A Bad Use of the Dictionary

How do you not use the dictionary? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

In 1872, The lyrics to the Christmas Carol were written. We find in those lyrics the verse “Don we now our gay apparel.” What did the author have in mind? Well, let’s turn to the dictionary. What does the Oxford English dictionary have as the first definition of gay?

“(of a person) homosexual (used especially of a man)‘the city’s gay and lesbian people’

And the Cambridge English Dictionary?


sexually attracted to people of the same sex and not to people of the opposite sex:

Collins dictionary?

1. ADJECTIVE [usually ADJECTIVE noun]A gay person is homosexual.…the gay community.

Merriam-Webster?

of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to people of one’s same sex

Now later on, these dictionaries do include something about being happy, but imagine not knowing the context of this song. What are you to include? The writer wanted us to dress like homosexuals.

Now if you were to look up a dictionary from the time of 1872, you might find things different. You would find happy being the main meaning of the word. The writer of the song is letting you know that it’s time to put on clothes that symbolize joy and happiness.

In the same way, if you’re studying a word that is in the Bible, an English dictionary is not your source to go to. I recently got in a debate with someone on faith. What did they do? Go to the dictionary.

The dictionary though gives you the popular usage of a word at the time. It is not the meaning for people in all times and all places since language can be fluid. A resource like a Bible dictionary would have been much better at this point.

You can search high and low and you will not find a reference of the Greek word pistis that takes it to mean “Belief without evidence.” It’s quite ironic that the ones presenting this claim that faith is believing something without evidence have no evidence that that’s what pistis means. Unfortunately, too many people have bought into that trope and ran with it.

It’s acceptable and fine to use a dictionary for modern words, but when someone speaks of a word and uses it in a more ancient context, it’s best to see what it meant to the people at the time. To do otherwise is a more postmodern approach to literature where the meaning of the word in the text changes depending on who is reading it.

Do the hard work. Look at what the ancients meant by the term. You’ll be better for it.

In Christ,
Nick Peters