How much use are dictionaries?

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How much use are dictionaries?

Post by Phil White » Mon Aug 21, 2017 12:29 am

As a linguist, I was brought up with dictionaries. And in the far-off days of my schooling, and even during my days at university, I trusted them. Some more than others, but I trusted them. Essentially, I am thinking of monolingual dictionaries here, but much the same applies to bilingual dictionaries.

The older I get, the less recourse I have to dictionaries, and when I do consult one, I am often left with a feeling of dissatisfaction. Even to the extent that I dare to let the thought enter my head that they are actually wrong. Indeed spectacularly so.

But the problem is in fact not so much with dictionaries, which serve a perfectly good purpose. Far more, it is with the nature of meaning itself. Just as a wee example, I am currently pottering away at something that will in time become a blog post. I had cause to see what the dictionary said about "kick". I was looking specifically for the literal, transitive meaning of "kick", and I came across this in the Cambridge Dictionary online (transitive meaning only):
to hit someone or something with the foot
In the transitive construction "X kicked Y", I can replace X with "Harry" and "Y" with a couple of other things:
  • Harry kicked the ball.
  • Harry kicked the wall.
In the first example, we have several elements to the meaning of "kick".
  1. Harry moved his leg and foot forcefully
  2. Harry's foot made contact with the ball
  3. The ball moved
In the sentence "Harry kicked the ball", all the above elements of meaning are inherent in "kick".

But if we take the sentence "Harry kicked the wall", only the first two elements of meaning are inherent in "kick". If we wanted to impart the information that the wall moved, we would have to express that explicitly: "Harry kicked the wall and it collapsed".

In fact, there are (at least) two literal transitive meanings of "kick", one of which implies movement of the thing being kicked and one of which doesn't, indeed, we expect the opposite. And which meaning we understand is determined by our sense of the "movability" of the object being kicked. Thus, in the sentence "he kicked the stick", we know that sticks are movable, so we understand that the stick moved. In the sentence "he kicked the table", we do not see the table as being movable, and so we understand that the table did not move. We could explicitly override this meaning by saying something like "he kicked the table across the room", and this would change our perception of the kind of table being kicked.

What the dictionary definition above fails entirely to indicate is that, with movable objects, the word "kick" actually entails movement of the object.

So a (slightly) more adequate definition of "kick" might be:
  1. (of objects that are easily moved) to propel with a forceful movement of the foot
  2. (of objects that are not easily moved) to strike with a forceful movement of the foot
Both of these definitions, however, fail to take account of the fact that a mere movement of the foot is actually insufficient to be regarded as a kick. Flicking a ball away with a twist of the ankle is not the same as kicking a ball. This means we actually need a definition such as:
  1. (of objects that are easily moved) to propel an object with the foot as a result of a forceful movement of the leg and foot
  2. (of objects that are not easily moved) to strike an object with the foot as a result of a forceful movement of the leg and foot
If you look carefully at dictionary definitions of many mundane words and think of examples of usage, you will quickly find that this kind of sloppiness is rife.

Am I the only one who expects rather more of our dictionaries than they appear to provide?
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Re: How much use are dictionaries?

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Aug 21, 2017 2:34 am

It's unreasonable to expect lexicographers to have to envisage and cater for every conceivable nuance and variation of meaning that could be attached to a given headword.

In your example, the question of whether the object being kicked moves or not is pretty irrelevant to the basic meaning of kick, namely 'to strike with the foot'.

It can safely be left to the reader/hearer to make the appropriate inferences about the likely consequences of a kick without having them spelled out in the way you suggest.

Equally, the fact that flicking the ball wih the ankle is a different action to kicking it with the foot doesn't make it necessary to supplement the basic definition of kick.
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Re: How much use are dictionaries?

Post by Phil White » Mon Aug 21, 2017 9:32 am

So what constitutes, in your terms, a "nuance", and what constitutes a "meaning"?

The difference between a child kicking a ball and a child kicking a neighbour's car is fundamental. Our perception of the intention of the action and the result of the action are both inherent in the action, although they are determined by the nature of the object kicked.

