Dictionary Errors

A while back my friend and I got into a bar debate about witches and warlocks. I said that “witch” is a gender-neutral term, so the proper term for a male witch is simply “witch.” He said a male witch is a warlock. After about 5 minutes of this, he went in the back and brought out a dictionary, (he’s the bartender), opened it to warlock and said “See? It says that a warlock is a ‘male witch’.” I was forced to concede.

I don’t want to debate the warlock issue, but my point was that the real definition of a witch was a wiccan and that it did indeed apply to both males and females…there is no “wiccan warlock.” I argued that the dictionary was using definitions that didn’t apply, but within seconds was shamed into accepting the dictionary as absolute arbiter of all things linguistic. (He’s an English major…I’m a schlub who designs database systems; who was I to refute the dictionary?)

Is there a term, or preferably more than one term, in the dictionary that is obviously incorrect when applied to modern common usage? An example I can cite to refute the absolute authority of the book?

P.S: I don’t care about the Warlock thing…please no wicca debates! I have heard since then that some wiccans do use the term warlock.

As a native speaker, you have the requisite authority to refute any dictionary. If you know male witches that call themselves witches and not warlocks, obviously the information provided by the dictionary is incomplete.

That said, I don’t like to be without a good dictionary. Even native speakers are just wrong sometimes.

But he pulled rank on me with his fancy-schmancy English degree. :stuck_out_tongue:

I agree about needing a dictionary handy. I lived for two years without one and was annoyed about it a couple dozen times.

I just wish there were a clear-cut counter-example.

Does the dictionary even make a claim for its absolute authority? It seems that the only criterion of correct usage is that your audience understands what you’re trying to say. The best a dictionary can hope to do is provide a snapshot of how words are used at a particular period in history. Language evolves, and the dictionary editors are constantly playing catchup. In addition, words have different meanings among different groups of people. Wiccans have their definition of witch, which differs from other definitions of witch. Philosophers have a definition of materialism that differs from the common conception of materialism. A Christian speaking of justification does not have in mind the skeptic’s idea of substantiation by providing evidence. If I want the meaning of a word as it is used in a particular discipline, I don’t go to the OED on the reference shelf, but instead to a specialized dictionary. Surely your English major friend can understand that words have different meanings in different contexts.

Tell him a linguist told you that native speakers trump dictionaries : )

Well, show him this excerpt from the alt.english.usage FAQ about the reliability of dictionaries.


Ellis Dee writes:

> . . . was shamed into accepting the dictionary . . .

“The” dictionary? There are lots of dictionaries. The first thing you should have done was to look through a bunch of them for the definitions of “witch” and “warlock.” (You can find many dictionaries in the reference section of any decent-sized library.) If you find that dictionaries disagree about these definitions, you have a knock-down case that your friend is at least incomplete in his understanding of the meanings of these words. If you don’t find anything useful there, you should find something written by these wiccans in which they use the word “witch” in a gender-neutral way. In any case, the point is that no dictionary can ever be a complete description of the words of any language. If some native speaker uses a word with a given meaning, then that’s what it means for him.

An English degree means nothing as far as being an expert on every dialect of English. You should tell your friend that there are different dialects in the understanding of the definitions of these words, and you can show him examples of a large group of people who use these words in this fashion. If your friend doesn’t know that definitions of words can differ among people within a single language, he doesn’t really know much about language.

Yeah, but if it’s two native speakers arguing, you’d think you’d need a tiebreaker, no? :slight_smile:

Remember that this is under the auspices of “friendly bar debate.” Even though he was tending the bar I still had coaxed him into a shot and a beer, so it isn’t as if he were writing a thesis.

Some bias in there, maybe? Like as a counter I could turn to atheist and find it defined as “godless heathen who’ll burn in hell” or some such thing. :slight_smile:

If this was nothing more than a friendly bar debate, you should treat it with exactly the respect that a friendly bar debate gets - none at all. Let your friend believe what he wants and ignore him in the future. You now know that the word “witch” is defined differently by different people, so it makes no sense to talk of “the” definition of the word.

First of all, there’s no “real definition” of any word. Language is fluid and new meanings of words are constantly arising.

Secondly, even if there was a “real definition” of the word “witch”, it wouldn’t be based on Wicca. Wicca is a modern religion, and numerous articles, books, and papers have shown it to have little resemblance to authentic pagan belief systems of antiquity. That doesn’t make it any less valuable to believers, but Wiccans weren’t around 1500 - 1000 years ago to have any impact on the meaning of the word “witch”.


Re: “witch” and “warlock.” The Bible says “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.” In order to let males live, PRESTO! Give them another name. Does the Bible say anything about killing warlocks?


UnuMondo has the right idea; a Wiccan is only the second definition of a witch, likely just because those of the Wiccan religion choose to call themselves such. Primarily a witch is “A woman claiming or popularly believed to possess magical powers and practice sorcery.” The Bible forbids this particular trade, that of a woman peddling magical ‘powers’; if you believe the bible the only alternative is that those power come from the devil if they exist at all.

The likely reason why warlocks are not mentioned specifically is because they were already spoken against in other terms. A warlock is “A male witch, sorcerer, wizard, or demon.” The Bible’s stance on demons is pretty well outlined, so perhaps it was decided that including all the synonyms for “reviled servant of the Lord of Lies” was not required.

As UnuMondo stated, language is fluid.

For a long time, a “visionary” was defined as an unrealistic pipe dreamer - a Don Quixote type. Now the definition has come to include the popular usage - that of someone of great intellect, foresight, etc.

Same is true for the definition of “nubile” which used to mean marriagible - and that was it. Now dictionaries include the popular usage (said of a female) - attractive, “built”, sexy, etc.

Times change I guess.

While you won’t find it in any modern dictionary, the word dord has an interresting history: (from snopes

Only tangentially related to your question, but a good story.

That is a good story.

Thanks for the responses. My OP should really have been:

Is there any word in the dictionary that reflects the fluid nature of language by still having the outdated and abandoned defintion?

(Methinks Wendell has never engaged in a friendly bar debate.)

Why? What about the nature of a friendly bar debate do you think that I don’t understand? Why don’t you explain what the term “friendly bar debate” means?

In larger dictionaries, there are lots of words with definitions that are marked “obsolete.” Words are always changing meanings and fading out of use, so in any given edition of a dictionary there are words and definitions that are almost obsolete and which will be obsolete in a few years. If your dictionary is somewhat old, it probably does have a few such words. And there are some bad dictionaries just slapped together by publishers with no checking of the words.