NPC – Non Play Criticism: The Dictionary, The End All Be All of Meaning?

It is a truism in video game circles of serious thinkers that video games are a young medium and that we are forging new territory with our criticism. That is of course bullshit in both respects.

Video game critics are often cut off from other mediums. May perhaps that our medium is so new that more energy is required to get anything done as each new step is not just walking along a singular path among the fold, but having to stir and pour the concrete before a step may be taken. So much time gets spent toiling away on our own medium that we rarely look up and see the critical spheres of other mediums happening around us and the realization that so much that is considered with art is true for however an artist wishes to express themselves because it is all still human expression.

Non Play Criticism is my attempt to occasionally highlight some piece of criticism relating to another medium, educate whatever readership I may have by pointed it out and try and bring back into the fold whatever lesson it may have to offer.

If nothing else, I share an interesting piece of criticism from another medium.

Before we dive into the link I want to preface it with an explanation behind this series. I have interests beyond video games, some of which I even think critically about. I read reviews of movies, watch historical criticism of pop music, listen to short fiction etc. In other words, I pay attention to the world outside of our little sphere within a sphere within a sphere. To do so, however, is to be frustrated with all the futzing around for the light switch that we end up doing and the resulting inferiority complex that comes along with it.

NPC – Non Play Criticism1 was one of my random ideas and I asked Twitter if they would like to see an occasional series of posts using outside criticism for the benefit of video games. The response wasn’t large, in fact it was tiny, but it was unanimous and in one case surprising.2 Within five minutes of deciding to do it I had a big enough list of links off the top of my head that this went from occasional to weekly.

I tell that story to explain the following. This was one of the initial links I wanted to highlight. I was going to use it much later and approach from a very different angle. Certain recent events have changed the need. The following is not what I wanted to say.

Without further adieu: linguistics.3

Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, held an interview on her podcast episode 432 with Merriam-Webster dictionary lexicographer Peter Sokolowski to discuss how one creates a dictionary definition and how that has changed over the years and editions. The philosophies behind dictionary definitions as it were. The interview itself begins at 4:08.4

The dictionary is considered the be all end all of what a word means. In reality it is a distillation down to the common essence of a word from all of its history, popular use and cultural connotations. We all think we know what a word means, until we are asked to describe it using only other words. Then we are at a loss. There is an art to explaining something, anything. But there is an even greater art to explaining the specifics of the very thing you are using to explain it.

So much I could say, but I want to focus on that first idea. That so many consider the dictionary to be the be all end all of what a words means, of what our language means. What that generally entails is the subjugation of one’s own thought process to another’s. The dictionary has its uses for sure in conducting debates, but it is with small changes, course corrections in our use of the words as to be more commonly accurate. Not in forking over understanding of concepts wholesale. For how accurate is the dictionary itself?

Peter Sokolowski gives many examples through the interview, both old and current to explain what it means to our understanding when we change the approach to creating definitions. The one story in particular I wish to highlight: the original Webster’s definition of cat was as follows, “a domestic animal.” That’s it. That’s all of it. The original Webster’s definition of dog was, “a domestic animal.” Again, that was the definition in its entirety. Were one to only use the dictionary for their understanding of the world, “cat” and “dog” would be synonyms.

This is ludicrous and we know it because we have interactions with the real world, have seen cats and dogs and know them to be different animals. The definition is also highly inaccurate. For it would have a stray cat ceases to be a cat, because it is not domesticated. The definition expects something of the user and their world experience to get this definition. Would you want to give over you world understanding of cat or dog to this dictionary? No? Then why would you do so for any other concept?

Words’ meanings change over time. We know that. But that is a slow, gradual process over long periods of time. More common is the change in our explanation of what a word means. Words become more specific or more accurate by altering the contours of the ideological space of what they wish to define. Even the editors of Webster’s, the people who actually sit down and composes these definitions admits they get it wrong, have always and will continue to update definitions.

And just in case you think the dictionary is still the one stop shop for accuracy and a necessity in a debate, I give you the word Puce.

Puce, which to the rest of us means ‘a dark red’ was once defined in Webster’s 3rd as “a dark red that yellower and less strong than cranberry; paler and slightly yellower than average garnet; bluer, less strong and slightly lighter than pomegranate; and bluer and paler than average wine.” Highly accurate and highly useless.

  1. Thank you Reteesh for the name. I never would have come up with it on my own as obvious as it seems now. []
  2. Seriously it was Matt from LoadingReadyRun tweeting “yes please” that convinced me to do this more than anything else. []
  3. I’ve turned out to be a pretty big linguistic geek lately. Who knew? []
  4. Listen to the whole thing though for a tip on how to use a comma before ‘because’ and a history on the phrase éminence grise. []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>