A Lexicographer’s Life

“Language is a wild thing. It is vague and anarchic. Style, meaning, and usage are continually on the move. Throughout history, for every mutation, idiosyncrasy, and ubiquitous mistake, there have been countervailing rules, pronouncements and systems making some attempt to bring language to heel.”

Lane Green, Talk on the Wild Side, 2018

Where does the meaning of words reside? Are words simply tools that we use to communicate meaning, or do the words contain meaning themselves? 

We have a book dedicated to the meaning of words – the dictionary.  It outlines in unambiguous terms the meaning of each word. But what happens when a word changes it’s meaning? This happens more often than you might think as time passes and words migrate to new settings: ‘cool’, ‘mouse’ and ‘nice’ are all words which mean very different things now than they did one hundred years ago. Reading a small selection of these articles will help you answer the question, where does the meaning of words reside?

Learner Portfolio

Write a one-two page journal entry in which you present your thoughts about whether words have meaning, or whether meaning resides somewhere ‘else’.

From the TOK Newsletter: Catching Words

Description: “We all need them, but some, like me, love words, and the mind feast they bring. But while words shape our lives, few grasp the weird way they work… Words “won’t—and can’t—sit still (like, literally),” declares John McWhorter (Words On The Move).”

Discussion points and exploration: A brief, but very comprehensive outline of the way words change their meaning over time. It draws a lot on the ideas of John McWhorter, whose seminal TED talk on the way texting is (and isn’t) affecting language is both highly illuminating, and very entertaining (you can find this talk in ‘Time and Space: Changing English‘). Look for the way in which dictionaries are defined – what does this tell us about the evolution of language?

Learner Portfolio

Write a journal entry in which you outline your thoughts on these issues raised by the article:

  • What function do dictionaries serve?
  • What does the change to the meaning of words over time reveal about society?


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