by definition

There is nothing so crucial or so frustrating to a language student as the dictionary. When I was a Korean student we used the Shi-Sa dictionaries (both English-Korean and Korean-English — and believe me, you can’t make do with just one or the other), which were certainly adequate. But often we felt a certain mistrust toward these, our chief tools of independent linguistic thought — the only means by which we could, sometimes, break free from the apron-strings tethering us to our teachers. Trying to strike out on our own, writing and saying new things, we would patiently look up all the words we didn’t know, only to be greeted with quizzical looks from our Korean instructors. We would tell them what we were trying to say, and they would throw their heads back and nod vigorously and tell us how to say it right. After a while we got used to the first word listed inevitably being the wrong one, the least common and thorniest usage. The art of being a Korean linguist became the art of knowing which of the several definitions after that — the second, or third, or fifth — was just right for your meaning.

About halfway through the course, I discovered the following note glued into the back flap of my English-Korean dictionary:

Based on COMPREHENSIVE ENGLISH-JAPANESE DICTIONARY under copyright arrangements with Obunsha

For a long time I assumed that this went some distance toward explaining the clumsiness of usage which the dictionary often seemed to display: it was at one remove from a direct interface between the two languages; of course mistakes would be made. And this indeed may be true in that case — possible Shi-Sa let a lot of the important scholarship slide in the creation of their English-korean dictionary, relying on well-known matches between Korean and Japanese rather than diligently seeking out the best Korean meaning for each English word.

But by far the nicest (in all the best senses) dictionary I’ve ever worked with, in any language, including English, is the Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic which, as the name suggests, was originally compiled by a German, in German, and then ported into English by J. Milton Cowan. (Cowan, in his introduction to the first English edition (1960), mentions the following politically, though not linguistically, revealing fact: “This task was considerably lightened and hastened by generous financial support from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Arab American Oil Company, and Cornell University.”)

“Hans Wehr,” as we familiarly call it, is a masterwork of scholarship, a work of such patient excellence and astonishing usefulness that those of us in Arabic studies can only marvel and be grateful. It sets out, in clear and simple form, every Arabic root (جذر) and its attendant permutations (the اوزان) — usually the first ten measures, minus the ninth — followed by the standard noun of the verb (sometimes, but not always, the مصدر), followed by all the words — nouns, adjectives, and occasionally adverbs — made by adding prefixes and postfixes to the various measures. Many times in my (now ten-month) experience as an Arabic student, I have been stumped in looking up a word in Hans Wehr — but almost always this was a result of either misspelling the word or not knowing some peculiarity of the behavior of the word (there are a very few words which infix ط in the middle of a root, for no reason my teacher can explain). And it has never failed me in terms of usage — the first definition listed is generally the one I’m looking for, and the one I’m looking for is always there somewhere. Hans Wehr is diligent, complete, nearly perfect.

It is, in fact, so complete that the administrators of the Ft. Lewis Language Center at first didn’t think we’d need an English-to-Arabic dictionary. We complained loudly, and dictionaries were soon purchased. But perhaps Herr Wehr and Mr. Cowan, having spent themselves in great and invaluable labor between 1952 and 1979 on the complete transformation of Arabic into German and then English, were in no wise ready to attempt the arduous return journey.

And so when we finally got our English-Arabic dictionaries, we were saddled with the Concise Oxford English-Arabic Dictionary. I don’t want to knock Oxford too hard — I hear some fairly good scholars have passed through there, and I guess they have nice grounds. Maybe they didn’t have the funding from Aramco. Anyway, the Oxford is something of a disappointment. It is, no doubt, “concise.” But it is nearly the same weight as Hans Wehr, yet feels far less substantive. It is not only that Hans Wehr and J.M. Cowan can give, often, a dozen or more subtle gradations of meaning for each single word (I am not referring to roots here), while Oxford contents itself with 2 or 3. The Oxford manages to feel simultaneously fussy and slapdash, as though it were written for or by some ancient don oblivious to current (say, later than WW II) English usage. And some entries are simply puzzling in their incompleteness.

The fussiness, though unbecoming in a dictionary, may simply reflect a desire not to offend. But this is the wrong kind of “niceness,” a willful and frankly unscientific denial of linguistic realities in order to spare readers’ presumed delicacy. We can, perhaps, argue whether the first entry under “smut” should be “a bit of dirt” (#1 in Oxford) or “indecent talk” (#2) — personally I’m inclined to guess modern usage would relegate “bit of dirt” to a less prominent place, but this can be debated.

But why “indecent talk“? Surely “indecent materials” or some such general definition would be better here. Moreover, under “smutty 1.(dirty),” the first entry has to do, bizarrely, with air or weather conditions — is that really the most common use of “smutty,” even in the sense of “dirty”?

And even if we choose, as scholars do, to disagree over such ambiguities, surely we can all agree that the most common use of the word “butt” is not “cask“? I am not asking for a sexual or anatomical definition here (though there’s no question that’s the one that would be looked up most frequently), but merely the general definition “end,” or, as Oxford has it in the #2 slot, “thick end.” #3, by the way, is “object of ridicule,” which I would also think more common than “cask.” Unless we are, oh, say, Arab hobbits, stopping for the night at a shady tavern, what is the likelihood that we will be looking for this definition of “butt”? Has this really been in common usage anytime in the past forty or fifty years?

There is prudishness here, but also slovenly, slatternly scholarship. The problem is not confined to the “naughty” words — they’re just the ones it’s most disappointing not to be able to use. Consider this entry:

conviction n.
1.(finding guilty) إدانا

2.(persuasion) إقناع، اقتناع

3.(belief) عقيدة، إيمان

I have no particular trouble with the priority of the legal term here, although I would be tempted to put “belief” ahead of “persuasion.” But we are missing a crucial definition, one not adequately covered by “belief” (عقيدة) — namely, fidelity to a belief, which is quite different. It is one thing to say, “It is my conviction that…” and quite another to say, “I don’t agree with him, but I admire his conviction.” In the first case, we are indeed talking about a belief, but in the second case we can’t possibly be. The Arabic word we want here, by the way, is مبدأ.

One could argue that this is merely a space problem — that, in order to keep the dictionary “concise,” the editors felt it necessary to sacrifice certain (in their view) less common or less useful definitions. But they found room for (under “girl-friend”) a definition of “Girl Guides,” a definition of “elevenses” (betraying another problem with the dictionary: an enormous bias toward UK English — perhaps understandable given the source, but oddities of the English class system creep in, too: the first definition given for gentle is not “kind, not rough,” but “well-born”) and, most annoyingly, “au,” which is not an English word at all, but quite properly French. (And yes, I know, it is used in English writing — but always, always in a French phrase, such as “au jus” or “au courant,” in which case “au” is of far less concern than its partner word.)

It’s not a terrible dictionary. It often serves. But between its seemingly lazy construction and its tiny print, it can often be wearying and not terribly useful as we cautiously attempt to blaze our own linguistic paths without the guidance of teachers.

On the other hand, the concept of the “perfect reference work” is slippery and perilous. The idea of trying to pick out what is or is not appropriate in a supposedly authoritative source has been getting more attention recently with the advent of Wikipedia. To be fair to the big W — which I use every day, sometimes ten or twelve times a day — the people in charge of it strive for impartiality, or, more accurately (and, as they call it) neutrality. This sometimes leads to oddities, such as this fairly innocuous and factual article being tagged for inaccuracy, because partisans on one side or the other of the Shi’a/Sunni split can’t stand having both sides presented. (Here is a long and fruitless squabble amongst the member-editors.)

But the striving for impartiality doesn’t work very well on subjects of great controversy or emotional intensity, as the above troubled article demonstrates. Ultimately, the impartial, user-edited encyclopedia works best for factual, undisputed subjects about which a great deal of information is available, like rainbows and potato salad — that is to say, subjects for which an authoritative source is hardly lacking, or else hardly required. For an evolving, interactive encyclopedia like Wikipedia to have a chance of coming to any conclusion of utility on a subject of controversy, the administrators must eventually bring their authority down on one side or the other of a debate — at least to the extent of disallowing certain debaters who can’t play by the rules of “neutrality.”

So while I do love reading the Wiki, while I find it useful and informative about many things, I can’t help feeling a certain twinge, a certain suspicion that the whole game of neutrality and democratic edition, while not futile, while honorable, is often more frustrating than helpful.

Another excellent, but much zanier, web resource is, which is nearly as encompassing as Wikipedia, but far less contentious. Partly this has to do with the pressure of being “the standard” — Wikipedia is under the lens as the singular web-based encyclopedia, and so must present itself as scholarly and reliable. In this it may be a victim of its own success. E2, on the other hand, is free to make mistakes and be wrong-headed as it likes, because no one takes it seriously. The advantage of this is that ideologues rarely devote a great deal of time making sure their viewpoint is well-represented (let alone victorious) on E2. It becomes, therefore, more of a hobbyist’s endeavor, ensuring that people tend to write about the things they love, not the things they hate. This makes for, at the very least, a less argumentative environment.

But perhaps more importantly, the creators of E2 have figured out a more democratic, more pluralistic, and less antagonizing structure in which writers can express themselves than the Wikipedia one-article-many-editors format. E2 articles are displayed as “nodes”; each node is given a title: say, “Islam,” or “cannibalism” or “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Then in a given node, individual contributions (“writeups”) are displayed chronologically. The result is not a single, “encyclopedic” article of authority, created by God knows how many anonymous editors, but a discussion, presenting a variety of viewpoints, occasionally disagreeing, but most often complementary. These viewpoints may or may not be expert, and a major downside of E2 is that links are generally to other articles within it, giving few outide references. But it is amiable and discursive, showing us the process of thought on a given subject, rather than presenting an anonymous final product.

This node on Philip K. Dick, for example, starts with a very short and generic item from 1999, onto which were added writeups on various small details of Dick’s work and life, including some in the nature of personal speculation, until, in July of 2001, “JerboaKolinowski” appears to have written a fairly complete and seemingly definitive writeup, which includes some pertinent biographical facts but is mostly a literary appreciation and bibliography. And since then, the node appears to have lain dormant, but in time will probably be modified, as this node on A Scanner Darkly has been, to note the production of the film of that novel. And on it goes.

Also, no “noder” can simply come into a node and start deleting portions of someone else’s work. He or she is free to refute or debate a point, but writeups either stand as they are or are deleted by the administrators, sometimes upon request. The administrators use both their own discretion and a public “voting” system to determine whether a writeup will be deleted. But their discretion is generally not on ideological lines (there are enough editors to keep any one from abusing his authority), and the culture of E2 itself is based more on good writing and important ideas than on accuracy of content. Noders are encouraged to write a Node for the Ages — meaning, swing for the fences in terms of literary quality. Nobody asks Mark Twain why he’s not always accurate. This is not to say a writeup won’t be “nuked” for lack of scholarship, but they are much more frequently zapped for lack of formatting, poor grammar, redundancy (“Getting to Know You” nodes), or sheer irrelevance.

As for the voting system, members vote writeups “up” or “down” depending on their response to it; a lot of “downvotes” won’t necessarily get your writeups deleted, but up and down votes do have an impact on your “XP,” a sort of measure of your prestige and authority on E2. Higher XP do get you more privileges on the site, so heavy downvoting can hurt you personally, but — here is the key — your words will stand until an editor/administrator chooses to remove them, whole, from E2. Other members can’t edit or cut your words.

By not being an encyclopedia or website of record, E2 also allows for a whole range of writing which can’t be considered scholarly — subjects ranging from “Guys who play guitar to get girls” to “Correcting the gravity on my Yoda Figure,” and a few that can’t even be considered writing. This may seem to trivialize the whole project, but in fact it is surprisingly easy to tell the serious, factual nodes from the personal or silly ones, and to use each according to its intent. Reading E2 is less like reading an excellent reference book and more like wandering through a bookstore, in which one may thumb through references, personal recollections, magazines, books of short stories, joke books, and any other thing one finds interesting, without prejudice.

But apart from the pleasure of reading in this way (which was the original pleasure of the Web, before it fell under the control of advertising and media conglomerations), this haphazard approach to subject leads to nodes of genuine encyclopedic value which nonetheless would probably never appear on Wikipedia — at least, not as a stand-alone article. I like Things that catch fire in The Simpsons for no reason, Things to help mosquito bites, and Arcade games with female protagonists — all of which, by the way, are in a chain of links, one to the other. Try finding a chain like that on good old Wiki.

Finally, one shouldn’t ignore good old-fashioned, personally-biased collections of information, either. (definitely NOT SAFE FOR WORK), for example, is primarily known as a clearinghouse for all that is distasteful and gross on the internet, including photos of autopsies, crime scenes, and charnel-house disasters of every stripe. I personally have little interest in or stomach for these kinds of things, but we should note that there’s a sharp, politically aware, and playful intelligence lurking behind the gross-out morbidity. For one thing, the mind or minds behind the site distinguish between disasters and freak occurrences, which they do sometimes exploit for the sake of gratifying curiosity, and atrocities committed by human beings against other human beings, which they take quite seriously.

