1934 Dictionary Definitions? Seriously?

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My sponsor always encouraged me to look up Twelve Step words in the dictionary. I was not enthusiastic. Reading dictionaries is something I try to avoid. But I followed his directions and I am glad I did. His instruction deepened my understanding of early recovery literature and led to my series of drawings inspired by the Twelve Steps.

At first, I looked up words using a recent dictionary. Then one rainy day, I ducked into a used book store and I noticed a Websters Dictionary that was published in 1934*. The date caught my eye because I remembered Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill W. got sober around that time. Always perplexed by the quaint language used in the Big Book, I opened the old dictionary to read the OFFICIAL definition for some Twelve Step words. I flipped idly to a word I was having trouble with at the time: “God”.

Webster’s 1934 definition of “God” was “a being of more than human attributes or powers”. It struck me at once that these words were similar to Bill W.’s phrase “a power higher than human power.” It was not identical—the words were different—but the essential meaning was the same. Curious, I looked up some other words from the Steps. In every case, the very first definition of each word seemed to reinforce Bill’s writing while also offering some fresh insights into several familiar words.

Did Bill W. write the Big Book with a dictionary open in front of him? I strongly doubt it. At that time, the meanings of most words were commonly known. In the 1930s, the correct meanings of words did not change as quickly as they do today*. Words were chosen for their exact meaning—much more so than in today's culture. So, if Bill W. described something as being "cool", he was referring to its temperature, not its fashionable attractiveness.

Ironically, reading those older definitions renewed my personal identification with the Steps. I still continue the habit and have collected and shared dozens of helpful word definitions. You might try it yourself. Your local library will probably have an enormous Webster's Dictionary somewhere in the back room (if libraries still HAVE books whenever you read this). Chances are, the librarians will be very pleased if you ask to see it for yourself. 

My point is simple. If you want to better understand any word, why not read its definition in a dictionary that was current when the writer wrote it? Keep It Simple.


* In Bill W's time, the definitions of words changed more slowly than they do today. Dictionaries were updated every two or three DECADES, not every year. Here is a comment from Merriam-Webter's website: "Since they were first released, Webster's International Dictionary and Webster's Collegiate Dictionary have been updated and revised many times. New editions of the unabridged appeared in 1909 (Webster's New International Dictionary), 1934 (Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition), and 1961 (Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged). Addenda sections, featuring words that came into use after publication of the 1961 edition, have been added regularly, most recently in 2002." (source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/info/commitment.htm)

It is revealing that the publisher says the updates have occured "many times" when, in fact, those revisions were 20 to 30 YEARS apart.

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