To glimpse how someone thinks words—and the world—work, pay attention to the way they wield a dictionary. People tell on themselves in the midst of arguments when they try to use the Merriam-Webster to inflict blunt force trauma: “The dictionary says…”
But word lovers—as opposed to those who use words as mere tools—know that a dictionary definition is no lead-pipe cinch. The uses, meanings–even spellings–of a word crack, crumble, and expand over the time. This happens for the same reason people change and grow: Because language and words are living things.
Words breathe and sigh and demand. Words shake their fists and speak indirectly and even lie, by omission and commission. Words live; they don’t just sit inert but shape themselves to history and to the hands that wield them.
In my home, we have four English dictionaries; these include: Dorland’s Pocket Medical Dictionary, 23rd edition (1982), which I pulled from a trash bin full of discarded books, vinyl records, and sheet music; The McGraw-Hill Children’s Dictionary we bought a few years ago for my elementary aged children; a 1989 edition of Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, a massive doorstop of a thing. We used to have six or seven, but I jettisoned two paperback dictionaries and a large, hardcover one my state university alumni association used to give out free as a recruitment tool to high school graduates with good test scores.
My own word hoarding didn’t arise from my being a writer or my time spent teaching college composition; the habit preceded the career. Proof of that lies in the dictionary that I’ve used longest.
The New Century Dictionary runs two volumes, bound in hard, dark reddish-brown covers. Published around 1953, it still bears my father’s signature on the inside front cover of the first volume. I can’t remember not having it in our house, and looking up words or just browsing through it are signature images from my childhood. The creamy white sheets that rustle like leaves when I turn the pages remain remarkably intact.
Volume 1 contains the words “A to pocket veto,” and Volume 2 holds “pock-mark to zymurgy,” the latter defined as “that branch of chemistry which deals with the processes of fermentation.” At that moment, in that dictionary, zymurgy constituted—literally—the final word.
But things get missed. In the two volumes, 2,200 pages, and tens of thousands of entries in The New Century Dictionary, published at about the time of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, the word “racism” fails to appear.
No comprehensive dictionary exists, of course; even today’s online versions can’t keep up because language doesn’t stay still. Dictionaries function more like the summary of your annual physical exam. They can only tell you what’s visible and seems significant at a specific moment. They can’t reveal what lies nascent or unmeasured, or what the doctor doesn’t yet know how to explain. They can’t tell which symptoms will be gone tomorrow and which will linger and grow.
Dictionary compilers rely on their sense of convention, on how those editors believe people most often use words. This means dictionaries always end up a certain distance behind what words are actually doing in the world.
We need to understand that the words we read and write are conventional and arbitrary. They don’t spring from nature. We pluck them from breath and imagination and by social consent turn them into currency.
For example, a word in and of it’s self can’t be obscene, which explains why a word in one country can be considered vulgar (“pecker” in the US, “bloody” in Britain) and the same word in the same language in another country is harmless (“pecker” in Britain, “bloody” in the US). Obscene words get their charge and energy from context and history. Even US English and Canadian English, divided only by an imaginary line, have travelled very different journeys that reveal themselves in various differences of spelling and usage.
This happens because words don’t float disembodied through the air, and they don’t act in isolation. Their weight and heft attach to the status of their speakers. From Thomas Paine to Sojourner Truth to Martin Luther King Jr. to Toni Morrison, words that we once denounced as rabble-rousing have come to be revered as visionary.
Words collaborate with other words and actions and in that merging rewrite themselves. They are literally indiscrete: open, permeable, susceptible to the influences of other words, and influencing them in return. A beautiful word can be rendered ugly by the company it keeps, and vice verse. It can begin as more or less neutral, become a slur, then become a label of pride. That is, words can fall and then, sometimes, be redeemed. They unload denotations and connotations with each generation and take on new ones.
They migrate across borders and cultures by car and plane, by train and ship, by letter and tongue. They emigrate and take root and reproduce. They are stolen and exploited and trafficked; they are bought and sold, turned into commodities. They speak and sing and whisper us their stories, if we have the presence of mind to inquire.
In the sing-song philosophy of the school yard, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But these slogans only constitute a way for grown-ups lie to children and deny the power of words to change lives, communities, and entire cultures.
Words have set in motion ultimate acts. (He whistled at me…)
Words have justified the erasure of human lives. (I feared for my life…She wouldn’t comply.)
Words become labels that name the distinctions between murder, accident, justifiable homicide, regrettable incident, hate crime, terrorist act. And these distinctions have life and death consequences. In every legal contest, words battle to determine who best renders the situation under discussion. Those words that succeed in making the greater claim to accuracy and believability win.
So it’s one thing to disagree about definitions; it’s another to try to cut a word off from the way it lives in the world, which you can only know by the way its ripples radiate outward.
I’ve seen this often in those who defend a particular person against charges of being racist or sexist because they’re polite or reasoned or aren’t “hateful” or “emotional” or “violent.” They want to focus on demeanor or intent rather than the effect a person or a policies words have.
But if we shrink racism or sexism to personal hatred or animus, then what will we call the practices and structures that allow racial or gender bias to operate? What name for devaluing and dehumanizing groups of people not because of hatred but just because of the advantages to others that these practices enable? Reasoned books and speeches, court decisions, laws and regulations, policies, and even intended compliments can reinforce stereotypes and prejudices. They can and do diminish the opportunities and humanity of others, deliberately or not.
We know this. And we have to let words to stretch with our understanding. When we refuse to do so, we erase that understanding and experience. We can’t discuss what we won’t name, or what we mis-name to shield ourselves from our responsibility. And what we can’t discuss becomes invisible. Oh, it still exists, but out of sight or hope of solution.
Words don’t stand still. And no dictionary can define all the ways a given word can heal or harm. We’re each responsible for the damage our words do. We have to reckon with the reality that words are powerful, and everything powerful is also dangerous.