Culture, Power and Dictionaries: How to use lexicography to study cultural objects

Semiotics has to do with texts, that is, with the inscription, transformation and interpretation of organized sets of signs. In this contribution I shall contend that the genealogy of lexicography represents an ideal standpoint to address a central issue for semiotics, namely, how the manipulation of signs and meanings may determine the shaping of cultural objects. I shall begin by introducing the revolution that lexicography undertook during the nineteen century, discussing why this process required the availability of a specific set of concepts, as the one of “meaning” as something mutable and historical, and then how it led up to the emergence of new techniques of the self, to the coming into being of a new kind of people (the professional lexicographer) and to the introduction of new practices of sign-observation and inscription. I shall then consider how the lexicographer, being entitled to select certain definitions instead of others, acquired the power to fix the meaning of terms involving moral and religious content (“marriage”, “conversion”, etc.), to influence scientific and philosophical dispute (defining key-concepts as “continuity”, “belief”, “soul”, “ether”, etc.) and to impact the culture of distant populations by exporting new signs into their language (as the word “God”). Finally, I shall confront the historical development of lexicography with the project of the dictionary of Newspeak that George Orwell described in 1984.

Marco Annoni

Semiotics has to do with the observation, analysis and interpretation of texts. A “text”, broadly understood, is an organized set of signs conveying information. Given the breadth of this definition, it is possible to identify as “text” a wide range of things including languages, films, pictures, gestures, books etc. Clearly, texts are not the exclusive objects of semiotics. Anthropology, philosophy and linguistic are just a few examples of other interrelated disciplines – comprised under the umbrella term “humanities” – which traditionally busy themselves with the study of texts.

Yet, by extending the definition of “text” and “sign” even further, it would be possible to claim that almost any practice of knowledge, from mathematics to medicine, involves the manipulation of certain kinds of text. Remarkably, nowadays some interesting applications of the concept of text are being developed within the context of life-sciences, and especially in biology. Semiotical frameworks are increasingly applied to study living beings as plants, animals and humans. The key-idea shared by biosemiotics or zoosemiotics is that not only we can interpret texts as living beings, but that we can also interpret living beings as texts.

Still, the emergences of these biologically oriented approaches do not supersede the need of more traditional semiotical inquiries. On the contrary, they have to be pursued in continuity with them, for they are two faces of the same medal. The semiotical study of the organic cell can and must be intertwined with the study of those general, complex, social, and superficial texts that permeate our lives as cultural objects. In fact, one of the most promising ways to develop semiotics in the incoming future may likely be to unfold the implications of the following question: to what extend can we use semiotics to construct a unified and coherent framework able to link different phenomena from the molecular to the cultural level?

From this point of view, in this contribution I would like to address one of the core issues of the centre of the present semiotical debate, namely, what are cultural objects and why and how semiotics allows us to analyse them. While developing my argument, I shall adopt a historically-oriented strategy. I shall argue that the study of the genealogy of lexicography provides us with useful hints to understand what cultural objects are and in which way sign-making practices are intertwined in their shaping.

Generally, lexicography can be defined as the practice of dictionary-making. From an external point of view it is often perceived as a boring and over-specialized subject of inquiry. This and similar beliefs are commonly grounded in two interrelated ideas. The first is that dictionaries are today more or less as they were in the past. After all, dictionaries are just dictionaries. The second is that lexicography is nothing but an automatic and mechanical activity. It consists only in compiling a list of alphabetically ordered words. Hence, given enough time and resources and the same amount of competence, two persons will end up compiling very nearly the same dictionary. Being more a matter of patience than of personal preferences, a finished dictionary can be used as a neutral source of linguistic authority precisely because it is realized in an impersonal way. Lexicography is a passive practice: its task is to report, not to modify cultural objects.

In order to put these ideas to test, I shall now briefly discuss two historical examples taken from the genealogy of lexicography. Both are interesting cases insofar as they reveal how a sign-related practice has evolved its purposes, techniques and concepts in order to cope with those particular cultural objects that are linguistic signs. In turn, this lets us infer something about what these cultural objects are. Let us begin with the first example: the Dictionary of the English Language, published by Samuel Johnson in 1755. This text marked a watershed in the history of lexicography in three respects.

First, Johnson’s dictionary changed the idea of what a dictionary was. Till the end of the seventeenth century, the aim of dictionaries was to report lists of “hard words”, that is, lists of difficult, obsolete, foreign, exotic and technical words. Dictionaries were only didactic tools conceived to help uneducated men and ladies to stay up to date in society. Instead, Johnson defined in his work both “hard” and common words. For the first time in history a lexicographer aimed at a comprehensive picture of the language. By conveying a different kind of information, the Dictionary written by Johnson inaugurated a new kind of text. Once published, it became a vivid picture of the living state of the English language and of the British culture. After Johnson, dictionaries acquired a new cultural role and together with atlases and cyclopaedia, museums and other institutions, they became a means to gather and define families of cultural objects. Consequently, they became also ways of determining linguistic and national cultural identities.

