In connection with my difficult work on Language Log's "Financial Good News" desk, where things have been arduous and slow, I was looking something up in the American Heritage Dictionary earlier today (possibly liberalism, possible lien; to tell you the truth, I have forgotten what — something beginning with L, but I got sidetracked), when I noticed something. In between libretto and lice it has a definition for Libyan Desert. The definition reports (and I just know you are going to get there ahead of me) that it is a desert, and it mainly is in (I know, I know, you are jostling me aside in your eagerness to predict it without having looked) Libya. Parts of it are in Egypt and parts of Sudan, actually; and no doubt there are areas that could be argued to be outlying regions of it that are in Chad (the dictionary did not deny it), but the Libyan Desert really is mostly a Libyan desert. The question that struck me was: wherever the hell it is, what the hell is it doing in a dictionary?
Do they plan to list the names of all places in the world, and give each one a dictionary entry? That would certainly beef up the size of the volume. All over the world human beings have named bits and pieces of the planet's surface right down to individual rocks. They name hills, valleys, rivers, streams, paths, hollows, mountains, tracks, roads, streets, lanes, fields, plateaus, cliffs, ridges, outcrops, islands, peninsulas, villages, townships, towns, cities, counties, provinces, states, countries, continents, channels, seas, oceans… The dictionary is going to be really big when these are all gathered in. Paul J J Payack is going to find it really easy to come up with his million words.
Why aren't all these names consigned to encyclopedias and atlases? They all have the same meaning, really: Kanchenjunga is a word whose meaning is that it is the name of a mountain best identified by saying that it is the one known as Kanchenjunga; Beechcroft Gardens is (apart from being the street on which I live, which is a contingent fact, and will be a temporary one unless the man across the street from me does something about the hair-trigger car alarm on his Porsche) a word (or is it a phrase?) whose meaning is that it is the name of a street best identified by saying that it is the one known as Beechcroft Gardens; and the Libyan Desert is a phrase whose meaning is that it is the name of a desert best identified by saying that it is the one known as the Libyan Desert. This is lexicography? Then whither geography? I have decided I just don't get it. Couldn't we figure out from the noun desert and the adjective Libyan what the proper name Libyan Desert probably stands for? Are we so dumb?
It seems to me that a dictionary should be there to provide entries for the things one could not know: who would have thought that rhubarb would have the name rhubarb? It's so surprising it's almost incredible. If you had asked me to guess, I would have been picking it out of millions of possible words of that length. So it goes in the dictionary. But I think I would have been able to guess that the main Libyan desert might be called the Libyan Desert.
Including place names because they name important places or are mentioned a lot in texts is a fool's game anyway. The American Heritage Dictionary has entries for Columbia and Columbus, but not Columbine. The third of these (sadly) is probably the most famous now, because of a school massacre and a film by Michael Moore. The dictionary has been caught on the hop. Egg on face! Yet it was needless. Words with capital letters are names of particular people or places or edifices, and their meanings are essentially the same. Dictionary entries? You don't need no stinkin' dictionary entries. Am I wrong? Am I being silly here? Has anyone ever looked up "Libyan Desert" in a dictionary to see what it means?