Why I use the COD

Here are five questions from the game MooT:

1. Which is the vessel: the mortar or the pestle?

2. Is George Bush Jr's mouth -- literally -- a sphincter?

3. Which is due to pride: elation or exhilaration?

4. Is urine pith?

5. The bachelor just had sex; is he still celibate?

When I was developing MooT, I spent a lot of time watching groups of university students -- usually Math and Philosophy students -- debate MooT questions like the above. Sometimes the debate would go on for as long as a half an hour. Finally, when the answer had been given and the challenge made, all eyes would turn to me and I would intone the answer. Usually, this would be followed by howls of protest and somebody from the team, which got the question wrong, would yell:

"What’s THE DICTIONARY say!"

At that point, I would hand the agitated player my beat-up copy the Concise Oxford Dictionary (a.k.a. the COD) -- the dictionary upon which MooT is based -- and he/she (usually he) would look it up and accept whatever verdict the COD gave.

This sequence of events occurred fairly regularly during MooT games, but this is not what happens in real life. Normally, when someone says that they are going to look up a word in THE DICTIONARY, they will grab any available dictionary. They will have no interest at all in which particular dictionary they are using; the assumption being, of course, that all dictionaries contain the same information. This fascinates me because there is no such thing as THE DICTIONARY; what there is is a multitude of dictionaries -- the COD, Random House, the Century, etc. -- each compiled by a different group of people and each containing different information. In fact, each book is so different that had I chosen to base MooT on a dictionary other than the COD, many of my questions would have had different answers.

For example, take the MooT question:

Are the words enormity and enormousness synonyms?

According to the Concise Oxford, they aren't: the COD defines enormity as:

monstrous wickedness, dreadful crime, serious error

and enormousness as:

extreme largeness.

However, if I based MooT on Merriam-Webster's 9th Collegiate Dictionary, the answer to the question would be "Yes," because that dictionary's definition of enormity -- though it includes the senses given by the COD -- adds the additional sense:

the quality or state of being huge.

Now, how could this be? Is one of them wrong? Are they at war? If so, how do we find out which is right? Is there a higher authority?--a meta-dictionary, which even dictionary-makers go to?

Yes, there is -- I have seen the meta-dictionary and it is us.

Lexicographers -- i.e., dictionary makers -- get their definitions by observing how we -- the people -- use words. To do this, they collect samples of our discourse and from those samples they compile definitions. These samples are almost always drawn from writing because:

(1) written discourse is easier to collect, organize, and examine than is spoken discourse; and

(2) until this century, writing was the only way to preserve discourse

The result is that when we look up a word's "meaning," what we actually find is a distillation of how people -- especially writers -- have used that word over the years. So, it seems that we have a paradox:

To find the meaning of a word, we consult a book written by people who found the meaning of the word by consulting us.

The paradox is easily resolved, however, by realizing that when we look up a word in a dictionary, we do not find the word's "meaning" -- i.e., we do not find some ideal Platonic definition existing outside human discourse -- rather, what we find is a summary of the ways people use this word to communicate with other people.

The dictionary supplies us with this information by taking a sample -- albeit a non-random and writer-biased sample -- of how people have used it. This explains why different dictionaries can define the same word differently: their samples are different. For example, the COD skews its selection in favour of writers writing thirty or more years ago, whereas Webster's 9th uses more up-to-date written sources, as well non-literary sources; for example, they quote Art Linkletter and Mae West.

In the case of the word enormity, this is important because more and more people, writers included, have come to use it solely to mean "extreme largeness" (a use, by the way, that goes back to the 18th century, but which became disreputable in the 19th). For this reason, the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster decided that this usage had become sufficiently common to warrant its inclusion in the definition.

Now, some semantic hard-liners argue that this is an enormity; that by including what they believe to be a vulgar and superfluous sense of the word, Webster's 9th has legitimized its misuse. The result: the language is less precise and communication made more difficult. I don’t like it either, because broadening word definitions screws up my MooT questions, so much so, that each time a new edition of the COD is released, I am forced to update (or throw out) a bunch of my questions.

The problem with this position is that its logic leads to the condemnation of all language change, which means that you are condemning the process that created the language you speak.

In any event -- heading back to shallower waters -- when I was making MooT, I quickly learned that I would not be able to depend upon THE DICTIONARY, and that if I wanted to give precise and indisputable answers to questions like:

6. Can you slander someone with the truth?

I had better choose one dictionary as my authority and stick to it. I chose the COD for no better reason than that it was the dictionary I had always used.



1. The mortar -- the pestle is used to crush things that have been placed in the mortar.
2. No -- a sphincter is a ring of muscles that opens or closes an orifice; the mouth is an orifice.
3. Elation -- to make proud is to elate.
4. No -- pith is essential, urine is excrement and, hence, inessential.
5. Yes -- anyone who is unmarried is celibate, whereas anyone who abstains from sex is chaste.
6. No -- According to the COD, for a statement to be a slander, it must be false.


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