Sometimes you might hear the phrase, tyranny of the dictionary Is there a way to express succinctly just what that means?

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    I think this question would be improved if, instead of using the vague "sometimes you might hear the phrase," you instead shared where you've heard or read this. Expounding a little bit more on why you're confused would help, too. – J.R. Oct 17 '12 at 16:01
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    Although more broad than your phrase, there is prescriptivism ("Normative practices may prescribe on such aspects of language use as spelling"). – Zairja Oct 17 '12 at 16:02
  • I concur with J.R. Without some context we're only guessing what it might mean. I can think of two almost opposite senses in which I might use it. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 17 '12 at 16:04
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    How much more succinct than "tyranny of the dictionary" do you need to be? – Robusto Oct 17 '12 at 16:12
  • Guys, was this closed because the image of a dictionary-wielding mob was just too close to home? – itsbruce Oct 17 '12 at 20:38

Dictionaries have both descriptive and prescriptive functions, and depending on the philosophy of the editors, different dictionaries may tend to promote one or the other. Most dictionaries today aim to be descriptive, but by their very existence cannot help but be prescriptive as well.

The descriptive function of a dictionary is to describe the language as it exists: what language users say or write, and what those language users mean when they say/write it.

The prescriptive function of a dictionary is norm-setting: once the words of a language are described in the dictionary, it starts to become the standard, possibly stifling innovations in the way words are used. So for example, parents tell their children to go look a word up in the dictionary rather than just telling the child the meaning of the word as the parent understands it. People playing scrabble look up strings of letters in the dictionary to see if they are, in fact, considered words. Writers consult the dictionary to see if, according to the dictionary, they can use a word in a particular way.

So "tyranny of the dictionary" is used as a cute way to describe the prescriptive function of a dictionary, usually by someone who has been caught using a word in a nonstandard (or "wrong" depending on the situation and how you look at it) way.

It is also a play on words with "tyranny of the majority" which is widely used, and has been widely used for a long time in discussions of democracy. So that definitely gives it a boost in usage.

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  • I can appreciate that. And I time tested it and it does have virtue of brevity. With some modification it could work nicely. – lex Oct 17 '12 at 22:22
  • Umm ... you might want to modify that first sentence. You can't trust that number that Google puts up at the top. Google offers in fact only 21 hits, of which two are this post and another by the same OP. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 17 '12 at 22:50
  • Good point. Very deceptive of Google. Deleted that sentence. (Which, for the record, reported Google saying there were 800k hits for the phrase "tyranny of the dictionary". Which it did and does say, but incorrectly as there were really only three pages of results). – joseph_morris Oct 18 '12 at 3:19

I haven't heard this phrase, but I think I get what it means. A tyrant is a "ruler who uses power oppressively or unjustly."

When you rely on dictionary definitions exclusively, you leave no room for informal, colloquial and regional uses which may not appear in a dictionary. Language moves and changes faster and more subtly than any dictionary can keep up with. Just because something isn't in the dictionary doesn't mean that its use is somehow "incorrect." Have a look at Zairja's link to prescriptivism in the comments.

However, a dictionary can be a useful tool. I use my various dictionaries every day. I even used one in this answer!

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    I would add--and this goes a way towards explaining the tyranny aspect--that, unless used judiciously, it comes to suppress literary license; and, accordingly, the (growth in) capacity for critical thinking and dialog...and creativity (in that dictionary addicts) stand to have impeded any bent of mind to try new ways of expressing themselves. – lex Oct 17 '12 at 22:29

The dictionary isn't the actual tyrant; the consensus-driven herd behaviour which forms around the dictionary is the source of the oppression. Picture a dictionary-wielding mob pelting dissenters with hard-bound copies of the OED and you're there.

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  • ...indeed, and mightily so – lex Oct 17 '12 at 22:35

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