How Dictionaries Define Us: Margaret Boyle and Ilan Stavans in Conversation

By Ilan Stavans, Margaret BoyleMarch 30, 2022

How Dictionaries Define Us: Margaret Boyle and Ilan Stavans in Conversation
DICTIONARIES AREN’T MERE catalogs of words; they are snapshots of the culture — the time and place — that produced them. The definition of the word “love,” for instance, isn’t only different in English, Spanish, German, French, Russian, Italian, Portuguese, and other dictionaries; within those languages, the meaning of the word has shifted along with the historical context. The following two-part conversation, held at Amherst and Bowdoin on November 11 and 18, 2021, looks at the dictionary tradition in the English- and Spanish-speaking world from the Renaissance to the present. Its focus, though, is on some of today’s most pressing issues: health, race, gender, and technology.

Part I is about the “urgent” inclusion of new words in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements. Is a social crisis also a linguistic crisis? Does social struggle automatically create its own lexicon (think “social distancing” and “cancelled”)? And Part II looks at the intersection of dictionaries and national history. How do dictionaries reflect the changes a nation undergoes?

Margaret E. Boyle is associate professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, director of Latin American, Caribbean, and Latinx Studies at Bowdoin College. She is the author of Unruly Women: Performance, Penitence, and Punishment in Early Modern Spain (2014) and the editor of Health and Healing in the Early Modern Iberian World: A Gendered Perspective (2021). Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His books include Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language (2003), Dictionary Days (2005), Quixote: The Novel and the World (2015), and most recently, What Is American Literature? (2022).


Part I: Language in Crisis

MARGARET BOYLE: There has always been so much to love about dictionaries: their curation of words, their print histories, issues of translation, interpretation, and the larger nexus of language and politics. But it means something new for us to teach about dictionaries while experiencing our twin pandemics. Living with COVID-19 and structural racism has produced an upswell of global activism, inspiring and energizing — massive protests around the world demanding change — but also, at times horrifying in the way they force us to grapple with violence and suffering. When we talk about dictionaries now, it is not only the rarefied book as object, but the dictionary as tool that captures or excludes our sense of self. Talking about dictionaries during a time of crisis means exploring how crises motivate us to change the words we use, our definitions.

ILAN STAVANS: When I was growing up in Mexico, the word “crisis” was used with obscene ease. It seemed as if every day, for whatever reason, we were at a juncture: in crisis. One of the Merriam-Webster definitions is “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending.” To us then, it felt as if every time was unstable or crucial. Yet, the use of the word was turning it into a permanent condition. Still, there are no doubt pivotal, cathartic moments that prompt us to act differently, to engage with our circumstance in new ways. The murder of George Floyd, the #MeToo movement, and the COVID-19 pandemic are a confluence of such moments.

Such pivots require a fresh array of new words. The word “COVID-19” is, according to Merriam-Webster, the fastest ever to be accepted in the dictionary: it only took a month from when it was first uttered to its appearance on the company’s website. The speed is a sign of its urgency. The pandemic generated a veritable treasure-trove of terms: “Zooming,” “anti-vaxxers,” “social distancing,” and so on. Social upheavals create their own language, and the novelty and global scope of COVID-19 has shown that our own poor lexicon was in need of renewal. Maybe this is how the word “crisis” ought to be defined now: a rupture in the language that begets a new language.

MB: You are also pointing at the tie between urgency and innovation. And as much generative word-making as we might find in the dictionary since March 2020, I’ve also been struck by how our health crises foreground the physical cost of not having access to language. With our attention to racial and ethnic health disparities, we are slowly attending to some of these barriers. But to think about how much these already existing inequities were magnified when you added the lack of access to language of care: a spring 2021 study out of a Boston hospital showed that Spanish-speaking patients with limited English had a 35 percent greater chance of dying from COVID-19. Of course, there are so many factors here: all the standard questions of access paired with a lack of translators and their tools — dictionaries. 

IS: Dictionaries project an image of disinterested expertise. This is because they are produced with stunning care by a professional team whose job it is to monitor a culture’s temperature. Consequently, they project authority. Yet what makes culture, particularly in a country like the United States, move is often an anti-authoritarian drive: rebellion, protests, marches. We like to think of ourselves as having a voice, and that voice, in linguistic terms, is in a constant state of unsettlement. We not only like to oppose power; we also like opposing the languages of power.

