“He insisted upon the precision of words, and I have kept faith with him.”
I used to love the dictionary. Whenever there was a disagreement about meaning, it could be whipped out and used authoritatively, even in the midst of conversations where I would proudly dismiss arguments from authority.
It seemed to be infallible. Who could argue with what words mean when we have a book, revised and updated, to inform precisely and without error.
I had a small inkling something was wrong when the word “atheist” came up. Normally this would come around because my understanding was that the ‘a’ prefix negated the ‘theism’ suffix, simply denoting that I or whomever was decidedly not a theist.
Examples from dictionaries would be presented, some with the inappropriate “belief there is no god” definition which I so vehemently reject. Where the dictionary properly denoted “a lack of or disbelief in a God or gods” we’d go down a sinkhole of discussing that “to lack” something implies there is something to lack, etc etc..
Now these issues stem not so much from atheism in particular, but more from trying to define ideological standpoints using the common corpus. Dictionaries, if you don’t know, take their definitions from common usage. Which seems logical, but when people define their ideologies they tend to oversimplify.
Take Feminism as an example as it’s the one which tipped me off that the corpus isn’t sufficient. Feminism in practice is the active pursuit of rights and privileges for women, based on the belief that women have fewer or lesser rights compared to that of men. A common refrain being “but men already have all the rights”.
Now this is often written in softer language when people say what they mean by “I’m a feminist”, consequently the dictionary definition (and I will rarely use anything other than the British Oxford as a standard) is given as “The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”. In less rigid dictionaries, ones with a wider corpus, this becomes the oversimplified “Equal rights for men and women” which I’m sure you can agree has lost many of the implicit nuance of the original.
Under this lax definition one could argue that wanting equal rights for men is “feminism” but that is quite counter to the spirit of feminism in its proper usage.
One needs to look further than the dictionary for these types of words, yet the dictionary itself will not tell you this. Whilst dictionary makers are quick to note that they produce the books for descriptive rather than prescriptive reasons, they stop short of implying that the common usage may differ from the meaning in any particular circumstances.
You may have seen simpler examples of words not being made definite and distinct (i.e. being defined) but quite the contrary. “Literally” is the most obvious one. Language often changes over time, which is natural, yet some changes are a hard u-turn. When common usage is uniformed or uneducated as to the proper meaning, we can end up in a world where the second definition for “Literally” can be “Not literally” and this way.. madness lies.
Other examples have probably slipped you by. “Ironically” used to require the ironic saying or situation to be performed on purpose. That the irony stemmed from the willful inversion of expectations. Now it is more commonly used to describe situations of chance where items of context are coincidentally related. A rather unironic state to be describing. Which itself would be ironic if “irony” here were being used ironically, which sadly isn’t the case.
Anothet pitfall of dictionary worship is to take what someone says and to argue a strawman because you think what they mean is what the dictionary tells you they mean.
To pull back towards our starting point, when someone refers to themselves as “agnostic” arguments abound as to the difference between belief and knowledge and that the speaker should properly call themselves an “atheist”. Whilst true, the conversation has been derailed by a misapplied label, and the point the speaker was trying to convey is lost amid the shouting match which ensues.
In this day and age, where labels are now thrown at people to silence them, it becomes necessary for me to stop many a conversation in order to either inform people that I mean precisely what I say and not the baggage you have attached to a label, and conversely for dictionary addicts to ask the important questions as to why people associate with the labels they have applied *before* attacking the strawman in their minds and wondering why the conversion doesn’t go anywhere.
With this in mind, please go forth and use words as properly as you can. If you’re a feminist because you want equal rights, please consider using the more appropriate “Egalitarian”, and if I tell you that because I’m an Egalitarian, and that, because men have fewer rights than women in my country, I am “an advocate of men’s rights”, please don’t assume that by some sinkhole wordplay, I am somehow a misogynist.
(and for God’s sake OED, don’t one day define Islam as “the religion of peace”)