Saturday, April 05, 2008

Reading the OED, or How technical should dictionaries get in their defintions.

A chap called Ammon Shea has written a a very funny sounding book about reading all of the OED in a year. I particularly like this part of the excerpt posted online at the link above:

Absurd Entries is the name that I gave to a certain class of definition that I would come across every so often when reading the OED. They are rarer than the mistakes, and considerably more fun to read. These are the extremely rare moments when the OED does something that is so inexplicable that you have to close the book and check the cover to make sure that it is indeed the same book that you thought. I have decided, without giving too much thought to the matter, to divide them into two separate categories: ‘Blatant Disregard for the Reader’s Level of Education’ and ‘What Were They Thinking?’

In the category of Blatant Disregard, the past editors of the OED had seemingly come to the conclusion that since they sat around all day reading about words, accruing a monstrous knowledge of vocabulary, their readers must have done the same, and therefore it was not necessary to talk down to anyone with the definition. For instance trondhjemite is defined as ‘Any leucocratic tonalite, esp. one in which the plagioclase is oligoclase’. I have my doubts as to whether anyone has ever thought to themselves ‘I wonder what trondhjemite means?’ But if someone did, and went to look it up in the OED, it seems unlikely that this definition would clear things up much.

In a similar vein, self-feeling is defined as ‘used to render coenaethesis’, and occupatio is simply ‘preterition’. (I should add that in the online version both coenaethesis and preterition are linked to definitions, which feels a bit like cheating) The word syllogism has a fairly simple and informative definition, and the OED even thoughtfully provides an example of a syllogism at the end of it. Which is written entirely in Latin. Although for sheer incomprehensibility, I do not think that I have seen many entries that can beat the masterful one that was created for the curious word disghibelline – ‘To distinguish, as a Guelph from a Ghibelline.’

I posted about this on a trivia-focused internet forum here. A poster responded
In the second paragraph, Shea appears to be calling for the entry of every technical word in the dictionary to define the word down to the level of everyday English. This is, of course, ridiculous-- the dictionary would have to contain a biology textbook, not once but many times over, and likewise for every other discipline. This is all the more impossible since Shea regards hyperlinks as "a little bit like cheating."

Maybe so, but as I respond to that poster, the Wikipedia definition of trondjhemite is much more useful for the non-specialist. One can discern from it that we are talking about rocks, for one thing. It also turns out Ammon Shea's joke has prompted some self-scrutiny in the world of geology.

This is an issue for medics and economists and all academics who try and communicate with the general public and engage with the general culture alike - how do you explain the terminology of the discipline to the public? How do you bridge the tension between being as accurate as possible and as clear as possible?