- Lexicography and Questions of Authority in the College Classroom: Students "Deconstructing the Dictionary"
- Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America
- Dictionary Society of North America
- Number 21, 2000
- pp. 90-99
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Lexicography and Questions of Authority in the College Classroom: Students "Deconstructing the Dictionary" i: Anne Curzan "n 1998, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) rocketed into the .spotlight with the publication — and subsequent laudatory reviews — of Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman.1 Bookstores displayed the book in prominent places, commentators on National Public Radio listed the book as a "recommended read," and a surprising number of students came to class wanting to know more about the OED. Suddenly it had become very clear to them that dictionaries are written by people, sometimes even crazy people, and may be interesting in and of themselves.2 Most college students own a dictionary, which they may or may not consult on a regular basis as a reference tool. Many of them received these dictionaries as high school graduation gifts, reflecting perhaps the odd way in which dictionaries represent to many a ticket to higher education in our culture. These students cart their un1 [Peter Gilliver reviews Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman in this volume, pages 160-168. — Ed.] 2I would like to acknowledge my debt and gratitude to my students, especially the participants in my senior seminar of Spring 1999 and in my graduate seminar of Fall 1999, who have taught me what it means to teach with and about dictionaries. I would also like to thank Mako Yoshikawa, Catherine Paul, and the participants in the 1999 MLA session "Dictionaries and the Classroom" for their invaluable feedback on earlier versions of this article. Dictionaries:fournal ofthe Dictionary Society ofAmerica 21 (2000) Lexicography and Questions of Authority in the Classroom91 cracked dictionaries off to college with them, feeling safe in these volumes ' linguistic authority should they ever need it. (This image may be becoming obsolete, though, as students cart their dictionary CDROMs to college instead, or simply bookmark a dictionary website.) Rarely, if ever, have most of these students thought of the dictionary as worthy of study in its own right, or as a reference tool for anything other than the spelling and "correct" meaning of a word. When I regularly ask my undergraduate students in an introductory linguistics class where standard dictionaries fall short in describing the meaning and use of words, they are often struck by the concept that dictionaries might not be the ultimate authorities they are supposed to be, that they are, in fact, susceptible to criticism. The story of the making of the OED, often cited as the most impressive and authoritative dictionary of English ever created, drives home this unfamiliar idea. Students are fascinated to learn the story of six million slips of paper — written, collected, sorted, and interpreted by hand. It makes the creation of dictionaries a human enterprise, one which students can not only understand, but also see as fallible. Suddenly it gives them, as independent scholars and readers, the authority to add insight to dictionary entries. Dictionaries are a staple of academic life, for teachers and students alike. "Look it up in the dictionary" — a mantra learned early in life and repeated whenever occasion, from a dispute over the meaning of a term to a spelling question to a crossword puzzle, arises. And that the in "Look it up in the dictionary" is very telling: the dictionary represents for many a monolithic entity, an abstraction that transcends all specifics, such as publishers, editors, dates, or editions. While we know that there are many dictionaries, somehow we simultaneously see them as all the same, as all carrying the same linguistic authority. So when loving parents or relatives buy their high school graduate that gift dictionary, rarely do they contemplate which one to get, except perhaps to get a "big name" dictionary, perhaps with "collegiate" in the title. Many scholars, particularly those who study language for a living , recognize their authority to, and sometimes even their need to, question dictionaries; and they sometimes exploit this kind of questioning in their research. As these scholars demonstrate, dictionaries can expose our cultural assumptions in dramatic ways. For example, Rosina Lippi-Green, in her provocative book English with an Accent, quotes the definition of accent in the OED in order to examine it critically for...