MB: Part of being able to engage with the dictionary as an object of power is to cultivate a more general understanding about lexicography as a field and the hands-on process of making the dictionary. And when we begin to see these makers, it becomes possible to talk about the standards of inclusion as they apply to, let’s say, the advisory boards of the dictionaries. Part of why I am so interested in the history of the book is that I am curious about the life stories that frame each volume — not just the individuals who produce the text, but also the book makers and readers. We need to attend to the people who make up this community and think critically about any gaps or exclusions.

IS: Maybe every dictionary has its own double: the book features all the words its makers included, and the double features the words that were excluded. Inclusion is power, but so is exclusion. I say this because dictionaries exert a strange allure: an urge to completion. And the exclusions are a statement about life itself: the words that were left out haven’t been co-opted; by not yet being cataloged, they still belong to us.

It is a source of constant amazement to me that English doesn’t have the equivalent of an Académie Française. No institution forces us to use our words in a particular way. Yet we do have, of course, mechanisms of authority — for instance, peer pressure: we use the words we hear. So, usage is a mechanism of cohesion. And dictionaries, too, are tools of consent. I say this with absolute reverence. No language, especially no standardized language, is able to exist without a drive toward cohesiveness; otherwise, it would disintegrate rapidly. At the same time, those mechanisms of authority, including dictionaries, need to be questioned. Who is behind them? Are we satisfied with the dictionaries we have?

MB: You are reminding me of John Koenig’s new book The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, and the will to invent language to fill in gaps that we can’t yet express in a single word. The project over the last decade, from the launch of the website to the YouTube series (viewed more than 11 million times!) to finally the book itself, traces an exciting conversation about process, the relationship of dictionaries to popular audiences and the way language is continually adapting to express our lived realities and experiences. For those of us who are bilingual or multilingual, we may already be familiar with the ways our brains turn to a word in one language that doesn’t quite exist in the other and the kinds of cognitive efforts and creativity that result from this dance between languages.

IS: I’m reminded of Spinoza’s Ethics (1677) with its attempt to list human emotions. The book isn’t, strictly speaking, a dictionary; it is a philosophical disquisition. But it might also be seen as a lexicon because Spinoza’s quest is to make as comprehensive an inventory as possible. How many emotions are there? No one can say for sure, not even him. Do all languages register the same amount? Or are there more emotions in one language than in others? To compile a catalog of unnamed emotions is an imaginative task.

MB: Pip Williams’s novel The Dictionary of Lost Words (2020) is a wonderful example of how contemporary fiction shapes our interactions with dictionaries. I am intrigued by the novel’s premise: using archival research to reevaluate the role of women in the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, it crafts an alternative history that centers on a young female narrator, Esme. We observe her assembling a collection of excised words that describe marginalized experiences related to gender, race, and class. We know these stories do exist in the historical record, but what Williams does is allow us to run with our desire to inhabit a recentered history, and I wonder how in this way fiction emboldens us to make change.

IS: Fiction is the great enabler: the moment we dream something, the desire to achieve it becomes tangible. That, for example, is what makes science fiction so essential. It is escapist, for sure, but it motivates us to dream alternative worlds. Without fiction, our spiritual life is infinitely poorer. It is enough to invoke Don Quixote, in my mind the greatest novel ever written. As a person, Alonso Quijano is pathetic, yet the moment he becomes Don Quixote, his life is turned upside down. He is now a dreamer, a revolutionary, a usurper. Dreaming can get us out of our imprisonment. That’s the beauty of fiction: it offers us an alternative to the mendacity of our world.

MB: To what extent do you think your own language practices have been “Americanized”? I ask this knowing about your work on creating dictionaries for Spanglish. My take is that you’ve been pulled toward this project of legitimizing, but you’ve also been reluctant to claim comprehensiveness because standardization isn’t possible in the same way. So, there isn’t yet the academy of Spanglish, but the popular consciousness and representation of Spanish-English bilingualism in the last years is just extraordinary. We know that Spanish is the second most common language in the US, but the projected data for 2050, when the US is expected to have 138 million Spanish speakers, would make it the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, with almost one-third of its citizens fluent speakers. I have a feeling this is going to impact our dictionaries, too.

