On Owning a Dictionary

I own a dictionary.

A real one.

To add to the mystery unfolding in your brain, I will here confess that I bought this dictionary that I own. I know, I know. I’ve seen the reaction before. In fact, every time I mention this little detail of my life to someone I get it. Even the bookish lady who assisted me at the sales register voiced her surprise. “Wow, a dictionary. We don’t get many people buying these anymore.”

What is it about purchasing all the words in our language that elicits such wonder?

Despite many of my friends’ enduring expositions on electronic dictionaries and their ubiquity, smallness, and freeness, I am glad that I own a physical, hardbound, full-size dictionary. Weighing in at 8.2 pounds with 2076 pages, it is rather permanent in its placement in my apartment. It makes more sense to view it as a small piece of furniture.

My first dictionary was given to me by my parents as a high school graduation present. They wrote something classy that caught the feeling of impending adulthood and accomplishment. What came across was that words matter.

The dictionary I own (and bought) is the American Heritage, 4th edition. Its usage notes nod to its prescriptive undertones. The prescriptive tradition is kind of like the electoral college equivalent in the dictionary world. They’re an educated panel that attempts to inform people how to use language. Descriptive dictionaries attempt to describe how language is actually being used. Most people probably don’t even know that there are philosophies behind dictionaries. Of course, the flak that prescriptive dictionaries get is that they are handing down royal edicts to a disconnected peasantry. How can you control how people use language? Descriptive dictionaries then, I guess, carry more street cred. Although most of this has evened out since 1961 and the fighting has ceased.

The whole controversy seems passe and outmoded but it brings up a dangerous thought.

What if people start redefining words?

If enough people jump on board, they can tip the vernacular seesaw.  Language is based on culture which is rather fluid, so actually this happens all the time naturally. Read any of Shakespeare and you’ll figure that out. Here’s the thing: when it’s just a question of what to call a bowl of stew, it’s pretty innocuous. What’s unnerving about this though is that if enough people want to, they can consciously change word meaning by changing culture, or vice versa. Take marriage for example. Also, in the Christian world take ministry, worship, or church. Just because people want something to be marriage or ministry or worship or church, doesn’t mean that it is, no matter how many people call it that.

For example, there was a time when people referred to whales as fish. A descriptive dictionary then would tell you that a whale indeed was a fish. Zoological evidence though proved that this was wrong. A whale is a mammal. Fish are not. Thus, there is something innate and final about this difference that is based on reality, not semantics. So calling the two of them fish is not justified.

The point is, God is a prescriptive God. He determines what marriage, ministry, worship, and church are. For instance, John 4:24 says that those who worship God must do so in spirit and truthfulness. This is prescriptive. If you do not meet these criteria, then according to God you are not involved in worship no matter how emotional or inspirational the experience is. The same goes for ministry. Just because you are good at something and are doing it in honor of God who gave you that gift, doesn’t constitute ministry. Ministry is based on the ministering, or imparting, of Christ into others. If Christ is imparted into that person, then it is ministry. True ministry is not even preaching. Preaching may be a means, but still the question remains, was Christ dispensed? We do not need to reimagine church either because we never imagined it in the first place. The God-ordained way for Christians to meet and serve as the organic Body of Christ is revealed in the Bible. As Watchman Nee said, “There is no need for invention, but there is the need for discovery.” The church is called the masterpiece of God. Surely God is not happy with people haphazardly tweaking it to match their concept, tradition, or preference.

Since God is prescriptive and His purpose is eternal and unchanging, pray and reading the Word are a must. This will help us discover what is on His heart and live according to it, rather than hoping He will change the definitions for us.

11 thoughts on “On Owning a Dictionary

  1. Great post. I find dictionaries really addictive. There’s a term for the unputdownable hopping about from page to page in search of obscure words: Brownian motion. It’s a term borrowed from physics and the original meaning points to light bouncing off dust particles as seen from a microscope.

    Anyhow, thought you might enjoy this TED Talk by a lexicographer: http://www.ted.com/talks/erin_mckean_redefines_the_dictionary.html

    Also…isn’t it spelled “flak”?


    • Thanks Daniel. And you’re right it is flak. I fell prone to relying on the auto-correct rather than looking it up! Another thing about auto-correct in word processing programs and e-dictionaries on smart phones is that they become a commodity that people use just to help in spelling. It’s helpful in sending correctly spelled emails and such, but it strips away the learning and exploring process. No Brownian motion there.

      Thanks for the link!


  2. Kyle, first of all I’m glad that you have a blog! I’ve been following along for the past few days and wanted to let you know that I’ve been enjoying what I’m reading – it’s thoughtful, interesting, and refreshing.

    I’ve just been reading 1 Corinthians and appreciated that our human mind and heart are incapable of fathoming the deep things of God. Thus, we need the Spirit to “define” God’s wisdom to us in our spirit. Only in our spirit can we understand our prescriptive God.


    • Thanks Louella! Glad to hear that you’re following along. The Spirit is the best dictionary, you’re right. I love how Paul says “not in words taught by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things with spiritual words.”


  3. Kyle, this is an enlightening and much-needed post. I’ve noticed an unsettling trend in Christianity where people seem to care more for human speculation and philosophy than for what the Word of God actually says. “I think” seems to trump “God says.” But God is the “I AM.” What we think about Him doesn’t change who He is. He simply presents Himself to us; then we choose to either accept or reject what we see. I like how you ended your post – we need to read the Bible with prayer, asking the Lord to reveal Himself and His purpose to us.


    • Thanks, I’ve been considering doing a post on postmodernism. This is along similar lines. I like how you connected this with God being the “I AM.” That’s pretty confrontational and straight up if you ask me.


  4. Using your definition of preaching as a means of ministering Christ, it would be more accurate to the goal of the activity if one went to “minister Christ” as opposed to “preach the gospel”. There’s even a minor shift in the concept regarding activity with the change in terminology; ministering Christ (at least in my personal view) is something constant, not necessarily denoting a scheduled activity of speaking. This helps my view of going out to reach sinners by making me realize it’s just an extension of what should be happening all day. As sons of God, we have a living that ministers Christ.

    I recently discovered your blog and am finding it thought-provoking and conducive to spiritual musing. Looking forward to catching up on it!


    • I agree very much. To me “minister Christ” is a more intrinsic and organic term than “preach the gospel” or even “witness.” It gets more at the essence of what should be happening. Gospel preaching isn’t a profession carried out by specialists. Just like there is no specially designated branch in a tree responsible for all the fruit-bearing. All the branches are on the same organic level, with the same responsibility, for the sake of the entire tree. What is happening can only really be understood at an organic level. A different term conveys a different concept, and concepts are powerful and are hard to reverse once they set in. Hence words matter.


  5. Pingback: A Physician, not a Judge | life and building

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