Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Dictionary Monsters

For years now, off and on, I've been meaning to write this post - but kept forgetting. Patrick's most recent post gives me the necessary spur to do it.

It all began back when I was living in Japan. My then-girlfriend had this electronic dictionary which resembled a mini-laptop; it contained more or less every English and Japanese dictionary ever published, and allowed you to search and cross reference between them in very powerful ways. (It was the kind of thing now rendered defunct by ubiquitous smart phones and Google; dictionary websites and Google Translate are much more superficial but allow the language learner to translate simple words and phrases just as quickly if they don't mind some inaccuracies and decontextualisation.) One day I was bored for some reason and started looking up simple words in it in pocket dictionaries, like "cat" and "table", wondering how they had been defined. I suppose I was entertained by the sheer redundancy of having the word "cat" in your bog-standard definitional dictionary; in what universe are there people who are good enough at English to be able to read and understand the definition of "cat", but who don't already know what a "cat" is?

Of course, such words are in there because of the need for completeness and because the mother of all dictionaries, the OED, is not really a catalogue of definitions but a catalogue of word histories and genealogies. But you get the idea: it's interesting to imagine an obscure people living in a parallel reality who understand our language but are fascinated by concepts such as "cat" and "table" as they page through our dictionaries.

(If you're curious - or if you are one of those people in that parallel reality - a cat is a "small animal with soft fur that people often keep as a pet" and a table is a "piece of furniture that consists of a flat top supported by legs".)

The interesting thing about these definitions is they don't really tell you a great deal. They flirt at descriptiveness without being particularly descriptive. A cat is a "small animal with soft fur" - so it could have six legs or two; it could have a single cyclopean eye; it could have no head at all but eyes and mouth located in its torso. Looked at this way, dictionary definitions are quite inspiring and lead to all sorts of flights of fancy. Consider:

"A domesticated carnivorous mammal that typically has a long snout, an acute sense of smell, non-retractable claws, and a barking, howling, or whining voice."

"A tailless amphibian with a short squat body, moist smooth skin, and very long hind legs for leaping."

"A gregarious burrowing plant-eating mammal, with long ears, long hind legs, and a short tail."

"An eight-legged predatory arachnid with an unsegmented body consisting of a fused head and thorax and a rounded abdomen."

"A long limbless reptile which has no eyelids, a short tail, and jaws that are capable of considerable extension."

"A large perching bird with mostly glossy black plumage, a heavy bill, and a raucous voice."

"A heavily built omnivorous nocturnal mammal of the weasel family, typically having a grey and black coat."

What images do they call up in your mind, once you've got past the actual image of the real-world creature referred to? What does the large perching bird say with its raucous voice? Why does the heavily built weasel wear a coat? Why is such prominence given to the domesticated carnivorous mammal's non-retractable claws? What direction to the long limbless reptile's jaws extend in?

Seen in this way, the dictionary becomes a source of great inspiration for monster design. You could, if you were minded to, create an entire setting that way: replacing all the real world animals with new creatures based only on their dictionary descriptions. A world in which people farm sheep and cows but they're not our sheep and cows; hunt foxes but they're not our foxes; put down traps for mice but they're not our mice....and so on and so forth. Alternatively, it's just a way to come up with something different when the juices aren't flowing. What's in the next cavern in the dungeon? Ok, a snake...but its jaws extend forwards.

1 comment:

  1. As a former lexicographer, I can only applaud this idea!

    Gene Wolfe does something slightly similar in The Book of the New Sun, by using the names of mythical or terrestrial animals to describe alien beasts. If I recall aright, his "destriers" are not actually horses but some sort of extraterrestrial riding beasts that have been imported to Urth.