Choose your online dictionaries carefully

There’s a dictionary that often appears near the top of search results.  Here’s why you shouldn’t trust it.

I’ve never been awfully satisfied with the definitions that appear with their own separate search box at the top of certain search pages.  I’ve been on the planet long enough to have a better sense of many words than, apparently, some of the editors working on these online “resources.”

The one that I see most often now has two hard strikes against it in my book.

Strike 1:  Arch.  A well-meaning participant in a literary critique session recently informed me that “arch smile” was an oxymoron.  He wrote that an arch was the inverse of a smile.  Wanting (as always) to be kind, I wasn’t sure how best to correct his misinterpretation of the word and went to see what online resources might be useful.  Imagine my surprise when a number of American online dictionaries missed the key element in making something arch — be it a smile, an expression, a comment, or anything else.  One says:  deliberately or affectedly playful and teasingRoguish is listed as a synonym.  Well, for starters… sort of.    They’re maybe getting warm.  And true, if enough people use any word wrong for long enough, the wrong meaning becomes the new meaning — and sometimes as a result there is no word left to represent the old meaning.  But it hasn’t been anywhere near long enough for that to happen with arch — not if we still draw the line before “rampid” on the Internet and similar words and phrases.  Then again, I may wake up any day now to find that rampid has been blessed as a newly coined synonym to rampant by some trendy young editor.  That’ll be a shame, because much like moran, rampid is much more useful as a non-word that reveals so much about its user. One can just about see Russia from its porch.

Depressingly, quite a few of the online dictionary resources appear to quote each other on arch.  What the definition I cited is missing, as any literary reader of a certain age is well aware, is the element of knowing better.  To be arch, an arch expression, statement, or gesture must communicate, whether playfully or otherwise, that the person wearing the expression knows something the other does not — or has another kind of authority or superior position relevant to the interaction that the other does not. Being arch can be described as being either pointedly or playfully condescending.

There is no point having the word arch if that element of its meaning is going to be eroded away.  All of the inadequate synonyms cited say the non-essential elements quite well enough.  The point of arch is precisely to overlay those other things with the element of knowing or being better.  At least one of the Oxford dictionaries gets that correct while another does not.  Collins also gets it more or less correct.

Strike 2:  Shoot from the hip.  Some years back I was posting in a foreign-language forum where, among other things, native speakers of the language posted questions about English.  One wanted to know the meaning of “shoot from the hip.”  Another poster had recently seen some Vin Diesel movie in which the term is used incorrectly (very common in Hollywood movies) and reported back confidently — and incorrectly — that to shoot from the hip means to speak directly or frankly.  No, it doesn’t.  It means, as Wiktionary reports at the time of this writing, to react quickly [and with doubtful accuracy or effect, I add] based on first impressions, without carefully studying the background information, wider context, and so on.  One could refine that a bit, but it’s essentially correct. I explained other idioms that one could superficially confuse with shoot from the hip and how the confusion probably came about.  But with some audiences, it’s impossible to compete with Vin Diesel.

Yet imagine my dismay on discovering that Big Search Page Dictionary reports the same false definition as Urban Dictionary, namely the incorrect one about merely speaking directly or frankly.  One can only conclude that editors of the ‘digital native’ generation are being brought in to replace the technophobic elders who once knew better but washed their hands of all the newfangled computery stuff and promoted 20-somethings to editors-in-chief.

I’m in an odd position.  I’m old enough to be one of the serious technophobes but instead I’m technocentric — I’ve been a ‘digital native’ and consumer and creator of digital environments and products since 1976.  My entire adult life and career have been spent in evolving computer technology since the time I was in college, and I was using the Internet well before it was called the Internet or even Arpanet.  But just because somebody says something on the Internet doesn’t make it true.