Lexicons as Ideas

In his 1967 novel Fahrenheit 451-the temperature at which books burn--Ray Bradbury imagines a dystopian society in which books are forbidden. His sources of inspi- ration are manifold. Emperor Shih Huang Ti, responsible for building the Chinese Wall, ordered the burning of all books in the kingdom. Tomás de Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of the Holy Office in Spain (and a converso), also ordered the destruction of books. The list of dictators, old and new, following a similar pattern of devastation, is too long to mention. (Plus, the ignominy these tyrants deserve should include anonymity, In return for the favor, their names should be erased from memory) But I wonder: Did any of these tyrants ever order the destruction of lexicons?

Even if they did, the memory would live on. Diderot Once said: "On ne tue pas de coups de fusil aux idées" One might kill people but one cannot kill ideas. Lexicons are a record of our ideas as we catalogue them in the form of words.

I came across the above excerpt in Dictionary Days by Ilan Stavans, an engaging little book by a true dictionary-lover that's full of captivating thoughts like the above on words and dictionaries and how and where they intersect with everyday life.

Somehow, I never realized that, as Stavans so clearly presents here, dictionaries--lexicons--are not just collections of words in alphabetical order, they are a record of our (i.e., humanity's) ideas about the world, language, and how we conceive of and investigate it. They offer insights into what we know and what we don't, what we value and what we reject, what we find beautiful and what we eschew, and most interesting of all perhaps, how we think of language and words and how they actually work.

This got me thinking. Is this notion of a lexicon being a record of ideas captured in the word's definition? To find out, I looked it up. Here's what I found:  

Donohue's Standard New Century Dictionary (1914), the oldest dictionary in the Butter Lamb Reference Library's collection (I guess the "new century" in the title refers to the previous one) defines lexicon as "A word book; a dictionary; a vocabulary containing an alphabetical arrangement of words in a language with the definition of each."

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (which is still a pretty hefty book) defines lexicon as  "A word-book or dictionary; chiefly a dictionary of Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, or Arabic. A special vocabulary. A list of words or names."

Both Merriam-Webster's online dictionary and the 11th edition of its Collegiate dictionary) define lexicon as "1. A book containing an alphabetical arrangement of the words in a language and their definitions : dictionary. 2a. The vocabulary of a language, an individual speaker or group of speakers, or a subject. b. The total stock of morphemes in a language." (Note: a morpheme is an indivisible basic unit of language.)

Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language defines lexicon as, "1. A dictionary, especially of an ancient language. 2. A special vocabulary, as of an author, science, etc. 3. In linguistics, the total stock of morphemes in a language."

Finally, I consulted the Dictionary of Lexicography. I thought that if any book in my possession would incorporate this idea into its definition of lexicon, it'd be this forward-thinking text. Did it? Here's what I found between its covers:

1. The totality of a language's vocabulary, seen either as a list or as a structured whole. The view of vocabulary as a list of words has led to the development of glossaries, dictionaries, and other works of reference, while the structural view has encouraged such linguistic disciplines as grammar, lexicology, and semantics. 

 2. A type of reference work in which the words of a language, language variety, speaker, or text are listed and explained, either in alphabetical or in thematic order. In English, this term is associated not with the general dictionary, but with more specialized works of a classical, literary, or technical orientation. In the Renaissance, lexicon was one of several competing titles for (often multilingual) specialized dictionaries.
3. The mental vocabulary stored in the (native) speaker 's mind. Some issues studied include: how and where words are stored, in what order they are learned and remembered whether bilinguals have separate or joint lexicons, etc.

I guess "the mental vocabulary stored in the native speaker's mind" comes pretty close. Circle gets the square. Goodnight everybody!

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