Strange & monitory dictionary experience

As I was wandering through the house talking to myself, I found myself using the word ’instantiate’. “That’s a rare word,” I thought, “I wonder if I’m using it right.” So I decided to look it up.

The first dictionary I went to was The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition – the word did not appear. I even tried spelling it instanciation. Then I went to Webster’s New World Dictionary, also 2nd College Edition (the 2nd ed. period must have been when college kids were selling all their books for drugs). Neither did it appear there.

Aha! Me thinks this word must be an archaism, so typical of me who studies the history of English. So, I will hie me to the venerable OED. NOT IN THERE EITHER!

So, it was clear this word did not exist in English and I must have found it in Latin and unconsciously “borrowed” it into English. How amusing. As I sat down to look up a couple of words in a foreign language dictionary, my eye lit upon Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1973. I got it because I read somewhere that it was the best dictionary for etymologies. I casually opened it up to insta— and THERE IT WAS! It was defined much as I had used it i.e. “to represent (an abstraction) by a concrete instance”.

How weird, as the kids would say. The Webster’s New World is from 1970 and the Am Heritage is 1982! So obviously, dictionary ’makers’ vary considerably in what words they choose to include. Just a warning to those who think “looking it up in the dictionary” settles all bets.

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