Dictionary Sagacious But Not Bonhomous

Child ReadingI have a good vocabulary, but I am constantly looking up words. For one thing, even when you know words, the definitions are usually fuzzy. People often ask me what a particular words means, and I start babbling. If I don’t know what it means, it is fine. “I don’t know” is one of my all time favorite sentences. But when I do know, oh boy: watch out! And the more basic the word, the harder it is to define. For example: if you try to define “creation” you will almost certainly use the word “create” in the first sentence. “It means something that you create. I mean…”

But if you are the writer of a dictionary, you may very easily define the word: something that is created. This is a very annoying aspect of dictionaries that most of us found exasperating when we were young. It has even created (Ha!) a kind of folklore where the entry on “creation” sends you to the entry on “create.” And there you find, “Create: the process of creation.” I do not know of this ever actually occurring. The writers of dictionaries may be annoying, but they aren’t sadistic.

When I was a kid, I always wondered why dictionaries didn’t just insert the definition of “create” into the definition of “creation.” Suppose that create is defined as “bring into existence.” Rather than define “creation” as “something that has been created,” define it as “something that has been brought into existence.” I think there are two reasons that this is not done. One is that dictionaries are already long enough. It isn’t that big a deal to make the reader look at another entry, which after all, is probably on the same page.

The second reason is more important: words often have a number of different definitions. Which one ought to be chosen? Well, in the case of “create,” all of them. Thus, it is better to send the reader to the entry on “create” and leave it there.

As you can see from this, I’m sympathetic to the creators of dictionaries. But online, the first excuse for this kind of “research project” definition doesn’t make sense. We are not constrained by book size. But the second reason remains — at least with regard to many words like “create.” But it isn’t always true, and it tends not to be true for the more obscure words that people are likely to look up. Take for example, my run in with Google earlier today.

I entered “sagacity define” into Google. And it dutifully spit back: “the quality of being sagacious.” This greatly annoyed me. You see, I already knew pretty much what both “sagacity” and “sagacious” meant. And I knew they didn’t have lots of different meanings like “create” and “creation.” For the record “sagacious” means “of keen and farsighted penetration and judgment.” So Google could have provided a better definition of “sagacity.” Perhaps: “having keen and farsighted penetration and judgment”?

If you go to Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, you get the definition, “the quality of being sagacious.” Yes, I know; it is the same. Well, almost. Because at least it makes that would “sagacious” a link to their definition of sagacious. And that is really what you would think is the least they could do. But as we know from Google, at the very least, they could do even less.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *