Dictionary Definitions

As a lot of you probably know, some of my favourite books are dictionaries.

Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique leads the way (I own a copy of the translation which Thomas Birch organised in the 1730s, the ten-volume General Dictionary, Historical and Critical, and one of these days I’m going to have to shell out to get the folios rebound, as they aren’t especially usable at the moment); astute observers of Thursday Kitten-blogging will have spotted that I’ve got a copy of Raymond Trousson and Frédéric S. Eigeldinger’s Dictionnaire de J-J Rousseau (it’s the big yellow book on the right in the lower of the two pics, just below the black kitten’s paw); time with the OED is never wasted; and recently I’ve been using the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography a lot, which is also great fun, extremely useful, and partially written by my friends, current colleagues and former teachers, which is nice.

But that’s really just an over-long introduction to the question I wanted to ask, which follows (eventually):

Quite often — very often, in fact — undergraduate students begin their essays by telling you (the person who’s reading / marking it) what the key conceptual terms in the question they’re considering mean, and they do this by quoting from standard dictionary definitions, and generally from the OED. Now, on the one hand, there’s something handy about doing this. It helps to give clarity and content to words that might otherwise be slippery and vague, and – with a bit of luck – it gets the argument of the essay off on a firmer footing than might otherwise be the case.

On the other hand, it may also have a number of drawbacks. By presenting the conceptual terms as givens at the start of the essay, it makes it harder for the argument of the essay to do the work of clarifying the content of the concept itself. (We might think, for example, that we’d prefer to find a wellworked-out concept presented at the end of the argument of the essay, rather than at the beginning.) If we think that the key concepts that are likely to appear in an essay-title are “essentially contested” ones (and this is is especially true in political theory essays), then quite a bit turns on which particular dictionary, and therefore which particular decontestation, gets presented in the language of the definition. And, thirdly, it concedes to the lexicographers an authority that they don’t really possess — and, in the case of the OED, an authority which its contents and design-principles contradict at every turn, with its concern to track usage rather than to prescribe meaning, and to pile up definition upon definition upon attestation upon attestation, all of which tends to a happy anarchy (“confusion’s masterpiece”?) rather than to any kind of precise, concicse authority. (Hobbes would have hated the OED — or perhaps he would have said that that’s what inevitably happens when you put the dons in charge of the dictionary.)

So the question’s really this: should students be encouraged or discouraged to go down the “at the start of your essay, define your key terms” route? Or should those of us who get paid to teach them just remain agnostic on the general subject, and point out when they either do it well or badly?

(I’m especially interested in answers from anyone who does teach, has taught, or plans to teach at university-level here, though obviously opinions from anyone else are more than more than welcome.)

And a supplementary question: anyone know where students pick up this habit of starting with dictionary definitions? Is it something teachers at school tell them is good practice, is it something encouraged by other university teachers, or is it something that students do because they think it’s what we want to see? Or — more boringly, but perhaps more likely — is it some kind of combination of the three? (Or, more interestingly, something else altogether?)

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