Words and Meanings

posted in: General, The Bigger Picture | 0


Okay, rant time.

I have seriously had enough of the shitty examples given in the Oxford Dictionary of English that is provided as part of Apple’s “Dictionary” application in OS X. The dictionary usually has a serviceable definition of a word, but the contextual examples provided after the definition are often distorted, perverse, or just flat-out wrong.

For example: I recently looked up the Latin phrase “mutatis mutandis” to see what it meant. Here’s what the Oxford dictionary supplied:

mutatis mutandis |mu??t??t?s mu??tand?s, mju?-, -i?s|


(used when comparing two or more cases or situations) making necessary alterations while not affecting the main point at issue: what is true of undergraduate teaching in England is equally true, mutatis mutandis, of American graduate schools.

ORIGIN Latin, literally ‘things being changed that have to be changed’.

Okay, I get it – a Latin phrase that describes that two cases or situations are basically analogous, with only minor details different. Now look at the example:

what is true of undergraduate teaching in England is equally true, mutatis mutandis, of American graduate schools.

This example is completely wrong. The study towards a degree-level certification (e.g. a Bachelor of Science) is referred to as undergraduate study in both the English and American systems of education. Therefore, the main point of undergraduate teaching in England (to gain the knowledge required for a degree-level certification) is NOT THE SAME as an American graduate school – an educational institution that ALREADY REQUIRES the completion of a degree-level certification as a prerequisite for advanced studies. Thus, the example given directly contradicts the definition of the phrase.

Now, no doubt some smart-arses out there are thinking, ‘but you haven’t understood that they meant… xyz’. If so, you are completely missing the crux of the matter. The nebulous phrase “what is true of…” could apply to many aspects of both cases, and the reader is left to interpret what particular aspect of undergraduate teaching in England vs graduate teaching in America is supposed to be the “main point at issue” in order to try and reconcile the definition of the phrase with the example given so as to gain a correct understanding of the phrase “mutatis mutandis”.

The imprecision and lack of clarity in the example potentially confuses the reader, and this is something that is unprofessional, and just plain stupid from a dictionary that is supposedly the ‘gold standard’ in defining the English language.

If you think I am over-reacting, I invite you to start using the Oxford dictionary as your ‘go-to’ dictionary and enjoy the many backwards, upside-down and inside-out examples that you will absolutely encounter there, because a good example seems to be the exception, rather than the rule in it.

In truth, I got completely fed up with this a long time ago, and changed to using Webster’s 1913 Dictionary of English, one that I have discovered preserves the meaning of most common English words with precision, provides multiple examples, and is a great deal more informative than the Oxford one. The drawback is that it doesn’t contain many modern words and phrases (including common non-English words and phrases used in English) that the Oxford one has. Also, the Oxford dictionary, it has to be admitted, does include a good etymology for nearly all the words it contains.

Through using the Oxford dictionary over time though, I have received the impression from it that the editors, or at least some of them, have that supercilious, arrogant quality of many intellectuals that leads them to suppose that they are ‘teaching’ people by providing examples that lack sufficient information to logically deduce an answer, instead, creating a confusing ‘puzzle’ that requires the reader to make an inductive ‘leap’ in order to resolve contradictions. This type of attitude often seems to accompany ambiguity in speech and writing, and I would like to take this opportunity to inform such ‘individuals’ should they be reading, that true teaching involves taking responsibility for the understanding of the student, or the reader, in this case. Maximum information, precision and clarity are to be striven for with a goal of good-faith communication.

Unfortunately, such things are rarely the case with those who enjoy wordplay without giving a damn as to the potential confusion or enlightenment of those around them. Is it too cynical to wonder if certain editors at the Oxford English Dictionary are such types? Or to wonder if such behaviours betray certain psychological deformations characteristic of pathology?

Well, the Oxford English Dictionary still remains useful in some ways. I’ll probably keep using it for certain tasks for now, but I stopped using it as my ‘go-to’ dictionary a long time ago. I suggest you all do the same.


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