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Elitism in online dictionaries

  • 27 March 2012

'Words, words between the lines of age,' sings Neil Young. His bittersweet song about relationships makes us dwell on how words that are meant to say everything are still just words. Sometimes they are all we have, and we try to say it the best way we can. We do not always succeed, and that is not just because of the words. But we will go on trying, we are all caught up in the daily traffic of words.

The lyric also reminds us that words themselves are born, alter, age, transmute, and even die. Their meaning shifts through time and may have a completely different — need I say awesomely different — meaning between age groups, regions, times and educations.

This has never been truer than in the case of 21st century English, the lingua franca of the planet. The sheer variety and vitality of usage across every continent by those for whom English is first, second, third, even 23rd language brings us rather too quickly to the whole matter of meaning.

Meaning is a service of online dictionaries, but not always their forte. Meaning is what online dictionaries purport to supply, but how thoroughly and deeply depends on the purposes of their makers. Meaning is the aim of dictionaries, but whose meaning? And when were the definitions created?

Thoughts like this fizzed in my mind each time I visited Merriam-Webster, which was for a time the main internet dictionary through a process of availability, popularity, and algorithms. Samuel Johnson famously defined oats as 'a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people'. Merriam-Webster was not so susceptible to prejudice and gave short, straightforward definitions that were simple fare indeed.

Merriam-Webster now seems to have gone the way of all business, so we turn to The Free Dictionary (American Heritage and Collins) which gives four definitions for oats, no history, and unhelpful links to muesli websites.

Better in this regard is dictionary.com (Random House) with six definitions and history of origins, including 'sowing of wild oats', the kind reported frequently in James Boswell's journals and studiously overlooked by his friend Johnson. But in none of these are we given an idea of which usages are the