It is not a question of identifying every conceivable scenario in which a word may be used, but rather identifying the mechanisms by which the meaning changes, which are far fewer.

And the example of "kick" is not taken out of the blue. German requires two different constructions to be used for the two meanings:
  • Er trat den Ball (he kicked the ball)
  • Er trat gegen die Mauer (he kicked [against] the wall)
In other words, in German, the transitive use of "treten" only ever implies movement of the object kicked. The two actions are entirely different.

And this is reflected in my two definitions by the use of two entirely different verbs "propel" and "strike", which reflect the core of the two meanings.

To be fair, Merriam Webster and Oxford online, for instance, both reflect this in their definitions, although they subsume the two meanings under one definition.

Merriam Webster:
to strike, thrust, or hit with the foot
Oxford online:
Strike or propel forcibly with the foot
The question remains: When does a nuance become a different meaning that needs to be identified as such by at least a sub-entry in a dictionary?
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Re: How much use are dictionaries?

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Aug 21, 2017 3:20 pm

1) You write,

It is not a question of identifying every conceivable scenario in which a word may be used, but rather identifying the mechanisms by which the meaning changes, which are far fewer.

The phrase of yours that I have bolded is very vague and could mean anything. To clarify it, could you explain its implication for a lexicographer in relation to their entry for kick, as you see it?

You also noted that

To be fair, Merriam Webster and Oxford online, for instance, both reflect this [semantic distinction] in their definitions, although they subsume the two meanings under one definition.

The way you put it causes me to believe that this still isn't thorough enough as far as you're concerned.

2) In your example, you have pointed to a distinction which you say exists in the German senses of the verb meaning 'to kick' but not in the English one as a basis for demanding that lexicographers compiling dictionaries of English should explain how to draw a corresponding distinction in English. I don't see that this difference implies any such imperative.

3) In any case, English does have the prepositional constructions kick at, kick out at and kick against to convey the notion of contact being made with a foot which probably will not result in movement of the struck object. Whether a dictionary-maker or publisher decides to include these constructions as sub-entries in a given dictionary will reflect the budgetary resources and other constraints they are having to take account of. Their inclusion or omission would not necessarily reflect incompetence or sloppiness on the part of lexicographers regarding the terms or headwords in question so much as the practical limitations on the scope of their project and product. Any dictionary is, among other things, the aggregate result of many compromises which such factors have imposed on their compilers.

If the definitions you're encountering seem insufficiently comprehensive for your purposes, perhaps you're consulting the wrong resources. It sounds as though you'd do better to consult (for example) the OED than the Cambridge Dictionary online for the depth of coverage that you're seeking.
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Re: How much use are dictionaries?

Post by Phil White » Mon Aug 21, 2017 10:37 pm

1a. I gave an example of the mechanism that changes the meaning of "kick", namely the "movability" of the kicked object. This is a generic factor, and not a single instance of a usage. I referenced this mechanism in the definitions I proffered.

1b. It is customary for dictionaries to separate distinct meanings out into discrete items rather than to bundle two meanings together with the word "or".

2. The distinction in German does not form a basis for demanding anything. (Neither am I demanding anything, anyway.) It merely suggests to me that there is a genuine distinction in meaning in relation to whether the kicked object moves or not. The fact that a different language makes this distinction in the form of an entirely different construction adds weight to the argument that there is a distinction to be made.

3. Yes, English does have the phrasal verb constructions "kick at" and "kick against", but that is irrelevant to the point I was making. I thought I had made it clear in my posts that I was looking only at the literal transitive use of "kick".

You may care to look at the OED definition of the transitive use yourself. "To strike (anything) with the foot" does not seem to me to be more illuminating than the Cambridge dictionary. But perhaps a newer edition of the OED is more enlightening. I cannot tell.

But the whole point of my question was to question the general understanding of what constitutes a distinct meaning. If you take umbrage at my temerity, I apologise.
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End of topic.
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