Nancy Bradford-Reid n.b-reid at
Mon Jul 17 13:11:59 PDT 1995

>At the lastest meeting of our clothiers guild (pradon to the people
>are opposed to the term), we were discussing this argument that you
>have been having, and a friend had a question about the use of the
>dictionary to justify the particular definition of a word, and I felt it was
>a very good one, so here it goes:  How can you use a dictionary to
>justify the a word, when there were no dictionaries in the time frame
>of the society? (the first being written by Samual Johnson, and before
>this there was no real consenus on the definition of word, their
>spelling, definition and use varied by district,  kingdom, and even by
>town)  Our point being that you may have a reference in writing for a
>period source, but how do you justify that as a common definition,
>applying it to all countries?
>Just wondering,

Good point.  However, the dictionaries are being used as points of
reference:  the accumulation of information gathered by scholars
(particularly in the case of the OED) who have gleaned as much information
as possible from period (sic) sources and amalgamated it in one place.
When a reference to a word or phrase is dated (e.g. 1581) that refers to
the date of the source for that particular usage.  There are scholars who
have traced the development of the language and can tell us the various
spellings of a given word over the centuries and connect it to the current
usage.  And yes, the usage varied by district; that is why you find 20
different entries for some words.  That particular word might also appear
in a slightly different context in 20 different regions or over a span of
years in 20 different documents.

Very brief explanation, but I hope it helps.


Nan Bradford-Reid
The Department of English
The University of Texas
n.b-reid at

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