30 September 2005


I'm going to take a swing at the dictionary as Tom Bazan commented last time around to the effect of "The words have a meaning beyond their (traditional) Webster's meaning." Now, I like Tom a lot, but also because he gets me thinking. This time he got me thinking about the dictionary. I find the idea of a dictionary very interesting because the dictionary assigns meanings to words with other words. It's like a merry-go-round.
From Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers, a required text for my course: "Discourse organizing words are best presented and practised in their natural contexts. Simply looking them up in a monolingual dictionary can lead to a circularity of abstract definitions." (McCarthy 84)

McCarthy uses an example from the dictionary and I will mimic his method here. Note this (from www.dictionary.com):

prob·lem (prblm) n.

   1. A question to be considered, solved, or answered: math problems; the problem of how to arrange transportation.
   2. A situation, matter, or person that presents perplexity or difficulty: was having problems breathing; considered the main problem to be his boss. See Usage Note at dilemma.
   3. A misgiving, objection, or complaint: I have a problem with his cynicism.

If we chase down the meaning of the first open word in this definition “question,” we find:

ques·tion  (kwschn) n.

1. An expression of inquiry that invites or calls for a reply.
2. An interrogative sentence, phrase, or gesture.
3. A subject or point open to controversy; an issue.
4. A difficult matter; a problem: a question of ethics.
5. A point or subject under discussion or consideration.
6. A proposition brought up for consideration by an assembly./ The act of bringing a proposal to vote.
7. Uncertainty; doubt: There is no question about the validity of the enterprise.

Please note the definition of "problem" appeals to an understanding of "question" and the definition of "question" appeals to an understanding of "problem."  Now, you might argue that given enough words, we are able to pin down the meaning of one particular word, but if you continue to dig and chase down all these words, I suspect, in the end, they are all, in one way or another, dependent on an understanding of another related word. If you feel dizzy, you're not alone. It's called circular reasoning, and it's a problem.

Imagine for a second that you were handed a dictionary for another language and told to learn the second language. Could you do it. Of course you couldn't. Your dictionary would just point you to other words that would be defined by the same word you originally didn't understand. Believe me, it's happened as I try to use my good old Japanese dictionary for terms that don’t appear in English. All you get is Japanese examples and other Japanese words that bring you back to the same word. The "code" of language is so oddly inter/ self dependent that it makes any kind of real definition impossible. You must appeal to something outside of language if you want any real meaning to your words.

This intrigues me as an artist and a Christian because I think we gain meaning through art and imagery. For example, a new question: define love. That’s a bitch, right? Almost impossible. Think now of 1 John, a book of the Bible dedicated primarily to the idea of love. "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (1 John 4:10) John chooses to define love not as sacrifice, he appeals to the act of God sending God's son as a sacrifice. Suddenly, the word is not a word but the concept of an action. And from the action or concept of the action we can find meaning.

One more, again from Kanye West: what is a "gold digger"? It could be any number of things: a person who actually digs for gold, etc., etc. But West uses imagery to define the word:

"Cutie the bomb
Met her at a beauty salon
With a baby louis vuitton
Under her underarm
She said I can tell you ROC
I can tell by ya charm
Far as girls you got a flock
I can tell by ya charm and ya arm
but I'm lookin for the one
have you seen her
My psychic told me she have a ass like Serena
Trina, Jennifer Lopez, four kids
An i gotta take all they bad ass to show-biz
Ok get ya kids but then they got their friends
I Pulled up in the Benz, they all got up In
We all went to Den and then I had to pay
If you fuckin with this girl then you betta be payed
You know why
It take too much to touch her
From what I heard she got a baby by Busta
My best friend say she use to fuck wit Usher
I don't care what none of yall say I still love her."

I won't take time to talk about what West accomplishes here, except to point out that we begin to understand the term "gold digger" through descriptions of women who are "gold diggers." They seem to be women interested primarily in money and status. Suddenly, we have meaning that goes beyond words because we can conceptualise this sort of situation and recognize that the word and the image are a pair.

We've been doing this unconsciously our whole lives, being told to assign certain images to certain words, but who is controlling the stories and images we hear and see that define our words? What happens when new images and stories redefine words we have been accustomed to using in one way or another?

This is only Day Eight. More to come, I'm sure.