English is Awful: The Filthy Secret of the Dictionary

Oh, when we were kids and the world was a simple place, we’d go to the one dictionary in the house to look up swear words with glee, knowing that this simple tome contained all the words that were legal in our language.  Our absolute belief in that dictionary in our homes has led to a lot of fucking confusion about what’s right and what’s wrong in the language.  Dictionaries are living beings capable of mad actions — never turn your back on one.

A stack of books on a white background.You see, English is an ever-evolving language, which means that dictionaries are ever-evolving containers of knowledge.  They’re the revolving doors of words, if you will.  So, if you’re one of those smarty pants that gets all upset when new words like “twerk” are added to the dictionary, get over yourself and give a thought to the words that were dropped that same year because no one used them.

There’s No Such Thing as “The” Dictionary

I’m sorry to drop that one on you.  I know you wish it were true.  There are, in fact, 10 major publishers of dictionaries.  These works themselves are further sorted into three categories: full-size, collegiate and learner’s.

Full-sized dictionaries are the ones that you probably had in your school library — they’re gigantic books that attempt to chronicle all the words of English, ever.  Depending on the edition you’ve got, that means somewhere between 70,000 and 355,000 entries, give or take.  If you want the most words possible in one book, choose the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary — it goes all the way back to the 7th century.

Collegiate dictionaries contain fewer entries, but each entry has more to offer, like biographical or geopolitical background that would be useful for college students.  They’re updated more often than full-sized dictionaries, but still contain a good bit of stuff no one ever uses.  They’re still great for general use and the dictionaries that many professional writers use as reference because we had to pay a fucking fortune for them in college.

Learner’s dictionaries are designed for people who are actively learning the language (God save them), and contain only core vocabulary that is widely used among native speakers.  They’ll contain more extensive notes on usage, as well as example sentences and phrases to promote learning.  These little guys are lifesavers if you’re an ESL that’s trying to sort out things like idioms.

It Gets Worse…

Brace yourself for the worst news.  These three different types of dictionaries from 10 different publishers may well disagree from time to time.  That’s when English gets tricky… and knowing who to trust is even worse — because you can’t!  They’re all right, at least by their own reckoning.

Yes, you self-proclaimed English Nazis (you do know what a fucking Nazi is, don’t you?  Choose some kind of title with a little more tact, would you, you uninventive cunts?) might well be wrong when you think you’re right.  Oh, I can see you with your smarmy little squashed noses proclaiming that I’m the devil, but there’s no way around it — dictionaries are going to disagree.  It’s no reason to end a friendship, fight with a fellow online or generally be a twat.

If you MUST be a twat, if your inner cuntiness cannot be contained, at least reference the dictionary you’re using to try to make someone else look like an illiterate.  You’ve got plenty to choose from, so pick your poison.  As a point of note, though, the pros (at least in my experience) don’t discriminate and will use whatever dictionary happens to be handy.  Same for the thesaurus, in case you were wondering.