The Dictionary as a Specialized Corpus


Scholars consider reliance on dictionary definitions to be the antithesis of objective, big-data analysis of ordinary meaning. This Article contests that notion, arguing that when dictionaries are treated as a specialized database, or corpus, they provide invaluable textured understanding of a term. Words appear in dictionaries both as terms being defined and as terms defining other words. Examination of every reference to a contested term throughout a dictionary’s definitional entries of other words may substantially benefit statutory and constitutional interpretation. Because dictionaries catalog language, their use as a specialized corpus provides invaluable insight into the ways a particular word is used in relation to terms throughout the English language. Such evidence provides a crucial interpretive launchpad, even for corpus-based researchers looking for a collection of possible word meanings to analyze in a database of ordinary-language documents.