Monday, November 07, 2016

Etymological Evolution

How would you look after 74 years?
When the Internet was just a gleam in Albert Gore, Jr.'s eye, I was told to "look it up in the dictionary" when I wanted to know the definition or spelling of a word. When the student dictionary did not suffice, I referred to my mother's massive Webster's New International Dictionary which was (whisper) unabridged. It was comforting that everything I needed to know was contained in that volume: [bold added]
the most reassuring thing about a dictionary is its finite nature. A small dictionary contains all the words you need to know, and a really big one seems to contain all the words in existence. Having one nearby seems to say that the language has boundaries, and reasonable ones at that.
It now turns out that our thinking was limited: a dictionary is a database (a word that didn't exist pre-1965).
A dictionary is really a database; it has fields for headword, pronunciation, etymology, definition, and in the case of historical dictionaries like the OED, citations of past usages. Its natural home is one that allows the reader to consult it in any way that makes sense. Look up a single word. Or look up all the citations by a single author. Or those which share a root: only such a tool can tell you that the OED knows of 1,011 words ending in –ology, against 508 with –ography.
Something physical--a dictionary--is really an information construct. My head is beginning to hurt. (Of course, the headache isn't real because the entire universe is a simulation.)

No comments: