Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: dictionaries

The use and abuse of dictionaries

Some folks scrutinize the dictionary for abstruse locutions to titillate the cerebral functions of those who peruse their literary endeavours.

This sentence is sticky in a negative way. Most readers will get stuck before they reach the end. That doesn’t matter, the sentence doesn’t have much to say. But there are people who believe that if you have something important to say, you must use words that sound important.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God

This sentence, the first verse of John’s gospel, is sticky in a good sense: it sticks in the memory. Only one word has more than one syllable, yet it will take a lifetime to plumb the depths of this sentence.

The title page of the 1611 Bible translation says: “Appointed to be read in churches.” Four hundred years ago appointed meant just what it sounds like: sharpened to a point. The translators were men of great learning, they knew words, their meaning and how best to use them. They crafted a translation that uses small words to convey big meanings in a way that is most effective when read aloud. The words are remembered with no conscious attempt to memorize them.

In a workshop during a writer’s conference, the group leader asked us to write a list of our five favourite books. Many of us had the dictionary on our list, usually near the top. That was a sure sign that I was in the company of writers. Most of us do not read the dictionary to find words to befuddle our readers, we are looking for the right word to make the meaning plain.

The dilettante, one who writes to amuse himself, uses big words, and lots of them, to say very little. The serious writer uses the fewest and smallest words possible to say something meaningful.


Our Sunday School lesson yesterday was on covetousness, a word that some of us don’t know how to pronounce and none of us know how to define.

Covetousness seems quite long enough at four syllables, but some in our circles think it needs a fifth. They pronounce it cov et you us ness. That’s ridiculous, four syllables are quite enough to get the job done.  In fact, we might be better off if English had stuck with the French original: convoitise. That has only three syllables.

As for the meaning, this seems to be a slippery word, difficult to get a grip on. I looked it up in several dictionaries and didn’t find them helpful. Hence, after some meditation on the subject, I hereby propose two definitions of my own, which I think cover the gamut of what we mean to say when we use the word.

Covetousness: 1. the desire for more than what is good for us; 2. the desire for something that would lift us above the common run of people of our acquaintance.

There you have my contribution to the demystification (six syllables!)of the English language. Feel free to submit your own definitions, or to shoot mine down if you feel that is what is needed.

Raunchy isn’t cool

Every once in a while I hear Christian sisters say something like, “I feel so raunchy.” It is generally said following some outdoor physical activity in hot weather. I believe that I understand what they mean to say, but others may take quite a different meaning, one that would horrify the sisters who say it.

You see, while raunchy has a range of meanings, the underlying implication is generally of  sexual arousal. Here are definitions from three current Canadian dictionaries:

Nelson Gage: 1 lewd; indecent: raunchy songs bordering on the obscene. 2 smelly or dirty, esp. from body odour: raunchy sneakers. 3 vulgarly exuberant: Some of the fans got pretty raunchy.

Oxford: 1 coarse, earthy, sexually provocative. 2a (of the sound of an electric guitar) distorted. 2b (of music) featuring raunchy guitars. 3 esp. US: slovenly, grubby.

Collins: sexy or earthy

I am quite sure that sisters who use this word are thinking only in terms of definition 2 from the Nelson Gage dictionary or perhaps definition 3 from the Oxford dictionary. But what if the hearers understand it in terms of the first definition from all three dictionaries? I wish that Christians would retire this word to the ranks of the terminally uncool.

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