Sunday, December 18, 2005

Hidden prejudice within words you use

Dictionary: Opinion presented as truth in alphabetical order.
- John Ralston Saul, Canadian writer (1947- )

Every written work in the English language is complied within an English dictionary. It's just out of order, so each word is a puzzle.

These two thoughts are commonly passed among people without much thought. Is a dictionary really opinion?

The purpose of a dictionary is not to provide spellings or to be the ultimate authority on how a word should be used. It's to tell how people use each word within the context of the "public" the dictionary compilers use as their sources.
Dictionaries don't express any values of right or wrong in terms of word usage. Their main criterion is that a word must be used and understood commonly among a given number of people within their public.

But does it express opinion?

The way people use words depends partly on the denotative meanings of the words, how they are used in most contexts. However, words also have connotative meanings, meanings that are hidden beneath the more obvious denotative meanings usually given in dictionaries.

For example, "nigger" is used commonly and without prejudice among African Americans such that no African American gives the word a second thought if it is used by another African American. If the word is used in a similar way by a white person, it's considered to be a hate word and may even result in legal punishment or social retribution.

Dictionaries adopt the prejudices of their respective source publics when they complie words used by that public. How a word is defined may convey editorial comment in one form but not in another.

It pays each of us to understand not just one meaning of the words we use, but all posible meanings, including the inferences taken by listeners and readers that may be hidden within their obvious meaings.

Bill Allin
'Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems,' striving to reveal hidden meanings within tragic social issues.
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