What a Dictionary Can Do

John Ralston Saul, Co-founder and Co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship
September 19, 2018

This originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

A dictionary is a political statement. That has always been so. They all are. Is that bad? Not necessarily. It all depends on the purpose of the dictionary. The intent. You need to know what the intent is.

Why today do we need a dictionary focused on how people live together? Try to live together? Fail to live together? Discover they can live together.

Well, this is the most grandiose yet confused subject floating about out there.

What can a dictionary do? Think of what they have done in their modern form. The great French Dictionnaire of the 17th century was written to create an elite language of power centred in Paris. For years, it was central to the international role of French as the diplomatic language. Or the Webster’s of 1828, designed as a brilliant enlightenment tool. Webster’s was the intellectual backup to the Americans’ Enlightenment-style founding documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Very different from the banal bit of Americana which today’s Webster’s represents. Or the Grimm brothers’ Deutsches Wörterbuch– not their fairy tales – which began appearing in 1858 and was central to the idea of a unified Germany. There is a single theme running through all three. They were written to demonstrate some sort of French, American, German exceptionalism.

What of the Oxford? It began appearing only in 1884. Here is the dictionary with the most universal ambition. It was and remains the ultimate demonstration of exceptionalism: the British Imperial argument, that English as the international language nevertheless has a centre.

Our dictionary is a very different sort of project. A much more modest ambition, to put it mildly! Its aim is the exact opposite of exceptionalism. It is about strategy and the development of a new international discourse. A discourse we desperately need.

Why? Well, the thing about immigrants, refugees and stateless people today is that we haven’t seen so many in living memory. This tells us something about the failure of established global policies. Yet when anyone suggests humanist solutions to these situations – citizenship, for example, or comfort with diversity or the encouragement of belonging – it seems to provoke ugly confusion and anger. And this in most places around the world.

Of course there are explanations and justifications. And yes, much of this crisis does have to do with the failure of today’s global policies to deal with human needs, whether financial or societal. Even more serious, these policies require the denial of human imagination and emotions.

The clear result has been a growing confusion over what we mean when we talk about human relationships. Even in Canada, perhaps the only country with a consensus in favour of diversity. Yet there is little clarity here over how to describe what works or what we are trying to do. Which words should we use, which sentences, concepts, arguments. Yes, diversity is seen as a positive phenomenon, but the consensus is also fragile. The vocabulary is limited. Terribly limited. There is a great deal of emotional insistence on people getting along with each other, which is good. Except emotions without the anchor of ideas and concepts can easily flip.

The most positive thing we can say is that the situation is probably worse elsewhere.

For example, how did “migrant” become the official word used everywhere to describe anyone who changes countries, including refugees and immigrants? After all, the meaning of the word is clear. A migrant is someone who comes, then leaves. But immigrants don’t leave, nor do most refugees. So the misuse of this word is somehow intentional, designed to project a lie – those who come will leave. Or they should.

Or, how in French did voile (veil) become the word to describe any form of covering? This is straight politics. After all, we know the real meaning of the word. A veil covers the face. A scarf covers the hair. Not the same thing. The current definition is designed to suggest millions of immigrants are wearing veils, when they aren’t.

There are many ways out of this swelling atmosphere of confusion and fear. For a start, we need less intentional prejudice in our language. Less clever misrepresentation. A balanced vocabulary. A language not designed to confuse people and to make them afraid of each other.

The 6 Degrees Dictionary, a new project of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, offers a user’s guide to inclusion. Read the 6 Degrees Dictionary.