Who Needs Dictionaries?/CUT A CHECK

Thomas Paikeday t.paikeday at SYMPATICO.CA
Sat Dec 15 15:50:19 UTC 2001

I realize this is a heretical and slightly schismatic question for a
lexicographer to ask. It has, however, as we all know, been asked since
the incunabula days of Western, esp. English lexicography. In a variant
form, the question is, "Why not just have dictionaries of hard words?"

For example, suppose you don't know what "to cut a check/cheque" means.
This is the assumption on which dictionary usage is based: you look up
words you don't know. To dodge the issue, one claims to be a "native
speaker" who knows such words and phrases from diaper days. Only
learners ask such questions.

I spent a few minutes this morning checking such vade mecums as the
Concise Oxford, the Collegiate, and my own latest User's(r) Webster!
Then I used my personal method of getting meaningS straight from the
horse's mouth, so to say, not in the cud-chewed or abstract form used by
conventional (no offence meant) dictionaries, a method that uses
databases or corpora that provide meaning in context. (OED comes close
to satisfying the need, but that's a different world).

"Google.com" took just 0.64 seconds to display scads of citations. I
think even a "non-native" or "learner" who has passed Grade 7 should be
able to get the meaning from the cites displayed, though not in a
formal, quotable form, as used in a class room. But if you need a formal
definition, can you locate what you want (e.g. cut a check) in a
conventional dictionary? And how long would it take?

The question for me is, which is more important - the medium or the
message? Personally, I'd like to see a dictionary that has more of good
contemporary idiomatic English text and less of the abstract kind of
definitions and which can be searched like Google. In dictionary-making,
text should increase, "definitions" should decrease. End of self-serving


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