A willingness to look at everything without flinching is probably necessary for at least some arm of society, and the people behind Rotten fill that role. They are completely unafraid to show us the more disturbing images from Abu Ghraib, and they slyly, unpedantically call attention to differences in nutrition between rich and poor nations in the caption accompanying these pictures of goiters. And by inoculating themselves against horror as a doctor must in the plague wards, they are often able to look squarely at other kinds of reality, too, without resorting to superstition or doublespeak. And thus I find the completely partial and decidedly non-neutral Rotten Library a useful kind of reference as well.

Granted, the articles in the Rotten Library are rarely (if ever) footnoted, and the subjects addressed are hardly encyclopedically covered. The entry on Russia, for example, has a table of contents as follows:

Ivan The Terrible
Russia is an atomic power.
Invaded by Napoleon
Invaded by Adolf Hitler
KGB and the rise of the Oligarchs
Andrei Chikatilo
Ayn Rand
Saint Petersburg

This is, obviously, neither exhaustive nor systematic, but it is a good record of the personal fascinations of the author. Certain themes appear again and again in the Library: a disgust for torture and brutality, disillusionment with the insincerity of the world’s governments, an apparent bemusement with and sympathy for both individual and government agents of violence (see their article on the Randy Weaver incident), an undeniable and aggressive prejudice against Christian beliefs, a gleeful willingness to indulge low-evidence, high-trans-fat conspiracy theories, and, perhaps above all, a dedication to freedom of expression that borders on the lunatic, yet strikes one as less smarmy and self-serving that the lip service paid it by sleazemongers like Larry Flynt. (For the record, Rotten appears to manage its own porn service,, as a means of funding its more esoteric and literary activity. Links to Pornopolis are neither particularly hidden nor aggressively promoted.)

The free speech angle is most amusingly handled in the “Legal” section, a collection of letters in which various organizations and individuals have threatened legal action, usually because of images posted on the site. My favorite is a letter from Coca-Cola insisting that a picture of a woman with a Coke bottle in her anus violated the company’s trademark rights over the distinctive bottle shape. The letter also adds, in what amounts to putting a “kick me” sign on one’s own back,

We also note that you have received several letters like this relating to past trademark violations, and that you have posted many of those letters on your website. We ask that you respect our copyright in this letter… and that you not post this letter on your website.

The upshot of this highly personal, idiosyncratic approach to what must nonetheless be described as an encyclopedic project is that the whole thing becomes a fusion of well-researched reference and satiric fiction. Yet precisely because the attitude of the project as a whole is so obviously subjective and literary, I often have just as much confidence in an individual fact or “fact” on Rotten as I do on Wikipedia. This is because the writers are smart enough to know that correct facts sharpen the satire, while unsupported theorizing can dull it. They also seem to be consistent in their use of satire to engage, not merely tickle, their readers.

So, for example, in an article on date rape, the author starts off citing a real study by the NPD Group purporting to show that being overweight is now considered acceptable and even sexy, uses it as launching pad to rant about how standards have fallen so low that anyone ought to be able to have sex without resorting to coercion (“[T]here’s never been a better time in American history for the average shitheel schmuckleberry to go out there and just get laid“), calls for a moment of sympathy and attention for those who are still too shy or too weird to get it on, digresses into a patently weird attempt to retell the story of Ham and Noah as a date rape tale, cites actual research on the subject of rape to suggest that it is buried in male psychology as a last-ditch reproductive strategy, gives a brief description of a real-life vagina dentata designed to deter rape as well as an argument against its use, then goes on to catalog, quite factually, the various date rape drugs (including alcohol) and their effects, ostensibly because “there might be legitimate, real world reasons why you’ve got no game with the ladies.” The article ends by obliquely calling out various rich and famous rapists and mentioning devices women can use to protect themselves from being drugged. The whole article is accompanied by exploitative images of women passed out and, occasionally, being fondled.

