About this Word – in dictionaries.
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Dictionaries traditionally provide abstract, skeletal definitions which avoid the practical questions of how to use a word in a particular situation.  But this process of linking our abstract meanings with their real-world contexts – meaning on the ground – shows the need for more concrete guidance on how words have meaning in our lives.  We hope dictionaries can rise to the challenge.

Dictionaries will eventually incorporate new uses of “essential” in their entries and their corpora.   “Essential” occurs together with “worker”, “service” and “business”  with a different degrees of frequency – as collocations.  And perhaps “essential worker” itself will acquire status as a term with its own dictionary entry, through this Corvid-19 crisis.   I’d like to advocate for that. 

But I’d like to go further and suggest that we also learn from the efforts of governments and organizations at all levels to articulate in practical terms what these words should mean for us now – how they relate to preserving and improving our way of life.  And in addition to noting the governmental efforts to mediate the conflicting values involved – see Part 1 of this post, published yesterday – I’d like to go further and propose a process for incorporating new choices of style and stance in our dictionaries.

Currently, none of the major dictionaries, including Wordsmyth, have an entry for “essential worker”. Most have entries for “essential oil”. [Wordsmyth’s definition is “any rapidly evaporating oil that gives a characteristic odor or flavor to a plant, flower, or fruit, used in making perfumes, flavorings, and the like.”]  And Merriam-Webster has an entry for the grammatical term “essential clause”.  But none of the dictionaries have an entry for “essential worker”, “essential service” or “essential business”.

My aim in this post is to advocate for a dictionary entry for these terms, and to suggest how this entry could reflect the actual choices being made in this time when our values are on the line. It seems that at this historical moment, we are in the process of collectively defining “essential worker”, “essential service” and “essential business” – a more concrete conception of who or what we denote when we use the term.  As we use these terms, or dispute their use, we are shaping the context of accepted or appropriate use.   As the previous post on “essential” showed, each level of government – federal, state and local – is participating in defining in practice what these terms mean as part of our way of life.  In a democratic society, we are part of this process, and will be heard when we speak clearly – both in our general communication and our communication in the political process.

States and communities are now forced to ask questions such as whether a gun store is an “essential business”.  The question is being raised, but the term hasn’t yet become a focus of attention. The same situation prevails with the term “essential service”: Is a congregating for worship an “essential service”? 

These are all value laden issues.  Political figures at all levels of government are attending to these questions, even if they decide to avoid them. But many communities are tackling them head-on, shaped by our diverse views of what is most important in our lives.   

Dictionary entries often include stylistic guidance such as  “offensive” or “often derogatory” or “often laudatory’, or “Used as a disparaging term” I would argue that dictionaries should also be able to say of “human rights” – “often used to include a right to food, shelter and clothing”.   This may not be the presupposition of every person using that term. But it is surely on the mind of anyone who consults a dictionary’s abstract definition, and then wants to act in the real world to protect human rights. 

And on this model, an entry for “essential services” could include guidance such as “sometimes includes religious services”; and guidance for “essential business” could include “sometimes includes entertainment, recreational, and financial (venture and private equity) firms”.  And if the dictionary maker is forward looking, they could institute a survey process modeled on the American Heritage Dictionary’s “usage panel” to implement this feature. (I’m hoping Wordsmyth will be this forward looking organization. We’ll see….)

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