Tuesday, April 26, 2005

A trip to the dictionary

The other day I was thinking about the traditional philosophical chestnut of how we can think of ourselves as referring to things that there aren't any of. Some theories of meaning fall down here, like those that say that the meaning of a word just is its referent; but of course "there are no unicorns" isn't meaningless, it's true. We know better now about that one, but the more general issue is still active.

For instance, sometimes we say that we manifest understanding of a concept by applying it correctly in (a sufficiently impressive array of) particular cases. When an X is present, we say "there's an X," and not when there isn't. But what about concepts with empty extensions? For these it's never appropriate to say "there's an X" – because they're never present. On the other hand, when we see a drawing (or tapestry) which depicts a unicorn, we naturally say "there's a unicorn" (or, if pressed by some philosopher, "there's a depiction of a unicorn"). So does "unicorn" mean "the thing that would exist if that tapestry were an accurate depiction of reality in the relevant respect"? Let's hope not – that's a mess.

Not like this will settle it, but just for fun, what does the dictionary say? Will it make reference to the lack of (real) reference in such cases? The definition of "unicorn" is "a fabulous animal with one horn" (with accompanying drawing from British Royal Coat of Arms). Of course "fabulous" means "fictitious" (def. 1), so there you go. But other entries aren't so straightforward:
leprechaun, n. [Ir. lupracan, lugharcan, M. Ir. luchrupan, fr. lu little + corpan, dim. of corp body, fr. L. corpus.] Irish Folklore A little fairy usually conceived as a tricky old man, who if caught may reveal the hiding place of treasure.

Here we only have a reference to "folklore." I suppose that's enough, given the context. (Check that etymology, by the way – isn't that wild?) But what's a "fairy"?

fairy, n. [OF faierie, faerie, enchantment, fairy folk, fr. LL. fata one of the Fates, hence, fairy, fr. L. fatum fate. See FATE.] A minor supernatural being, supposed to be able to assume human form (usually diminutive), and to meddle in human affairs.

Here we have no indication that we're talking about something there aren't any of, except the distancing use of "supposed" -- but of course that might just as well mean that there are fairies but that they can't really assume human form, that that part's just talk. Like oysters, which really exist but might not really be aphrodisiacs. Interesting. How about "angel"? ("In theology, [...]") "devil"? Same thing (etymology: from Gr. diaballein, to calumniate, literally to "throw across"). By the way, def. 10 of "devil" is a technical term from Christian Science, as credited to Mary Baker Eddy. "Yeti"? No listing. "Easter Bunny"? Nope; they have "Easter egg," but they don't say who brings them. "Sasquatch"? Don't be stupid – I'm not even going to look that one up.

Now this particular dictionary is Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Fifth Edition, billed as the largest abridgment of Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition, and the date listed is ... 1936. I always liked this dictionary, but I have to say it's somewhat dated. Check out these two just down the page from "leprechaun." For example, I bet you (okay, some of you) think a lepton is a subatomic particle (electrons and positrons are leptons), but no:
lepton, n.; pl. -ta [Gr.] A minor coin denomination of modern Greece, equivalent to 1/100 drachma.

How about this one (note the capital letter):

Lesbian, adj. Erotic; — in allusion to the reputed sensuality of the people of Lesbos.

And that's it. Nothing about ***********, or *******, or *************, or anything; just "sensuality." Well, that's 1936 for you (although something tells me that even in the latest edition there isn't anything about *******; we're probably supposed to use our dirty little imaginations). First lady at the time? Eleanor Roosevelt. Oh, and in case you were wondering:

Sapphic, adj. 1. Of or pert. to Sappho, a Lesbian poetess (c. 600 B.C.) famous for love lyrics. 2. [often not cap.] = Lesbian, adj. 3. Designating, or pert. to, any of certain verse forms used by Sappho.

Anything about those "love lyrics" we should know? No? Just checking. And of course the def. of "fairy" I gave above is the only one given. Interestingly, def. 3 of "gay" is "Given to social pleasures or indulgence; hence, loose; licentious; as, a gay life." So the current use is just as much a slur as a PC euphemistic neologism. I did not know that.

By the way, just down from "fairy" is "fair catch," the football term. I always thought the fair catch rule was one of those newfangled wussy rules to protect players from having their heads forcibly removed from their bodies, like "in the grasp" and quarterbacks sliding forward. But no. I guess when you think about it, it's pretty obvious that such a rule is needed, so it's not too surprising that they would have figured it out by 1936.

So endeth the trip to the dictionary. If it's true that we learn something new every day, most of you are probably set for the rest of the week, so you might as well just go back to bed. Just another service from your friends here at DuckRabbit. You're welcome.

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