What’s interesting about the article is that its entire mode is facetious; by and large it seems to support rape, giving out friendly hints on how to go about it; and yet its facts (especially about date rape drugs) are so careful and correct that it can easily serve as a fine anti-rape seminar. Which, in fact, it is. In a similar way, the accompanying pictures remind us, uncomfortably, that a nontrivial percentage of the internet’s cottage industry in amateur porn is probably predicated on an inability to consent. (Don’t believe it? Try Googling “drunk college girls” and see what you come up with.)

In short, a highly personal site which neither claims nor strives for objectivity, by sheer virtue of being meticulous literature, winds up becoming a great reference tool as well. There is in this, surely, something of an antidote to too much Wikiness.

Which brings us back to the Oxford. (Remember the Oxford?) The problem with the Oxford is not that it is subjective in its interests. The problem is that its subjectivity manifests itself as a desire to remove or ignore certain obvious facts, whereas Rotten’s subjectivity manifests itself in a desire to make room for facts and subjects often ignored by the rest of the world. Oxford’s subjectivity (if, indeed, it is such, and not mere laziness, that contributes to the dictionary’s bizarre errors and omissions) seeks to control reality by limiting the available number of facts, while Rotten’s literary strategy is to use as many facts as possible to structure arguments, often through the mechanics of satire, about the nature of reality.

And in this, nearly all the experimental online, multi-authored reference works show themselves to be seeking alternatives to the previous state of knowledge, in which experts controlled the flow of information and thereby attempted to define reality. (Reality is often a bit of a stubborn player, which is why you can’t define away gravity, but on many other subjects it’s a good deal more flexible.) Wiki attempts to create singular, definitive articles by committee; on any subject that really matters this will involve some refereeing, but it also means that ideas of the minority can be absorbed and incorporated. E2 has chosen a more radical system of public refereeing, while allowing definitions to be pluralistic and heterogeneous and even wrong if the public doesn’t disapprove of them. Rotten, on yet a third front, has chosen to give full voice to individual idiosyncracies in its definitions and explanations, yet manages to maintain a high level of credibility due to its writers’ scrupulousness about individual facts. Possibly none of these approaches is the last word, and that is part of the point — knowledge, like language, is fluid, and those who give it the widest channel in which to flow serve it best. Hans Wehr is better than the Oxford scholars not only because he is more precise and thorough, but because he is more generous, less tied to a single outcome.

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One Response to by definition

  1. Cher says:

    Oy. The camel insists on writing inductively.Interesting about the dictionaries. The Oxford is probably constrained by a certain Oxbridgeness. And a certain English semantic horizon. Curious that, as English is the most widespread language in the world. The loss of Empire seems to have resulted in semantic myopia. They think they invented the word "curry" too. Still the difference to user of said dictionary must be enormous.I think, from my own Anglophile, pedantic POV, that they have tried to give the oldest, or most concrete example first. A butt is a cask. Butt as ass is more of an Americanism. The Brits use arse or bum, depending on crudity level. And one must consider what the editors concieved of as the dictionary’s purpose, probably for literary and diplomatic translation. I am guessing here. But the Oxford dictionary of almost anything has a certain prestige, and so may not consider itself concerned with slang.That is not to argue with the Camel. I have no Arabic and have only deeply translated Old English into modern English in an academic setting, in which slang, or at least a lot of it, wasn’t appreciated.The essay raises points about translation which trouble anyone involved in it. I teach literature in a global context which means nearly everything we read is in translation or in an Anglophone dialect which sometimes requires translation. We are not reading, especially in poetry, the work the author wrote, but we pretend to. It makes me uncomfortable. But the trade off is to lose most of the great literature of the modern and ancient world, a bad bargain in any terms.As for wikipedia. I don’t like it. The entries seem too superficial. But I am an old woman who likes paper books better than electronic ones and really misses the card catalog sometimes. Not that hypertext isn’t just a variation on the card catalog, or an excellently cross-referenced bibiliography. E2 I was unaware of (syntax there?) but will look into it further. The profusion of reference material and the development of it sometimes overwhelms me. I think I welcome the democratization of the process. And yet. And yet, as I tell my students, any idiot with a modem can put something on the Internet. I was brought up in a university system where credentials count for something. I’ve known some indepent scholars, too, who knew more than the credentialled experts. The issue really remains that the user is thus forced to become an expert of sorts before the fact. Young students don’t have the experience or the inclination to cross check sources. So does the Internet spread ignorance, or contribute to it in some way for those unlike the Camel, who obviously does the harder work of fact checking and thinking?

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