If anything is guaranteed to annoy a lexicographer, it is the journalistic habit of starting a story with a dictionary definition. “According to Webster’s,” begins a piece, blithely, and the lexicographer shudders, because she knows that a dictionary is about to be invoked as an incontrovertible authority. Although we may profess to believe, as the linguist Dwight Bolinger once put it, that dictionaries “do not exist to define but to help people grasp meanings,” we don’t often act on that belief. Typically we treat a definition as the final arbiter of meaning, a scientific pronouncement of a word’s essence.
But the traditional dictionary definition, although it bears all the trappings of authority, is in fact a highly stylized, overly compressed and often tentative stab at capturing the consensus on what a particular word “means.” A good dictionary derives its reputation from careful analysis of examples of words in use, in the form of sentences, also called citations. The lexicographer looks at as many citations for each word as she can find (or, more likely, can review in the time allotted) and then creates what is, in effect, a dense abstract, collapsing into a few general statements all the ways in which the word behaves. A definition is as convention-bound as a sonnet and usually more compact. Writing one is considered, at least by anyone who has ever tried it, something of an art.