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April 3, 2009 5:26 PM   Subscribe

Are dictionaries self-defined?

Has anybody studied whether a certain dictionary is wholly self-referential? Meaning: its full text, including definitions, introduction,etc., only contains words that are defined within the dictionary itself?
posted by signal to Religion & Philosophy (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Most introductions would include the names of a few people, I would expect, which would not be found in the body of the dictionary.
posted by rokusan at 5:32 PM on April 3, 2009

Depends on what you mean by words. The introduction and other prefatory material might contain proper names that aren't defined in the dictionary because they don't have any semantic content.

Similarly, what about etymologies? Very few Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, etc terms are going to be defined in a dictionary, to say nothing of Proto-Indo-European.
posted by jedicus at 5:35 PM on April 3, 2009

Mine (Webster's Seventh New Collegiate) has a big list o' names in the back, so they've got that covered. But I'll bet there are still some place names somewhere inside that aren't defined. Haven't found any yet, though.
posted by equalpants at 5:40 PM on April 3, 2009

Well, the OED is not.

I just picked a random entry: gridlock. In the citations section is this quote:
Los Angeles - with its totalitarian skyline and gas-guzzling ethics - is everywhere, gridlocking our expectations and commodifying our dreams.
The OED does not contain an entry for "commodifying" or "commodify". It does have one for "commodification", but no mention of an associated verb.

On a broader scale, I seriously doubt that being self-contained is a common property of dictionaries in general, but the OED is the only one I'm going to check for you.
posted by Flunkie at 5:58 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Okay, Webster's Seventh New Collegiate fails. Thymelaeaceae appears in the definition of mezereon, but is not itself defined.

Took a goddamn long time to find that, though. You'd be surprised how much promising-looking stuff is defined.
posted by equalpants at 6:00 PM on April 3, 2009

A would suggest that if any dictionary does achieve this, it would be a monolingual learner's dictionary.
posted by Sova at 6:07 PM on April 3, 2009

Well, the OED is not.

I just picked a random entry: gridlock. In the citations section is this quote:
Los Angeles - with its totalitarian skyline and gas-guzzling ethics - is everywhere, gridlocking our expectations and commodifying our dreams.
The OED does not contain an entry for "commodifying" or "commodify". It does have one for "commodification", but no mention of an associated verb.

Sorry, I find this hard to believe. I don't live in a library, so can't look up the OED. But can it be that it doesn't contain "commodify"? Please someone confirm this.
posted by cincinnatus c at 6:47 PM on April 3, 2009

Many learner's dictionaries use a defining vocabulary of fewer than 10,000 words, even at an advanced level. Here's one example.
posted by mdonley at 6:50 PM on April 3, 2009

Sorry, I find this hard to believe.
Nonetheless, it's true. Why on earth would I lie about this?


Anyway, I'll give you another example; I'm certain it won't be hard.

OK, here we go: The entry for "proles" contains the following cite:
They marrying, though to a free man, do not produce a free childe but a bond one..and the mother being in that condition, the proles or partus of her must so be.
No entry for "partus".
posted by Flunkie at 7:21 PM on April 3, 2009

Sova has it. One of the computational checks we used to do at Collins was to check that most words in monolingual dictionaries were defined. Certainly the smaller dictionaries like the Gem were checked quite carefully. The COBUILD ESL dictionaries were extremely rigorously checked.
posted by scruss at 7:42 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I find this hard to believe. I don't live in a library, so can't look up the OED.
You don't need a library to look up words. OS X's dictionary is actually the OED. Or you could use that internet thing.
posted by floam at 7:48 PM on April 3, 2009

OS X had OED?! I never used the dictionary on it, and I never would have guessed this. Thanks a lot!
posted by solipsophistocracy at 7:57 PM on April 3, 2009

I may have gotten your hopes up. It appears I'm incorrect. I just checked the front matter in the dictionary and it identifies itself as the New Oxford American Dictionary, second edition. (NOAD2) For me and my uses this is just as good, and probably better than the real actual OED, however it is a different dictionary.
posted by floam at 8:01 PM on April 3, 2009

Thymelaeaceae appears in the definition of mezereon, but is not itself defined.

Actually, this is a good example, because almost all animals give the latin name, but the latin names are almost never defined in a standard English dictionary. For instance, as simple an entry as cat in the OS X dictionary has 2 undefined terms in the defintion, Felis catus and Felidae, and a slew of undefined foreign words in the Origin section.
posted by smackfu at 8:03 PM on April 3, 2009

OS X's dictionary is actually the OED
No it isn't.
THAT SAID, I found commodify in the OED.
No you didn't.

OS X's dictionary is the New Oxford American Dictionary, not the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here is the appropriate screenshot from the actual OED.
posted by Flunkie at 8:05 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I frequently discovered that many words found in the definition of a word are not found in the dictionary itself -- not especially uncommon. However, I feel it's important to note that the subject matter of a dictionary is not coverage of itself, but of a particular coverage -- say for instance, popular slang. A popular slang dictionary would naturally not contain "the" or "and" for entries. A medical dictionary would also likewise not contain "bling" or "phat".

