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The Word

The power of not knowing

What’s missing from your dictionary?

By Erin McKean
May 1, 2011

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Consider the slight but significant difference between these two sentences: “The word failure isn’t in the dictionary” and “The word failure isn’t in his dictionary.” With the first, the blame falls on the hapless dictionary editor (who works, of course, on what lexicographer Rosamund Moon has called the UAD — “the Unidentified Authorizing Dictionary”).

The second use — “it isn’t in his dictionary” — is the interesting metaphorical one. This phrase, and its cousin, “I don’t know the meaning of the word X!”, seem to have been used almost as long as dictionaries themselves. One of the earliest (and possibly apocryphal) examples is Napoleon’s outburst: “Impossible, a word found only in the dictionary of fools!” (sometimes quoted as “Impossible is not a French word”). An early literary example is found in “Richelieu,” a play by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (of “It was a dark and stormy night” fame) in the lines, “In the lexicon of youth which fate reserves/ For a bright manhood, there is no such word/ As fail.”

You can get an intriguing look at our cultural obsessions by surveying the words supposedly expunged from the personal dictionaries of famous people. There’s Pope Benedict XVI: On the occasion of his first visit to the United States in 2008, The New York Times’ Pope blog said that “political correctness is not in his dictionary.” There’s Chairman Mao: “The word regret was not in his dictionary,” according to “The Private Life of Chairman Mao,” by Li Zhisui, who was Mao’s private physician for more than 20 years. And P.T. Barnum, in his “Struggles and Triumphs: Forty Years’ Recollections,” chastises his manager and son-in-law for being less than enthusiastic about some of Barnum’s plans with “have I not told you often enough, the word can’t is not in my dictionary?”

Sports figures, as a rule, seem to be the ones least likely to understand the word quit: Those who lack it in their dictionaries and vocabularies include the NASCAR owner and former driver Richard Childress, William “the Refrigerator” Perry, Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat, as well as the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Chicago Bears, and (of course) the Red Sox. (Oddly enough, although it’s easy enough to find “not in his dictionary” examples for living people, most of the “not in her dictionary” examples I found seemed to be from obituaries.)

Why is this — the lexical equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying “la la la, I can’t hear you” — such a strangely persistent little witticism? No one truly believes that ignorance of a word blots out knowledge of what that word represents, and in fact it usually works the other way — we know a concept even if we don’t know the word for it.

In linguistics, the idea that language shapes thought and behavior is called Whorfianism, and has a long and controversial history. On the philosophical level, you could say this assumed power of the word over the thing itself may be related to the power that we attribute to names — including the tradition of writing “God” as “G-d,” in order to avoid sinning by accidentally erasing the name, or using “Old Nick” instead of “the devil” (echoed in the Harry Potter series’ use of “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” for the evil Lord Voldemort). There are also the taboos many cultures have against speaking the names of gods or of people who have recently died, in order to avoid attracting malignant attention.

That may be a little much, but the idea of the “word” surely has a certain power. Other kinds of information and other reference books don’t get quite the same treatment: You can speak of a place or thing as “not [even] being on the map,” but there doesn’t seem to be a metaphorical equivalent for encyclopedias or almanacs, and in the age of cellphones, the idea of a metaphorically unlisted (or ex-directory) number is almost quaint. Most of the other “lack” metaphors — being a few bricks short of a load or sandwiches short of a picnic, or not playing with a full deck — seem to indicate mental weakness, rather than strength.

And strength is what the “not in the dictionary” metaphor is all about: These words that stand for difficult things (defeat, surrender, and failure, as well as other negative words such as can’t and no) may affect other people, but the stalwart individual can overcome them just by pretending the words don’t exist — that they are just strings of meaningless characters. Critical uses of this trope are much rarer: We’re far less likely to say that “win isn’t in his dictionary” or “he doesn’t know the meaning of the word victory.”

Conventional wisdom holds that knowledge is power, but the “dictionary” phrase pokes a little hole in that wisdom. Sometimes deliberate not-knowing, perhaps, is the way to get things done. The minds of Napoleon, Barnum, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are proudly untouched by the knowledge that failure has a name, so they can’t possibly do anything but succeed.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at erin@wordnik.com.