“A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.” – Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes cited by Jennifer R. Johnson [J.D.] “Out Of Context: Texas Digital, The Indefiniteness Of Language, And The Search For Ordinary Meaning” 2004 PTC Research Foundation of Franklin Pierce Law Center, IDEA: The Journal of Law and Technology, 2004 (35 J.L. & TECH. 521)

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, in The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll 214 (Mod. Lib. ed., 1936).

Imagine visiting a foreign country where everyone spoke another language and everything you heard was nothing but meaningless noise. You quickly learn that meaning is one of the most important aspects of communication. Words are merely sounds until we apply meaning to them. There is even meaningful nuance within phrases or within body language or even, within the history behind the word or words in question. In debate, meaning can be derived through many avenues. Meaning can be drawn from common knowledge, it can be drawn from contextual usage, or it can be drawn from dictionaries. Dictionaries are usually considered to be the primary authority on spelling and usage of a word, but which dictionaries are the best and how do they decide what the meanings of words are?

There are 3 different types of dictionaries. Some dictionaries are what we call “descriptive” dictionaries, some dictionaries are what we call “prescriptive” dictionaries, and some dictionaries are “field specific” dictionaries. A descriptive dictionary documents common usage of words without trying to prescribe a “correct” usage of that word. Prescriptive dictionaries strive to explain how to correctly or best use a word and often offer advice on how to use that word which might be different from the way common language is used. A field specific dictionary explains how a specific term or phrased is utilized within a particular specialty or area of study.

Descriptive Dictionary: Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate, Merriam-Webster’s Third New International

Prescriptive Dictionary: American Heritage, Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary

Field Specific: Black’s Law Dictionary

There are also differences between American dictionaries and English dictionaries. American dictionaries rarely use literature or prose to establish meanings of words. In fact, the most often used source for American dictionaries is the New York Times prompting Ellen Apryll [Law Professor] to comment “the “polite press,” with The New York Times at its pinnacle . . . is currently the single most powerful influence in constituting the record of the English lexicon. That the handful of people, though a large one at that, who contribute to the Times plays this powerful role in the language may well be a surprise to them.”

Another major difference is that between prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries and those that are more technical or field specific. General dictionaries deliberately exclude legal documents when defining words. When defining scientific and technical terms, general dictionaries often only source through general interest magazines such as Science or Nature. The meanings of the scientific terms are thus limited to a great degree by the author of the article and the viewpoint presented. They are also watered down for the general audience attracted to those magazines and thus, error in defining is introduced.

There are some things to watch out for with dictionaries. Descriptive dictionaries are generally almost always 3-5 years out of date by the time they are printed. Words evolve and their meanings change almost constantly. The pressures of time and print tend to ensure that the descriptive dictionary which tries to cover all of the common meanings of a word will not have many newer usages for different words. Prescriptive dictionaries aren’t as likely to fall to that flaw since they are designed to explain the proper way to use a word. They will, of course, tend to be more narrow in scope than the descriptive dictionary. While a field specific dictionary can be very desirable when you want a very specific term defined, it can often be overly technical and difficult to understand.

So, what does this mean for the debate researcher? When you are defining your words, think about your case, the words you wish to define, and the dictionary you are choosing to define those words. This will help you in setting up your standards and will help you in defending your topicality. Knowing the hows and whys of your definitions will place you a small step ahead of the other team.

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