Why I always illustrate the first definition for each word

[Content verified as being up-to-date by TwelveDrawings in 2018.]

What about the other definitions?

People who see my drawings often ask why I always illustrate the first definition only. Why not pick one of the other definitions for that same word? Good question. In elementary school, my teachers said that when the dictionary contains several definitions for the same word, the first definition is the most popular one. The others are correct too, but they are not currently as popular as the #1 definition. Here is an example taken from Webster's online dictionary today:

"COOL" (adjective in year 2012) 1: moderately cold

2a : marked by steady dispassionate calmness and self-control <a cool and calculating administrator>

2b : lacking ardor or friendliness <a cool impersonal manner>

2c of jazz : marked by restrained emotion and the frequent use of counterpoint

2d : free from tensions or violence <we used to fight, but we're cool now>

3 —used as an intensive <a cool million dollars>

At first, it seemed reasonable to base my drawings on purely modern definitions. The language in the Big Book of AA certainly looks and sounds much like the English of today. But further reading of my musty 1934 Webster's New International Dictionary revealed that the older definitions #2 and #3 (below) were very different from their 2012 counterparts.

"COOL" (adjective in year 1934)  1: moderately cold

2: producing or giving a sensation of coolness

3: not ardent, warm or passionate

The first definitions matched, but if I strayed off into other definitions, there were significant differences. I became concerned about which definition would be most relevant to Bill's thinking. The first one? The one I liked the most? Or maybe all of the definitions at once? I asked a reference librarian to explain the differences between a modern dictionary and one written in 1934. She did a wonderful job which I will summarize as follows:

• COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY: The dictionaries that most people have on their shelf are "collegiate dictionaries". Traditional collegiate dictionaries were edited down to a length that was convenient for students to carrying to and from school. (Today's portable electronics make it possible for students to carry any amount of information, without worrying about size and weight.) Collegiate editing typically involved eliminating rare words and/or obscure definitions. Most collegiate dictionaries arranged definitions in order from the most common definition to the least—just as my grade school teachers told me.

• UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY: An "unabridged dictionary" (like my 1934 Webster's, shown below) strives to present every known definition of every word. Because it contains so many more words and definitions than a collegiate dictionary, the book itself is much larger and heavier. In fact, an unabridged dictionary is so large that libraries often mount them on a strong pedestal. The first definition listed in an unabridged dictionary is not the most popular one; rather it is the oldest one. The written introduction in my 1934 dictionary confirms this on page xiii: "In general the arrangement of meanings of words of many meanings in the Dictionary has been according to the following practice. The earliest meaning ascertainable is always first, whether it is literary, technical, historical, or obsolete. Meanings of later derivation are arranged in the order shown to be most probably be dated citations and semantic development."

If the first definition is the oldest one, might the word be too old to be useful? No. If that first definition is so old that no one uses it anymore, it is clearly labeled as "obsolete" or "archaic". I disregarded those definitions.

Today, most Americans probably don't give much thought to how old their word definitions are. Abandoning the formality of their grandparent's school days, today's Americans favor word choices that are creative and expressive—sometimes at the expense of the word's precise definition. AA's Bill Wilson's first studied grammar in the early 1900s, when writing styles were much more rigid than they are today. Bill attended private school in New England and later studied law in New York state. In both instances, enormous importance was placed on utilizing precise words which have meanings that cannot be misconstrued by others.

Bill's expert use of precisely-defined words probably contributed to the effectiveness of the Big Book of AA. Alcoholics and addicts are notoriously slippery in their evasive use of language. (i.e., "You expected me to REPAY you? But you never actually SAID it was a LOAN. Hey, I thought you were my FRIEND. Geez, you don't have to make a FEDERAL CASE out of it!")

Bill probably knew that the Big Book would face two very severe tests. First, it needed to speak to alcohlics in a way that bypassed their habitual distortion of other people's words. For example, if Bill had used slang or any other loosely defined vocabulary, alcoholics could have found the loopholes they needed to dismiss him and his message. Secondly, the writing needed to survive the continual shifts in meaning that words inevitably undergo over many years. Bill needed words with meanings that would remain unchanged for many years.

In both cases, Bill would have been wise to use the #1 definition from an unabridged dictionary. This would prevent the alcoholic from skipping through all of the definitions, looking for one that contradicted Bill's intended meaning. It would also ensure that for many decades to come, an interested Big Book reader could find an unchanging definition for the words that Bill chose with such care when so many lives depended on his success.

Share this