IS: I’m a sucker for books that use dictionaries — or encyclopedias — as structures to build an imaginary universe. Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars (1984) and Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996) are prime examples. By creating a catalog of fictional books detailing the activities of marginal Nazi groups in South America, Bolaño imagines a chapter of the Third Reich beyond Europe. By contrast, Pavić explores the spiritual life of the Khazars, a sixth-century semi-nomadic Turkish empire that, it has been speculated, might have reshaped the religious landscape of Europe before the Middle Ages. Yehuda ha-Levi, one of the lasting poets of Muslim Spain, wrote about them in his philosophical treatise Sefer ha-Kuzari (1140). And I’m interested in the dictionary — or, again, the encyclopedia — as a work of fiction, as in Borges’s encrypted text in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940) about an alternative universe that is the reverse of ours.

In our world, tyrants know the power of language and the need to control it. Think of the language of strongmen: Franco, Perón, Pinochet, Trujillo, Hugo Chávez. And, obviously, Donald Trump. All were dictatorial not only in their actions but in their rhetoric, believing that if they said something, then it must be true. The perception of dictionaries, of their fixity of meaning, is different in authoritarian and democratic regimes. Consider the debate on Jewish identity in Spain from the 15th century onward. On the surface, the difference between “cristiano viejo” and “cristiano nuevo” was semantic, but it could also be the difference between life and death. Political power is a projection that creates a perception, and it does so, very often, via language.

MB: This is part of what is so exciting about our conversation: the opportunity to raise awareness of the power of language through our discussion of dictionaries. We can attend to how popular perceptions have been shaped, both historically and today, by the ways we access information and the dictionary’s role in mediating political power through its definitions.

IS: Change is the one constant of our universe. And change is at the heart of language. Young people acknowledge that, for the world to change, language needs to change. Because when you know what words mean and how they came to mean what they do, you delve into the meaning of everything.

Part II: Dictionaries as National History

MB: In our last discussion, we talked about language in the context of social crisis; today, we want to think about dictionaries as a window into our past, and specifically the link between dictionaries and national histories. I want to begin with Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and its definition of “language.” The first definition was linguistic: language as a particular system for communication. The second is cultural: “[The] tongue of one nation as distinguished from that of another.” This defines language in relation to the cultural productions of a particular nation.

In the context of United States English, I want to talk about John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1848), a pioneering work for its engagement with slang. The Bowdoin copy we have here is a fourth edition, printed in Boston by Little Brown and Company in 1877. It includes a fragment of a review by Richard Grant White, author of the decidedly more conservative manual Words and Their Uses, Past and Present (1870), stating that “most of it is mere ephemeral fashion and transient tricks of speech, bad fashion and bad trick […] not properly to be taken as the exponents of language in any way — fashion and trick which will pass away, some of it before Mr. Bartlett’s book passes to another edition.” And the humor is, of course, that Bartlett is transcribing this remark into the fourth edition of the Dictionary of Americanisms, evidence that these Americanisms are here for the long haul: newly minted words, others borrowed from Black and Indigenous vernaculars.

IS: Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms has a special distinction: it was translated into German in 1866. Dictionaries, for obvious reasons, are seldom translated; this one was because of its innovative qualities but also because, in the middle of the 19th century, German immigration to the United States was at its highest. Like Webster’s, Bartlett’s enterprise survived him, becoming a staple of the nation’s life. Updated commercial editions of Bartlett are still available today, mostly designed for students. Webster, Bartlett — these household names continue to play a major role in the building of the nation’s linguistic life.

And different national cultures approach language differently. Bartlett’s book is organized topically, in the form of a thesaurus. I remember, upon immigrating to New York in the mid-1980s, coming across Bartlett’s volume for the first time. I was flabbergasted by the sheer idea. But of course, it’s only innovative to an outsider; in New York, Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms was, well, a rather pedestrian artifact.

