It is widely believed that every word has a correct meaning, that we learn these meanings mainly from teachers and grammarians, and that dictionaries and grammars are the supreme authority in matters of meaning and usage. Few people ask by what authority the writers of dictionaries and grammars say what the say. I once got into a dispute with an English woman over the pronunciation of a word and offered to look it up in the dictionary. The English woman said firmly, "What for? I am English. I was born and brought up in England. The way I speak is English." Such self-assurance about one’s own language is fairly common among the English. In the United States, however, anyone who is willing to quarrel with the dictionary is regarded as either eccentric or mad.
Let us see how dictionaries are made and how the editors arrive at definitions. What follows applies only to those dictionary offices where first-hand, original research goes on - not those in which editors simply copy existing dictionaries. The task of writing a dictionary begins with the reading of vast amounts of the literature of the period or subject that the dictionary is to cover. As the editors read, they copy on cards every interesting or rare word, every unusual or peculiar occurrence of a common word, a large number of common words in their ordinary uses, and also the sentences in which each of these words appears.
That is to say, the context of each word is collected, along with the word itself. For a really big job of dictionary writing, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, millions of such cards are collected, and the task of editing occupies decades. As the cards are collected, they are alphabetized and sorted. When the sorting is completed, where will be for each word anywhere from two or three to several hundred quotations, each on its card.
To define a word, then, the dictionary editor places before him the stack of cards illustrating that word; each of the cards represents an actual use of the word by a writer of some literary or historical importance. He reads the cards carefully, discards some, re-reads the rest, and divides up the stack according to what he thinks are the several senses of the word. Finally, he writes his definitions, following the hard-and-fast rule that each definition must be based on what the quotations in front of him reveal about the meaning of the word. The editor cannot be influenced by what the thinks a given word ought to mean. He must work according to the cards, or not at all.
The writing of a dictionary, therefore, is not a task of setting up authoritative statements about the "true meanings" of words, but a task of recording, to the best of one’s ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past. If, for example, we had been writing a dictionary in 1890, or even as late as 1919, we could have said that the word "broadcase" means "to scatter" (seed, for example), but we could not have states that from 1921 on, the most common meaning of the word should become "to send out programs by radio or television." In choosing our words when we speak or write, we can be guided by the historical record provided us by the dictionary, but we cannot be bound by it, because new situations, new experiences, new inventions, new feelings, are always forcing us to give new uses to old words. Looking under a "hood," we should ordinarily have found, five hundred years ago, a monk; today, we find a car engine.
2011-12-22 12:29 编辑：wjy2005tom