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):
In the transitive construction "X kicked Y", I can replace X with "Harry" and "Y" with a couple of other things:to hit someone or something with the foot
- Harry kicked the ball.
- Harry kicked the wall.
- Harry moved his leg and foot forcefully
- Harry's foot made contact with the ball
- The ball moved
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:
- (of objects that are easily moved) to propel with a forceful movement of the foot
- (of objects that are not easily moved) to strike with a forceful movement of the foot
- (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
- (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
Am I the only one who expects rather more of our dictionaries than they appear to provide?