The Worst Dictionary Definition Ever? The OED on Technology

When the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) revised its definition of technology in 2009, it produced one of the worst dictionary definitions ever for a fundamental scholarly term. In its definition, the OED conflates two fundamentally distinct meanings, technology as applied science and technology as the industrial or mechanical arts.

That the OED would muck up its definition of technology is especially unfortunate. No other dictionary comes close to the OED for authoritative definitions of English words. And technology is no marginal concept, but rather a central keyword of late modernity, a concept that evokes not just rational productive activity but also utopian expectations and dystopian fears.

The OED first defined technology in 1919, when the “T” volume was finally published, some 35 years after the letter “A.” This 1919 entry was groundbreaking. It clearly captured the two then-current meanings of the term, technology as “the scientific study of the … industrial arts,” and as “the practical arts collectively.”

This second definition, technology as the practical or industrial arts, had only emerged in the early 20th century, although the OED incorrectly attributed this usage to the 1850s. The OED was the first dictionary to reflect this new meaning, in contrast to the term’s original meaning as a treatise or description of the practical arts. The original meaning is, after all, what one would expect from etymology, technology as logos (reasoned discourse) about techne (the practical arts).

For almost a century, the OED left this definition basically unchanged. The 1919 definition was already dated by the 1950s, when a new definition of technology as applied science became generally accepted by dictionaries of American English. But when the OED’s editors fully revised the entry for the online 3rd edition in 2009, they only confused the already muddled meanings of technology.

The revised entry provides four non-obsolete definitions of technology under two headings (see the complete text at the end of this posting). These definitions are both internally and mutually contradictory. Most fundamentally, the OED elides the distinction between art and science. The OED defines technology as both art (mechanical rather than fine) and science (applied, not pure).

This lumping together of art and science ignores over two millennia of scholarly discourse about the relationship between art and science. This discourse only faded after 1900, when art came to refer by default to fine arts or aesthetics.

In a sense, technology does combine both art and science, creative expression and rational calculation. And the boundary between art and science has always been unclear. But despite this fuzzy boundary, art and science remain fundamentally different. Scholars who wrote about these concepts, such as the French philosophe Denis Diderot, often viewed art and science as the opposite poles of a continuum.

Yet the OED’s first definition, 4.a., simply erases any distinction between art and science. Technology becomes “the branch of knowledge dealing with the mechanical arts and applied sciences; the study of this.” In this first definition, the OED defines technology as a type of knowledge, knowledge about both the “mechanical arts” and “applied sciences.”

The combination of these two terms is decidedly anachronistic. The mechanical arts emerged in the Middle Ages as a category encompassing traditional crafts like stonemasonry and shoemaking; it was certainly obsolete by World War I. Applied science, in contrast, is a contested 19th-century category that mainly refers to science used for practical ends. As the Google ngram below shows, mechanical arts has declined steadily since the 1850s. In contrast, applied science had become a prominent concept by the 1920s.

Google ngram

Google ngram, “mechanical arts” and “applied science” (link to source)

 

It makes little sense to define technology as knowledge of both mechanical arts and applied science. Instead, applied science and mechanical arts are actually two distinct definitions of technology. For nearly half a century, most English-language dictionaries explicitly distinguished these two meanings of technology.

The second definition, 4.b., deepens the conflation of applied science and industrial arts. In 4.b., technology is described as “The application of such knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry, manufacturing, etc.; the sphere of activity concerned with this; the mechanical arts and applied sciences collectively.”

In effect, 4.b. defines technology as four things. First, it is the “application” of “such knowledge,” presumably the knowledge described in 4.a. Second, it is the “activity” of doing a vague “this,” presumably “application.” Third and fourth, technology is equated with “mechanical arts” and “applied sciences,” but only “collectively,” that is, in general rather than as a specific art or science.

Among other things, definition 4.b. implies that technology is about applying applied science, or applying the mechanical arts, neither of which quite makes sense. Furthermore, one can assemble the scattered parts of the first two definitions by replacing pronouns with their presumed referents. Thus technology becomes, in one possible meaning, “the sphere of activity concerned with” “the application … for practical purposes” of “the branch of knowledge dealing with the mechanical arts and applied sciences.” This mess probably means something like “applying practical knowledge.” I’d flunk a student who gave such a definition as an answer on an exam.

This definition also muddles the distinction between technology as a field of knowledge and technology as practical activity. Recall that the 1919 OED definition clearly distinguished these two meanings.

You might think that this entry cannot get worse, but in fact it does. Subheading 4.c. defines technology as “the product of such application; technological knowledge or knowhow; a technological process, method, or technique. Also: machinery, equipment, etc., developed from the practical application of scientific and technical knowledge; an example of this.” That certainly makes things clear!

So, in 4.c., technology knowledge, the application of knowledge, and the product of application, which can be a machine, a method, or knowledge. Not only is the definition recursive, invoking the term being defined, it is also circular: “Technological knowledge” (from 4.c.) is the product of applying technological knowledge (from 4.a).

Finally, technology is “5. A particular practical or industrial art; a branch of the mechanical arts or applied sciences; a technological discipline.” That is, technology can also be a subset of definitions 4.a or 4.b.

Admittedly, the OED is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive dictionary, intended to reflect actual usage of English words rather than an idealized view of what they should mean. People do use all the varied meanings in the OED’s definitions of technology, although the OED did omit some common meanings, most importantly technology as digital electronics and technology as technique. And indeed, people often conflate these varied meanings, in both popular and scholarly usage.

Yet even a descriptive dictionary should not further such confusion. The authors of the OED’s entry on technology seem oblivious to the history of the term, an odd omission given the original title of the OED: A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Yet rather than teasing out the distinct meanings of this key concept, the OED provides its readers with an incoherent muddle.


Current definitions of technology from the Oxford English Dictionary[1]

4.    a. The branch of knowledge dealing with the mechanical arts and applied sciences; the study of this.

b. The application of such knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry, manufacturing, etc.; the sphere of activity concerned with this; the mechanical arts and applied sciences collectively.Freq. with modifying word, as alternative technology, applied technology, food technology, information technology, space technology: see the first element.

c. The product of such application; technological knowledge or know-how; a technological process, method, or technique. Also: machinery, equipment, etc., developed from the practical application of scientific and technical knowledge; an example of this. Also in extended use.

5. A particular practical or industrial art; a branch of the mechanical arts or applied sciences; a technological discipline.

[1] “technology, n.”. OED Online. June 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/198469?redirectedFrom=technology (accessed July 07, 2016).

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