by Diana Senechal
Abandon hope for meaning, all ye who enter here. The online dictionary gives you quick definitions; you take one and run. What do you find when you look up a word? A flashy, crowded page; words corseted and adorned with videos, jingles, links. Which definition do you grab? The most popular one, the most convenient one, the one that fits the shopper’s purposes.
A dictionary should tell you words’ common and uncommon meanings, their history, their occurrences in literature and speech. It should be a place that stays relatively still, with updates from time to time—where meaning exists, where the less popular meanings have a place, and where one can wander, pause, explore, and think. As the Internet changes our conception of dictionaries, it changes our language as well.
Let us see what happens when I look up the word “dwell” by typing “dwell definition” (without the quotes) in Google. The first hit gives a single definition for the verb (“Live in or at a specified place”) and for the noun (“A slight regular pause in the motion of a machine”). Right below these definitions, there are links to Dictionary.com, Answers.com, Merriam-Webster, and The Free Dictionary. The Dictionary.com page for “dwell” has an animated banner, followed by several ads, including “1 trick of a tiny belly”—all of this before the actual definitions. (The ads here and elsewhere may change from visit to visit.) The page on Answers.com starts out with a link to dwellstudio.com and the description, “Unique, Modern Baby, Kids and Home Decor. Bedding, Bath, Table & More.” Merriam-Webster sometimes takes you to an advertisement page before loading the actual page; on the advertisement page, only the first definition for “dwell” (“to remain for a time”) appears. The Free Dictionary assembles definitions and examples from various sources but also has animated ads and commercial links.
Isn’t this typical of services on the Internet? Yes, but a dictionary has traditionally been a sanctuary for words (a messy one, granted), and now it is not. In a dictionary without distractions, one can read a definition slowly, peruse the surrounding words, and follow trails from synonym to synonym, from cognate to cognate. Online dictionaries emphasize functionality and commerce—get your meaning and move on (and buy some bedding while you’re at it). There are rare exceptions, such as the Online Etymology Dictionary, which attracts those who are interested in words in the first place (and is funded by donations). Certain subscription-only dictionaries, such as the online Oxford English Dictionary, offer rich definitions without ads, but even the OED gives quick definitions at the outset, and the user has to click further to see the full array.
Over the long term, people may lose a sense of words’ secondary, tertiary, and rare or archaic meanings. Let’s come back to “dwell.” The lexicographer Henry Cecil Wyld posits a Proto-Indo-European root *dwal-, meaning “obscure, dark,” which over the centuries evolved into Norse and Old English words meaning “to delay” and “to hinder.” This in turn evolved into the meanings “to wander” and “to abide.” Thus “dwell” (as I hear it) has a sense of straying and restraint, of willing and unwilling lingering. It carries hints of some sort of spell or force; to dwell in a house is not only to live in it but to have some bond with it, brief or long. The Oxford English Dictionary gives numerous definitions of “dwell”—not only the ones mentioned so far, but also “to persist,” “to remain,” and “to pause,” among others. To dwell on a subject is to will oneself to it or be willed by it. Likewise, if something dwells in you, then it isn’t just a bone or nerve; it is a spirit too. Satan cries out in John Milton’s Paradise Lost,
Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy forever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
One hears not only the suggestion of “dwell” in the rhyming “Hell” but also its absence. Hell is emphatically not a dwelling, not a home, and Satan knows perfectly well that he cannot make it a heaven, not even in his mind.
Stop complaining, says the pragmatic citizen of the 21st century. Just buy your own print dictionary and be done with it. Make a Heaven of Hell, relatively speaking. Yes, indeed, and I have done so, relatively speaking. Oh, relative hell! But like the vegetarian who eats meat when served by carnivore hosts, I use the online dictionary when it’s all I have before me, as do millions of others. People click for meanings in the office, at home, in school, and on the road. At this point online dictionaries have the run of the land and air. Given their ubiquity, we should insist that they make room for words and minds. Perhaps a publisher will step forward and give us a free online dictionary without ads or abridgements. That would be a worthy deed—and profitable over the long haul, too, as it would keep minds fed and good books in circulation. But maybe the long haul is slipping out of our view—precisely because words themselves have become quick fixes.
Diana Senechal is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in January 2012.