Friday, January 9, 2009

You Too Can Improve Your Vocabulary (More Blogs I Follow)

Confessions of Ignorance is another gem of a blog. Its author, Seana Graham, took to heart what your English professors constantly harped on--if you don't know what a word means when you encounter it, look it up.

Seana is a bookseller in Santa Cruz, California and quite the prolific blogger. Not only does she manage four of her own blogs, but she is a frequent contributor to other blogs.

Some of her recent vocabularic explorations are: shibboleth, infamy, scintilla, paean, and synecdoche. Confessions always makes for interesting reading, because often when I think I know a word, I find out I don't quite have it. It's a shock to the literary system when you take the time to look up a familiar word and realize that you haven't always used it correctly.

Also, Seana's blog has reinforced the cold, hard truth that deriving meaning by "context" doesn't work all the time. It's no substitute for cracking the Webster's.


Nate Green said...

Let me ask you this:

At what point does a misused word change its meaning? If we're all commonly "misusing" a word in the same way, doesn't that mean the dictionary needs to be updated?

For instance, the overwhelming majority of people use the phrase "to beg the question" to mean "to raise a question" even though that's really not its literal, dictionary definition. But nearly everyone understands the popular use of it.

So is it better to use words (and phrases) as established by Webster, or is it better to use them how they're understood popularly for more effective communication?

Brian O'Rourke said...

All good points, Nater.

As it turns out, I think I've been using "to beg the question" incorrectly after all these years.

I don't know if it's "better" to use words as they're established by a dictionary or by popular understanding. Words and their definitions are inescapably arbitrary. I'd make the case that everything must ultimately be defined in terms of "being," but why does "being" mean "being"? At some point, everybody just has to agree that that word means something, or no other definitions are really possible.

You're absolutely correct in suggesting that words as concepts are constantly in flux. Not just in terms of definition, but also in terms of social acceptability, like curse words.

Given how quickly language can evolve, I wonder if it's even possible for a dictionary to ever be more accurate than not. Urban Dictionary does a pretty good job of this, as it's entirely user-generated and updated (I think).

On the other hand, without any (arbitrary) definitions, communication would probably prove impossible. (I can't believe I just conceded a point in the case for Big Brother Definer.)

Nick Hughes said...

Brian, I think Nate must agree with your last point, because every time I ask him what a word or phrase means, he tells me to "look it up".


Brian O'Rourke said...

I guess I'd say you need to consult the dictionary and the populace, then flip a coin to decide which answer is better, to get an accurate definition.

marco said...

The misunderstanding of words has always been a motor for linguistic innovation.
Personally I think it is more right to fight grammatical or spelling errors ('per say')than clever folk etymologies.
These substitutions often have the effect to revitalize words or phrases that otherwise may fall out of use:

folk etymology

One thing I've noticed is that many of the words Seana lists are of foreign origin,and orphans to boot.
This means that these words don't have a "family" of cognates which could help map their original meaning.
In the original language,or in languages who evolved directly from it,the connection to the original meaning is obviously much stronger.
Many words whose meaning is uncertain for an English speaker are much clearer to me,because their origin lies in either Latin or Norman French.
For example,Scintilla for me means spark-its use as a synonim of small/trace amount is a minor linguistic continental shift.
It is the process that creates false friends