When I was a kid, I learned in school that instead of using the dictionary, you should guess at a word’s meaning on the basis of the words around it. I’ve come to believe this was wrong.
In honor of National Dictionary Day which is observed annually on October 16th, I’d like to share with you five reasons why I believe the dictionary has been essential for my work and my education and why you should make it a habit to consult the dictionary whenever you encounter a word that you don’t fully understand.
Even if you kind of understand, not understanding it fully can create big problems
A $125 million satellite burned up in 1999 because it got too close to Mars, but the whole problem could have been avoided if a calculation had been properly defined and understood. You see, the satellite relied on thrusters to exert a certain amount of force to keep it in orbit and keep it from getting too close.
Unfortunately, the unit of measure was not properly defined when the calculations were made, causing a computer program to assume the required force was measured differently than it actually was (pounds of force versus metric unit newtons, which is a 4.5x effective difference).
Fully understanding words keeps you from being manipulated
It’s commonplace in politics for politicians to use confusing language to purposely mislead you. They’re counting on you to rely on the guessing method many of us Millennials learned in school.
In Sacramento, politicians typically refer to a tax increase as a “revenue source.” For example: “We want a revenue source so that we can help children.” They know you support helping children and hope that you won’t think too much about what “revenue source” means because it means they want to raise your taxes.
Lots of words have multiple meanings. This is called a homonym. For example a pitcher of water vs a baseball pitcher or arms like “arm day” at the gym or arms like munitions. A dictionary gives you all of the meanings so you can be sure you know which reflects the intended meaning.
While you may have a superficial understanding of a word, sometimes knowing the word’s origin can make that understanding more meaningful and complete. For example, sometimes people say they’re going to “caravan” to an event, meaning to form a chain of multiple cars following each other. There’s also the Dodge Caravan, which is a minivan. It’s also meant for transporting a group.
But if you look up the derivation of the word “caravan,” you’ll find the word is actually derived from the Persian karwan, referring to groups that have traveled in the desert since ancient times. Christmas portrayals of the Three Wise Men often show them travelling in this type of caravan.
Eric Eisenhammer is CEO of Dauntless Communications a political strategy and technology company based in the Western US.
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