Second, the emergence of the new ideal of lexicographical comprehensiveness compelled the development of new methodologies of work. Initially, Johnson thought that a word could have a fixed number of meanings; in practice, he realized that often this was not the case. After three years of work, he switched to a more empirical approach. Importing the same methodology used in the legal field, Johnson reported series of chronologically ordered series of quotations taken from the past literature in order to illustrate the usages of words. Through referring to past authors, he showed when a word has entered into the language, and how its meaning has changed over time. As he wrote in the Preface,

I found out speech copious without order, and enrgetik without rules: wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated. Having therefore no assistance but from general grammar I applied myself to the perusal of our writers; and noting whatever might be used to ascertain or illustrate any words or phrase, accumulated in time the materials of a dictionary which, be degrees, I reduced to method.

This technical novelty had a tremendous impact on successive lexicography. After Johnson, it became impossible to separate the definition of a word both from its etymology and from its past usages in literature. This was an entirely new way of providing definitions. In turn, this new practice compelled a shift on the theoretical level. Through etymology and quotations, signs and their meanings began to acquire a brand-new historical dimension for lexicography. Since they were no more handled as something that was degenerating from an origin, something that must have been fixed, they started to be conceived as something intrinsically in process. Paraphrasing O.W. Holmes’s famous sentence concerning the nature of law, with Johnson lexicography discovered that the life of signs had not been logic, but experience.

Third, after Johnson’s work to compile a dictionary became an activity requiring specific skills, a vast knowledge and years of work. Unlike the dictionary that appeared before, Johnson signed a contract with five or six booksellers in London to bring this desired “Standard dictionary” into life. Lexicography became a paid profession. Consequently, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the power to observe, select and define cultural objects in dictionaries came to be exercised only by two specialized figures: the professional lexicographer and the scientific experts who compiled and revised technical terms.

On the textual level, dictionaries metamorphosed into multi-layered texts. Their purport was the construct of an idea of culture and their strategy to do this was to select and assemble only a privileged kind of text: the written literature of reference. This implied a twofold effect. On the one hand, dictionary entries were determined by the literature they quoted. On the other hand, they contributed to define what and who could have been considered authoritative in literature, poetry, language, botany, philosophy, etc. In the eighteenth century the success of dictionaries became increasingly dependent on the construction of their perceived authority.

Johnson’s dictionary set the canon for this kind of works for a long period. It contained 43.500 words, supported by 118.000 illustrative quotations. It soon became so firmly established “that any request for “The Dictionary” would bring forth Johnson and none other. One asked for The Dictionary much as one might demand The Bible, Hymns Ancients & Modern, or The Prayer Book”.[1]

The next crucial step in the genealogy of lexicography had been the coming into being of the ideal of completeness by the mid of the nineteenth century. Although eighteenth century lexicographers aimed at completeness in principle, in practice they were not equipped to achieve it. The reason was practical. Once the historical conception of meaning was acknowledged, it became clear that an ideally completed dictionary ought to include not only all the words of the language, ­– with their etymology, spelling, pronunciation and syllabification – but also all the shades of meaning that they ever had and have, each defined and possibly supported by a chronologically ordered series of literal quotations.

The achievement of completeness virtually required the reading of everything that had ever been written. This meant for lexicography another change of methodology and thus the realization of a new kind of work, perfectly represented by our second example: the Oxford English Dictionary or OED. Although the story of the making of the OED is complex as well as fascinating, here I shall mention only one aspect: the relationship between the pursuit of the ideal of completeness and the construction of a neutral linguistic authority.

When the final fascicle of the OED was finally published in 1928, after 71 years of work, it was hailed as a monumental result. It featured 15.490 pages, a total of 227.779,589 letters and numbers occupying 178 miles of typing, 414.825 words illustrated by 1.827.306 quotations that have been selected among five millions. It soon became and still is a standard of reference both as a source of lexicographical authority and as a model of how a dictionary should to be compiled. It was judged as the most trustworthy picture of how the English language really was. The OED claimed an ideally achieved completeness and this, in turn, constructed its particular and new kind of authority, whose first effect has been to place it outside what could have been criticized.

