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Smith’s Dictionary

March 14, 2010

I am pleased to introduce “Smith’s Dictionary,” a new section of the ISJ featuring a small but growing selection of words, as defined by me. Each time a new word is added to the Dictionary, I will alert readers by cross-posting that word here. Here is an example of what you can expect to find:

Atheism A strong faith in God’s non-existence.

(For more, see the “Smith’s Dictionary” tab to the right of “About Me.”)

My aims for the Dictionary are at once pragmatic and ideological. Practically speaking, I am very aware that if the ISJ is going to attract more readers, it will have to keep up with the Douthats and Chaits (no mortal could keep up with the Sullivans). The Dictionary will be, I hope, an easy — and fun — way for me to generate more posts.

Additionally, since I began blogging last July, I have become increasingly interested in the link between language and ideology. The meaning of a word like “freedom” is, it seems to me, by no means static or self-evident. Words are, rather, spoils for the victors of political warfare — golden bracelets or cups enjoyed by the lucky few, even as the rest of us continue to hunger for a vocabulary to express our interests. If a poor man can be made to believe that freedom is lower taxes or the reduction of social services, it is not he, but FoxNews who casts his ballot.

I am not so self-important as to think that the Dictionary will, in any way, alter the settled meanings of words. But if I am able to startle, perturb, or even irritate my readers — however momentarily — the project will have been a success.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2010 6:35 pm

    What a great idea!

    I am pleased to introduce “Smith’s Dictionary,” a new section of the ISJ featuring a small but growing selection of words, as defined by me

    There are other benefits to this as well, in regards to communication.

    Language, even though we have official dictionaries and commonly understood words and phrases and jokes, can easily mean vastly different things to different people, and it would be great if the misunderstandings that can come from that fact could be avoided.

    It’s idealistic, sure. I mean, like you said, “I am not so self-important as to think that the Dictionary will, in any way, alter the settled meanings of words,” but it’s useful in a number of other ways. In your case, for example, if you and I were to be discussing atheism, I now have a point of reference and I know how to approach the conversation. I can’t think of a very different definition for “atheism” at the moment, but a number of other words, if not understood to mean the same thing between two or more people, can change the dialogue significantly.

    I think “racism” is an excellent example of a word that, if everyone knew everyone else’s personal definitions of it, would be able to be discussed so much more coherently and productively across the board. Oh feminist and other social justice blogs, the “Power + Prejudice” model of racism, sexism, etc. is used. This model is really only taught in higher education, and all college students and graduates certainly don’t come away with their personal definitions changed. Most people define “racism” as simply a prejudice against people of a certain race. When these people hear a well-educated anti-racist advocate say that a black person in the US can’t be racist, they don’t understand that that doesn’t mean that black people aren’t capable of disliking or discriminating against other races. It feels immediately unfair to hear that you are incapable of being victimized, and makes one think of all of the times they have been. “Well I live in this neighborhood and I get called a honky all the time!” and things like that. Which can turn quickly and easily into racial stereotyping, harassment, etc.

    Same with sexism; I can’t be sexist? Seems silly to me, but I understand the model used, so it makes sense in that conversation to just go with it so that everyone understands what’s actually being said.

    I went to the blogosphere to actually write a post; here I go writing a post-length comment here instead. 😉

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    April 30, 2010 9:19 pm

    Thanks for the feedback! I definitely know what it’s like to unwittingly spend gobs of time commenting on blogs. (I have occasionally gotten so out of hand that I ended up posting the comment on my own blog.)

    I completely agree with your points on “racism” — which is about the most ideologically loaded word I can think of. On the one hand, you have the identity politics crowd defining racism as “power plus prejudice”; on the other, conservatives want to say that only intentional discrimination counts as racism. Personally, I think it would do a lot of good to shift the discussion from racism to racial inequality. But that’s another blog post.

    In general, the dictionary has served more as an excuse to be a smartass than as a vehicle to make serious points. At the same time, I’m really hoping that people will begin submitting their own definitions, here and on Twitter — which could potentially lead to some great discussions.

    Thanks again for reading.

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