MB: Your comment about cultural approaches to language reminds me of conversations we’ve had about the way we narrate stories about lexicographers. For the OED, fictional and filmic approaches range from The Professor and the Madman (2019) to the child-narrator of The Dictionary of Lost Words. I’m curious too about how we present these stories to children, such as Jen Bryant’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (2014). Or there’s Robert Macfarlane’s oversized, gorgeously illustrated The Lost Words (2017), an ode to natural-world vocabulary lost from the 2015 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. In these books, we have evidence of a changed market for cross-generational stories about dictionaries in the English-language context. Will we soon have US demand for stories about Spanish lexicography?

IS: If lexicography is a limited field in America, Spanish lexicography is so rarefied that it makes me think of what the Finns call “a professional sleeper” — that is, someone paid to try beds in luxury hotels. For years I’ve seen myself as a “Spanglish lexicographer,” an even more peculiar endeavor than that of Spanish lexicographer in the United States. In my eyes, it is, unquestionably, a very important activity. Even if I often feel like a thief, “stealing” Spanglish words from the people who use them in order to catalog them, I’m proud to do it. In his story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939), Borges says that “[t]here is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless.” I agree with him, although I believe there can be a point in pointlessness. To compile a lexicon of Spanglish is a way of legitimating this form of communication.

After the wars of independence in the Americas in the 19th century, the educated elite sought to distinguish the Spanish from Spain. Arguably the most revolutionary of all lexicographers — a politician himself who befriended, and was an ambassador of sorts for, Simón Bolívar — was Andrés Bello. Although a grammar and not a lexicon, his Gramática de la lengua castellana para el uso de los americanos (1847), released 30 years after Webster’s dictionary, proposes a similar feat: to adapt a colonial language, Spanish in Bello’s case, to the “New World.” In his prologue, he looks for a way to distinguish Iberian Spanish and American Spanish, arguing for a simplified grammar that would reflect the needs of people in Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, and other newly independent nations in South America. Bello had lived in London, where he advocated for Bolívar’s revolutionary ideals. Upon his return to the Americas — to Santiago, Chile — he focused his attention on creating both the grammar and the Código Civil. Yet Bello’s simplifications (he wanted to eliminate the needless “h,” for example) weren’t quite “liberal.” He didn’t believe that the Indigenous population, former slaves, guachos, or immigrants (Italians and Jews began to arrive in the 1880s) should have a say in shaping language. In Bello’s view, the fate of South American Spanish was exclusively in criollo hands. It was, in his opinion, a language for the criollos by the criollos.

MB: We see the intersection between politics and philology in the imperial standardization of Spanish after the unification of Spain. Among the epochal events of 1492 — conquest, expulsion, unification — what stands out, for me, is the publication of Antonio de Nebrija’s Gramática, gifted to Queen Isabel with the now famous dedication: “Siempre la lengua fue compañera del imperio” (language was always a companion of empire). Thus, we see explicit fusion between the Spanish language and empire, and in this same context, a little more than a generation later, Sebastián de Covarrubias published his enormous monolingual dictionary Tesoro de la lengua Espanola o Castellana (1611). “Covarrubias” isn’t just a pseudonym, but a metaphor the author develops in his prologue: of language as a “cave of rubies” guarded by multilingual beasts and monsters. Accessing the treasures of Spanish requires knowing and naming Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, French, and Italian. The user of the Spanish dictionary enters the cave with boldness and uncertainty, acknowledging both risk and possibility.

IS: Covarrubias is our Dr. Johnson: the only lexicographer, with the exception of María Moliner in the mid-20th century, to have authored his own lexicon. Covarrubias’s book is quite idiosyncratic — for instance (as Gabriel García Márquez once noticed), he defines love as “being yellow.” This is less a definition that a poetic approximation. Similar “deslices,” or playful twists, are found on almost every page. The Tesoro was published in a crucial year, almost right between the first and second volumes of Don Quixote. And Cervantes also uses the metaphor of the cave in the extraordinary section on the Cave of Montesinos.