Even for standard, imperceptibly specific dictionaries -- they are still simply newspapers of words and cover words that have been previously used to a certain degree of frequency that meets the publication's criteria. That frequency of use is not a binding criteria for explanation of the word itself, however.
posted by Quarter Pincher at 7:14 AM on April 4, 2009

Also, the very defintion of "word" would include the eligibility of place names, proper nouns, brands, logos, abbreviations, and such. I suspect the widespread misperception of words-not-being-words is based on purely anecdotal evidence -- whether the average Philbert Q. Notalexicographer would know what the word meant from its use in casual conversation, whether any given word game they played last would find it elligible for point-scoring, or whether they got red marks on a paper for using an uncommon word on an essay.
posted by Quarter Pincher at 7:25 AM on April 4, 2009

Short answer:
No, but not because dictionary writers don't want it to be that way. It's because it's either unnecessary (for little dictionaries) or impossible (for big ones).

Long answer:
If what you're asking, basically, is whether every word ever used is defined in a dictionary, the answer is no. The only dictionary which goes close to chasing the insane dream of getting "everything" is the OED (which, as mentioned, is NOT the dictionary packaged with OS X: that's the NOAD2). It's a staggeringly complex work, but even then, for every hole the OED fills it probably finds, like the heads of the hydra, two more opening up. A dictionary which sets out to tackle certain popular specialist words then requires the usage of other even less-popular specialist words to define those more popular specialist words, and so on and so on, until the number of definitions required grows exponentially. And even then the OED is limited by dialect (British) and language (English) and in a million other ways. So no dictionary includes every word and we cannot expect it to.

If you're asking whether every word used anywhere in a particular dictionary is likewise defined elsewhere in that particular dictionary, the answer is, I suspect, likewise no, though consideration to the question is certainly given. Paradoxically, it's easier for a smaller, learner's dictionary to be entirely, uh, self-defining than for a larger dictionary to do the same, because if you have a little dictionary of basic vocab, you can make sure that all the definitions only include that same basic vocab, and you're set. A learner's dictionary of course would want to do this, but only within reason: a kid's dictionary of 100 starter words won't define "copyright" just because the word "copyright" appear on the dictionary's inside cover.

A word used in a definition in the OED should, I expect, likewise as a general rule appear as a headword or derivative elsewhere. (Lots of words are listed as derivatives, not headwords, meaning you find them at the end of an entry for a related word and extrapolate their meaning from there. I don't know if you count that that as "defining" or not.) But note that commodify is being used in a citation, there, not in a definition, so the rules may differ, and I expect a word which has not achieved wide enough usage to yet be recognized as a headword itself may still be used in a citation, as long as it's not distracting from illustrating the word it's supposed to illustrate. I suspect, given the monumental task of writing a dictionary in the first place, that this is the case.

On a related note, for general dictionary reading, you may enjoy The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester, which details the history of the OED and in particular its fabulously-bearded patriarch James Murray. He's pictured on the cover there, surrounded by the millions of slips of paper he and his team handwrote the OED on. Think about that. We all owe him a great debt. Anyway, this question reminds me in particular of the footnote on this page about the general rule that a word used in a definition should not be more complicated than the word which is being defined, and rule Winchester mentions while commenting on how that rule was once flouted by none other than JRR Tolkien himself, who, by the way, both worked on the dictionary and had a word he coined, hobbit, added to it.
posted by roombythelake at 10:34 AM on April 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

can it be that it doesn't contain "commodify"?

Yes. The Cloaca-Consigner fascicle of the OED came out in October 1891, and I'm pretty sure the word didn't exist back then. The ongoing revision for the third edition started with the letter M and is currently up to reamy; it will take them some years to get around to C, at which time commodify will certainly be included. (They are adding words to earlier letters on a somewhat haphazard basis, and so may get around to commodify earlier, but don't hold your breath.)

you may enjoy The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester

On the other hand, you may not. I didn't. If you want a dependable account of the OED, taking it up to the electronic edition, see if your library has or can get The Oxford History of English Lexicography; it's brand new and fabulously expensive, so you probably won't be buying it yourself. (I wrote about it here.)
posted by languagehat at 12:33 PM on April 4, 2009

I think there may be another set of related metalogical questions lurking here about the nature of formal systems, self-containment, etc.

To conceive of a dictionary as a potentially formalizable semiotic system, that is as a system that could in theory (if not in practice) be "self-contained," is a question that might benefit by drawing from such resources as set theory, Russell's paradox, Gödel's incompleteness theorems, Turing, Frege, Quine's question of translation, computational theory, etc.

I don't claim to have an answer for you, but behind your specific question is a question about formal logic.
posted by ornate insect at 3:59 PM on April 4, 2009

Link from my post above is boinked; it was on referentialty and systems from the Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic.

I can't find the source, but the journal itself is a good resource. Also possibly of use for you: self-reference (from the SEP) and see also here
posted by ornate insect at 4:06 PM on April 4, 2009

languagehat, sorry you didn't take to The Meaning of Everything: I think I was too enthralled by the story as a whole, which was mostly new to me at the time, to critique the style of the prose (which I don't recall being hackle-raising at the time though I have heard your complaint made by others since). I'll poke around for more on the Oxford History of English Lexicography, though I'd think Winchester's, for good or ill, is still the best populist account, in spite of whatever criticisms we may have of it. Caught in the Web of Words was a good if dry account of Murray's life, but holds to him rather than to the OED itself. Is there any other history of the OED which hits the facts better than Winchester does but still appeals to a popular reader and doesn't break one's bookshelf or pocketbook?
posted by roombythelake at 8:16 AM on April 5, 2009

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