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‘The Dictionary’

look it up 2 copyDespite my best efforts, I still catch myself using the phrase “the dictionary,” as in “If you look that word up in the dictionary, you’ll actually find. … ” Or, “I need to look that word up in the dictionary.”

I grew up with “the dictionary.” It was a phrase that I heard at home to refer to several different dictionaries scattered around the house (including a very tattered one that must have been 20 years old by the time my sisters and I were using it), and my parents weren’t fussy about which one we used to settle a word dispute by looking the word up in “the dictionary.” At school, I was told that I could, for example, start an essay by using “the dictionary” to define my key term(s).

Why am I trying not to use that phrase? Because there is no such thing as “the dictionary.” There are widely known dictionaries (e.g., those published by Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, Random House, Oxford). There are unabridged dictionaries and collegiate dictionaries. There are bilingual dictionaries and slang dictionaries and a whole host of other specialized dictionaries.

When we use the phrase “the dictionary,” I think we usually have in mind a “standard” dictionary published by an established publishing house like Merriam-Webster; many of us may not have thought about which version (unabridged, collegiate, etc.) or which edition. But different publishers and editors have different philosophies about selecting and defining words, applying usage labels, handling etymologies, and more. (Kory Stamper makes this point in a terrific editorial about the politics of dictionaries in Sunday’s New York Times.) How a given word is defined can depend on which dictionary you use. And a dictionary is only as up-to-date as its year of publication — although no teacher at any moment in my K-12 or college education asked me to consider the publication date of any dictionary I referred to. (I was going to write “referenced” rather than “referred to,” but “referenced” might suggest that I actually cited the dictionary in the Works Cited, which I never did until I started studying lexicography in graduate school. How many of you have quoted a dictionary definition in a piece of formal writing without including a citation for the dictionary in the references?)

Of course, online dictionaries have changed the nature of looking up words. We can whip out a phone or a laptop rather than track down an actual printed volume. And the first dictionary definition that pops up in the search results may not be from the online version of a well-established dictionary but instead from a not-clearly-identified source such as Google Dictionary.  You can find your way to Merriam-Webster Online or the online American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, among others, but you need to know that those are different from, for example, dictionary.com. As a result, I think that looking a word up in “the dictionary” has, at least for some, come to mean searching for a word’s definition online — and the definition may come from a range of different sources.

(Clear benefits of the new world of online dictionaries: They can be updated much more quickly and regularly than the print versions, and the editors do not have to be as concerned about space constraints in terms of which and how many words to include.)

So what phrasing do I use instead? At the very least, I try to say “a dictionary” or “standard dictionaries” rather than “the dictionary,” and whenever possible I am specific about which dictionary or dictionaries I am referring to. We could argue that the phrase “the dictionary” functions generically in American English like “the hospital” (or in parts of Michigan, “the bar”). It’s possible. It’s also possible that the phrase reflects a notion of a fairly universal dictionary that carries an authority beyond the specifics of any one incarnation of it. In the end, I think there are real benefits to asking ourselves to recognize and think more critically about the differences among dictionaries and about the human decisions and editorial philosophies that go into the process of defining and labeling words in these different reference works — decisions and philosophies that can be obscured by the phrase “the dictionary.”

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