Fools’ Money (1): Big Swinging Dictionary

Words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a Thomas, or any other doctor whatsoever, if but a man.

Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan*

Speakers and Writers: Going to the dictionary doesn’t help your argument unless your argument is about what’s in the dictionary.**

If a whole load of people use a word a particular way, demonstrating that that’s not how it’s defined in the dictionary is does nothing to ‘correct’ the usage – in fact, a well maintained dictionary will be soon be updated to reflect the popular use.***

Etymology is fascinating and often illuminating,**** but never in a “So now you know what this word really means,” kind of way. It doesn’t prove anything.

Instead, the definition of a word – if used at all – should be used to establish common ground: “Here’s what people generally mean by this, as a basis for our conversation,” and etymology should be offered as a kind of lens: “Here’s a fruitful way to think about the matter in hand,” or “Here’s an angle that might offer a path out of the rut we’ve fallen into.”

You can’t buy us off with a quotation, or a definition, or a little sideshow about how the distant ancestor of an item of our vocabulary might have been been used a bit differently by our distant ancestors. These are beginnings rather than endings, ways of introducing counters to be used in conversation rather than as arguments in their own right.

Definitions are cheap – don’t expect us to be persuaded just because you’re waving your dictionary around.

*Best quoted with your tongue firmly in your cheek.
**By all means refer to me as an authority on this.
***This is doubly the case with spelling, if you’ll accept the coin of the Oxford English Dictionary. There are no correct spellings, not really – only more and less helpful ones in different contexts.
****See, for example, decision / precision / homicide.*****
*****I recommend footnotes avoiding the first, increasing the second, and inviting the third.

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