Yet, though the historical success and importance of the OED cannot be questioned, the equation between completeness and the construction of a neutral linguistic authority does not sustain even a superficial examination. Even the OED was anything but neutral. With its choice to privilege certain authors instead of others (Shakespeare overall), its inclusions and omissions, the OED transmitted an idea of English and Englishness which was not just predominantly middle-class, but also backward looking, Anglocentric, morally imbued and substantially male. In spite of the methodology of its completion, it vividly portrayed the finite, prospective, historical and cultural world-view of the people who made it. As in Johnson’s case, this is what made and makes it a relevant cultural object on its own.

More than any similar work, the making of the OED has been a communitarian and therefore a moral and patriotic duty. It has been also a typical manifestation of the spirit of the Victorian age. If the distant colonies measured the military and institutional power of the British Empire, the OED was meant to size and prove the greatness of its culture. It represented a different kind of enterprise, possibly even harder to achieve for it was something that nobody else had ever attained before: the complete conquest of one’s own language, and thus of the possibilities of one’s own expression and thought. The Dictionary was an instrument of cultural imperialism. From a linguistic point of view, it represented the living attempt to realize a map in a scale of 1:1 of all the cultural objects that constituted the British “culture”. A few other literal works can claim an equal impact upon the shaping of a cultural identity as can the OED.

But on a different scale, the same phenomenon is true of every dictionary. For example, also Johnson purposefully avoided listing several categories of linguistic signs, including the bad words. Generally, as soon as dictionaries became means of authority they also became potential means to control the language, the thought and the behaviours of people. The professional lexicographer, once entitled to select certain definitions instead of others, acquired the power to fix the meaning of terms involving moral and religious content (“suicide”, “marriage”, “conversion”, etc.), to influence scientific and philosophical disputes (defining key-concepts such as “electricity”, “soul”, “phlogiston”, etc.) and to impact the culture of distant populations by exporting new signs into their language (as the word “God”). In spite of its professed ideal or perceived neutrality, lexicography, like history, is bounded to the shaping of its objects of inquiry.

In order to further clarify this latter point, let me now introduce a further example. This time is not taken from the history of lexicography but from literature. In fact, the possibility that lexicography can be used as an explicit way to shape and determine people’s behaviour has been beautifully explored by George Orwell in his famous novel 1984. As you will recall, 1984 is the story of a man whose life is entirely determined by the society in which he lives in. This society is ruled by an ideology (English Socialism or IngSoc), physically represented by the Party and symbolically personified by the ever watching Big Brother.

Remarkably, besides the Thought-Police (that controls thought) and telescreens (that control behaviour), one of the ways in which the Party aims to create a perfect control over the population is the ongoing creation of a new language exemplified by the making of a new kind of dictionary: the dictionary of Newspeak. Quoting from Orwell’s interesting essay reported in the appendix of 1984, «The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible … Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum». Simply put, the rationale of the Newspeak dictionary is that the one who controls the language thereby controls also the thought and the behaviour of others.

As nineteenth century dictionaries, the dictionary of Newspeak aims at completeness. Yet, it pursues another strategy to achieve it. Differently from what has happened in lexicography, every edition of the dictionary aims to reduce the number of words listed. Hence, it lists all the words of Newspeak simply because every word excluded by the new edition of the dictionary is not a word and thus it has no meaning. Instead of portraying the language as it is, the dictionary of Newspeak aims to fix the language once and for all. It does not describe, it prescribes the language.

In order to accomplish this aim, it eliminates the historical dimension of linguistic signs. In newspeak there are no derivations or etymologies. Instead, words are rigidly defined in a purely abstract way. The rationale is, of course, that «he who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past». Therefore Newspeak is projected to be a living language which is not in flux, but out of time and change.

In other words, the dictionary of Newspeak is explicitly designed to reduce interpretability, that is, the potential development of signs through interpretation. The dictionary of Newspeak is a way better instrument than police and telescreens to exercise control; it is not a reaction to crimes, but a way of making them impossible. Indeed, speaking and thinking in Newspeak do not lead to the emergence of new cultural objects, nor to the re-shaping or disappearance of the old ones. Spontaneity is not contemplated and therefore deviation is eradicated. What can be expressed in newspeak cannot be properly defined as something “cultural” for the word “culture”, together with its concept, does not even exist in Newspeak.

Fortunately for us, Orwell’s dictionary is just a fictional narrative device. However, if it is considered in conjunction with the two previous historical examples presented above, it let us observe in a sharper way how sign-making practices are closely connected with the shaping of cultural objects. From what we have seen, we can now draw a series of provisional conclusions.

