional English to see how the 2013 American dialect quiz in the New York Times can narrow down where we might be from. The quiz can feel like magic until you see the science behind it. And we look at brilliant experiments with the form of a dictionary, including works like Geneva Smitherman’s Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner and Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s A Feminist Dictionary.

The usage notes in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (available in the online version of the dictionary) can provide excellent fodder for discussion about what counts as “acceptable” or “standard” usage and who gets to decide—as well as changes in those judgments over time (e.g., the growing acceptance of the verb finalize and singular uses of they). Once these questions are on the table, we can use them as a lens for issues that come up in everyday usage. For example, a few years ago I shared with students my own dilemma about whether to “fix” my pronunciation of mischievous in a radio show. I had used a nonstandard but widespread pronunciation of the word (with four syllables), and students and I had a rich conversation about when a nonstandard pronunciation could or should come to be considered standard (a conversation described in more detail here).

Within this historical, critical framework for thinking about dictionaries and their authority, students and I are well equipped to talk about news stories about dictionaries—for example, the news in June 2020 that Merriam-Webster was revising the definition of racism in response to recent college graduate Kennedy Mitchum’s emails making the case for a revision. And by end of our unit on dictionaries, I hope that students in my courses will feel similarly empowered to ask probing questions of dictionaries and their power to legitimize language.