A Dictionary Paradox

Anil Mitra © MARCH2013—August 05, 2014

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The Dictionary Paradox

Resolution

Comments

 

The Dictionary Paradox

Every word in a dictionary is defined in terms of other words. Therefore dictionaries do not fix meanings.

Resolution

Meaning is fixed by use

Rather, there is a basic set of words or ideas that is set by common use (this set need not be precisely defined.) Other words, especially words used rarely and words from special contexts (e.g. technical) may be defined in terms of the basic set. Thus dictionaries may provide variant meanings for common words and be a reference for uncommon words.

It has been said that the fixing of a language (meaning, grammar, spelling…) may mark the period of its zenith.

Comments

The paradox to be presented is not particularly deep but it sheds light on linguistic meaning. I would be surprised if no one has thought this paradox before. However, I have not seen it used to illuminate meaning.