Thinking inside the box

For this week's video, we decided to try something a bit different: unboxing a dictionary:

This was a bit of an experiment to see if we could use a popular YouTube genre, the unboxing video, for educational purposes. If you're unfamiliar with the unboxing genre, just search around on YouTube and you'll get the idea. It's certainly popular with my kids. And by the way, the word "unboxing" is not in this dictionary -- maybe in the 6th edition? Coincidentally, Oxford Dictionaries (related to but not the same as the OED) has just added "unboxing" in their last quarterly update. (Hat tip to Talk the Talk for mentioning this just this week -- if you're a language lover and aren't listening to this podcast, go check it out now.) I've often said to my students that people don't often think enough about their dictionaries, what they're really for, how they're organized, what sorts of information they contain, and so forth. We often talk about what words are in The Dictionary as if it's some sort of uniform and universal entity, but not all dictionaries are the same, and different dictionaries serve different purposes. And so I encouraged them to read the preface/introductions to whatever dictionary they might have. That's kind of the motivation behind this video. I wanted to draw attention to dictionaries as interesting objects in their own right.

The particular choice of dictionary for this video is the 5th edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD5). I'd been meaning to pick up a copy of this most recent edition since it was published in 2011 but hadn't got around to it until now. It is of course specifically useful to me in researching etymologies for my videos because of the appendices of Indo-European and Semitic roots, which are useful for tracking down seemingly unrelated words that come from the same distant root. The AHD website, by the way, has freely available all the definitions and etymologies, including the appendices, though not all the usage notes and other ancillary materials. So the other purpose of this video was to give a peek behind the curtain at one of the useful tools for making the regular videos, and for linguistic study more generally. Most standard dictionaries don't go as far back as the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) roots, generally giving the immediate source language before the word came into English (for instance French), or perhaps tracing the word a little further back to the earliest form actually attested in writing (for instance Latin). But the AHD goes further than many dictionaries in giving what are reconstructed hypothetical forms (for instance PIE roots). Even the full Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which is an essential tool for tracing the way words change in meaning over the history of English, since it gives citations from texts arranged chronologically, doesn't give PIE origins unless there is a particular reason for doing so. So the AHD is a good dictionary to have if you're interested in etymology. There are, of course, other more specialized etymological dictionaries that I use, so perhaps I'll talk about those in a future video or blog post. But for now, hopefully this video will give you a bit of an insight into how I go researching my videos like "Album" and "Beef", words which I point out in this dictionary.

If you want to to read more about the AHD5, I'd recommend Ben Zimmer's review in the Boston Globe, which gives more historical context (or one of these others I came across: 1 2 3). One key issue that the AHD and the type of dictionary it is raises is the prescriptive and descriptive approaches to lexicography and to language study in general. Is it the job of a dictionary to tell people what are the right and wrong ways to use a language, establishing some sort of rule to be followed, or is it the job of a dictionary to record and show how a language is actually used naturally? The answer is, of course, both, and the AHD does a pretty good job of including both kinds of information. It's useful to have a resource that tells us what many people consider to be the "correct" use of language, even if we then decide to ignore this information. Knowledge is power, and this is certainly true of language knowledge. Different dictionaries will try to focus in on a different point of the prescriptivist/descriptivist continuum, and it's important to be aware of the choices your dictionary has made. So give your dictionary some attention and look at it a little more closely. In fact, give your dictionary some love and enjoy it as a thing in and of itself, and I'll leave you with this video of a TEDTalk by excellent Erin McKean about the role of the modern dictionary, which touches on many of these issues: