Friday, January 1, 2010

Defining Words

I read an interesting article this week - I think it came from the Chicago Tribune originally. The article was called "Redefining Definition," and it was about the future of dictionaries in the age of the internet.

Do you remember your vocabulary lists from high school (or earlier)? Take a word, look it up in the dictionary, and use it in a sentence? How often did you find that the definition didn't really tell you what you needed to know to create your sentence right?

I consider myself pretty good with words. Better now, of course, but I was always decent with them, and I still had trouble with this. I remember using "aggravate" in the sense of, "My brother really aggravates me sometimes," and getting dinged for it. But the fact was, I couldn't grasp "aggravate" based on the dictionary definition alone.

Writing definitions is apparently quite an art form. The writers collect as many examples as they can of the word being used in context, and then based on this try to come up with something succinct that captures the word's meaning. It's amazing that they can do it, and the reason they have to is that paper dictionaries are limited in their length.

As this article mentioned, the internet changes the game by removing the need for succinctness. In fact, it suggests that an internet resource would allow people to behave in the same way as the definition-writers: to see a list of examples of the word so they could formulate a definition - or at least, have a better understanding of the definition as it has been phrased.

I generally agree with this, though some might argue that kids will scavenge the examples for their own assignments. This is, after all, the way we form the meanings of words in our own minds - by concatenating the contexts in which we've seen them.

I actually attempt to pull this trick sometimes in stories, and you might too. Have you ever created a word to represent a complex concept, not really defined it explicitly but let people watch it play out to figure out what it means? That's what I'm talking about. I'm also talking about getting readers to re-interpret words that they already know. If you've ever used an alternate point of view, alien or antagonist, to interpret things that should be normal as strange and vice versa, you may be doing it there, too.

It's something to think about.