First, the idea that dictionaries are today as they were in the past is plainly wrong. Today dictionaries are the product of a prolonged and successful rational inquiry, which took over five hundreds years. Along their tumultuous evolution, they transformed themselves from simple word lists into empires of words. Meanwhile, they became powerful means to define cultural identities and to measure the progress of science and civilization.

Second, lexicography is not a purely mechanical practice. Instead, it is a complex activity that involves specific techniques and depends on the erudition and education of those who practice it. Dictionaries always reflect the culture of those who compile them. As the historical case of the OED makes clear, even the emergence of the ideal of completeness did not lead to the construction of a completely neutral linguistic authority. Still, the impossibility of compiling a perfectly neutral dictionary does not reveal a deficiency of lexicography, but a structural feature of any sign-making practice, that is, any time we are interpreting a text we are actively developing it. Insofar as lexicography handles signs and their meanings it inevitably manipulates and transforms them. On a larger scale, the same can be claimed for all the other practices which require sign-interpretation, including history, philosophy and semiotics.

Third, not only we shape cultural objects, but cultural object do shape us. Through the selection of certain quotations, lexicographers aimed to construct and transmit a precise idea of their culture, imparting direct moral lessons to their readers. Insofar as dictionaries are means of controlling cultural objects, they can as also be used as means, more or less explicit, to control people’s thought and behaviours. This depends on the fact that interpretation modifies both what is interpreted and who interprets it.

Fourth, a word, a concept and a pattern of behaviour may all be defined as “cultural objects”. Yet, often they form an ordered semiotical continuum. That is, our language determines our thought and our thought determines our behaviour (and the other way round). Although it cannot be claimed that cultural objects can be reduced to their linguistic appearance, or that other relationships of order are not possible, nonetheless – as a relevant tradition of studies vindicates and as Orwell’s example points out – it is important to recognize that language does play a prominent role in the shaping of our cultural objects.

Fifth, the genealogy of lexicography tells us something about what cultural objects are. Of course, the evidence of what I am going to say is limited to those cultural objects which are the subjects of lexicography. However, it is my position that, insofar as lexicographical objects are cultural ones, then their features belong also to any other kind of cultural objects.

The practical impossibility to compile a definitive dictionary with absolute fixed meanings emphasises that cultural objects are historical entities that depend on interpretation for being what they are. And since interpretation is a process, cultural objects have a process-like nature. In fact, where there is no latitude of possible interpretation there cannot be properly any culture. Next, cultural objects are not meaningful by themselves, but they always depend for their meaning on other texts. On its own, a singular cultural object is just as meaningful as a dictionary-definition of a sign into a language whose vocabulary is composed of just that sign.

This hints at another feature of cultural objects, namely, they do not come in collections of individuals; rather, they come in systems or, as I prefer to say, in families. They tend to form complex, reproductive and self-organizing systems. Observing the history of lexicography reveals that cultural objects come into being and perish instead of suddenly appearing and disappearing. They tend to propagate, adapt and change in relation to their environment rather than being fixed, immutable and abstract entities. This is one of the reasons why a biological conceptual vocabulary, as both Peirce and Lotman have anticipated, is often the most appropriate to interpret systems of signs and their dynamics.

Furthermore, in order to deserve a dictionary entry and to become through lexicography a cultural object, a text has to be public and thus partially general and observable. A private stream of thought, as long as it is private, is not a cultural object, though it may well be defined as a text. Culture and cultural objects do not depend just on interpretation; they depend on public processes of interpretation.

In conclusion, the genealogy of lexicography can be used to reveal that cultural objects are not just texts, but they a specific kind of text, namely, historical, continuous, self-organizing systems of texts subject to a public process of interpretation.


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Daston, Lorraine and Gallison, Peter. 2007. Objectivity. New York: Zone books.

Fisch, Max H. 1986. Peirce, Semeiotic and Pragmatism, edited by K. L. Ketner and C. J. W. Kloesel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hitchings, Henry. 2006. Defining the World. The extraordinary story of Dr. Johnson’s dictionary. New York: Picador.

Jones, R.F. 1953. The Triumph of the English Language. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Murray, James A. H. “The Evolution of English Lexicography”. (12 June 2009)

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Winchester, Simon. 2003, The Meaning f Everything. The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 1998. The Professor and the Madmen: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of OED. New York: Harper Collins.

Willinsky, John. 1994. Empire of words. The Reign of the OED. New Jersey Princeton University Press: Princeton.

[1] Winchester 2003: 32.

1 Comment on Culture, Power and Dictionaries: How to use lexicography to study cultural objects

  1. Brilliant discussion. I would like to follow up the discussion as it progresses.

    I am a postgraduate student of lexicography at Makerere University, Kampala Uganda.


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