Let’s go back to María Moliner. In the history of dictionaries, white men, it goes without saying, have been the principal producers. Moliner is exceptional: a Spanish librarian who decided, in the 1950s, to make a Diccionario del uso del español actual (1966). Her efforts were a reaction to the patriarchal strategies of the Real Academia Española, particularly their Diccionario de la lengua española. She focused not on what language means but on how words are used. Most attractive is her flexibility in accepting neologisms: her dictionary is a harbinger of my own lexicon of Spanglish, published in 2003. Words like “marketing,” “feedback,” and “antibaby” are included in it. García Márquez was a lifelong admirer of Moliner. He described her as “a writer’s lexicographer,” a harvester of “las palabras de la calle,” and he thanked her not only for her dedication, which went unrecognized during her lifetime, but for standing up to the pretentious “letrados” of the RAE, with their Hispanic machismo.

MB: Yes, and her dictionary reflects its time and the changing role of women globally in the 1960s. Moliner began her work as a librarian and archivist in the 1920s, before marrying and having four children, all while working in the public sector for nearly 50 years. She traveled around Spain with her family before settling in Valencia, where she worked at the university library and became involved with public library systems in more rural parts of Spain. Moliner is said to have developed her dictionary from her own experiences learning English using A. S. Hornby’s Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English (1948). As you’ve mentioned, we see her engagement with English or Spanish (including words like cross-country, brainstorming, brandy, sherry, whiskey), but in the context of the women’s movement I’m marveling at her inclusion of “antibaby” to describe birth control pills. There’s so much that’s fascinating about her process: she wrote on her own, from home, incorporating words from newspaper and magazine clippings. And we have to remember that this project was not only a product of her interests and time, but also the political realities of her life as a librarian under the Franco regime, someone who found herself demoted from her responsibilities because of her family’s political views.

As we come to the close of our conversation, I would love to think generally about bilingual and other dictionaries that work across languages. Let’s consider the polyglot dictionary Guide into the Tongues (1617) by the English linguist and lexicographer John Minsheu. With more than 12,000 entries in 11 languages, it is the first book to be published by advanced subscription using a printed prospectus, and the first book to include a list of subscribers.

IS: In the context of national histories, bilingual and polyglot dictionaries are fascinating artifacts. They allow citizens to relate to other linguistic traditions, or else they recognize that a national tradition isn’t altogether monolingual. The history of multilingual dictionaries goes back to Arab culture in medieval Spain. There are numerous samplers in the English-, French-, and German-speaking worlds from the 15th century onward. Given my interest in Latin America, I’m fascinated by the lenguas indígenas, at times known as lenguas naturales, which, during the colonial period, were kept at bay by the Spanish colonizers. A number of important changes, however, happened during the colonial period, including efforts — quite controversial, of course — to translate the Bible into Nahuatl, Aymara, Quechua, and other Indigenous languages. These efforts came with small bilingual dictionaries: Nahuatl/Spanish, for instance. The tension between centripetal and centrifugal forces was obvious: should the entire population of the colonies speak only Spanish, or should there be a recognition of alternative verbal instruments? Centuries later, Latin America continues to thrive in this tension.

MB: Part of what I hope we’ve accomplished with our discussions is a better understanding of the stories behind dictionaries. The cultural history of dictionaries is populated with countless dynamic individuals. Getting to know these individuals shapes both how we understand the past and our ability to make sense of, and make change in, our present.


Ilan Stavans is a Mexican American author and translator, the publisher of Restless Books, and Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.

Margaret Boyle is director of Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx Studies at Bowdoin College and Associate Professor in Romance Languages and Literatures.


Featured image: "Collegiate Dictionary" by Noah1806 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped and color changed.

LARB Contributors

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of the NEPR podcast In Contrast. He has written Quixote: The Novel and the World (2015), Oy, Caramba!: An Anthology of Jewish Stories from Latin America (2016), Borges, the Jew (2017), and The Wall (2018).  He has recently written The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (Pittsburgh), and his book-long poem “The Wall” (also Pittsburgh) won the 2019 Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry.
Margaret Boyle is director of Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx Studies at Bowdoin College and associate professor in Romance Languages and Literatures. She directs the Multilingual Mainers program and is author of Unruly Women: Performance, Penitence and Punishment in Early Modern Spain (2014) and co-editor of Health and Healing in the Early Modern Iberian World: A Gendered Perspective (2021).


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