“I Don’t Know. Look it Up” – On Using the Dictionary

One of my distinct memories from growing up is that whenever we would ask my mom about a word that we didn’t know she would say:

“I don’t know. Look it up.”

She didn’t tell us to do this because she didn’t know the words. She did this because she is someone who takes language very seriously and wanted her children to develop the same respect and appreciation for language. Language is the center of all of our interactions. Language, and the accurate usage of language, is also at the center of learning and education.

One of the great traditions of Muslim┬álearning is to be very particular about how language is used. In a world built on persuasion, sound bites, and mass media, this is often lost on people. As one of our teachers once said in paraphrase, “I can’t go on TV because they’re just going to chop up what I say and there’s no room for nuance.” Nuance is important in discussions that affect our communities and our intellectual development. It is impossible without proper usage of language.

When we went to study Arabic our first teacher was very strict. When we read long vowels he forced us to elongate them more to imprint the understanding of them in our minds. When we came to class with gaps in our homework assignment he would force us to sit there and finish it in class before we move on. He would also make us look up for ourselves any word that we didn’t know in the dictionary. He knew that if he trained his students in using the dictionary that skill would remain with them even when he was no longer their teacher. Whenever we would ask him the meaning of a word he would say:

“I don’t know. Hans Wehr knows.”

The same answer that my mother gave all through my childhood.

Learning is not easy. Sometimes it is painful. There are no shortcuts. Mortimer Adler, one of the great thinkers and educators of our modern time said:

“If you are reading in order to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article. You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity. You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn.”

One of the ways to increase this capacity is to read with a dictionary nearby. You don’t necessarily have to look up every word that you don’t understand, but if there’s a word that gets in the way of your understanding what’s going on or that starts to stand out to you because of repetition, then it definitely needs to be looked up.

People who are lazy don’t want to look things up. Training oneself to do so requires some perseverance, but it is extremely important. Lazy people make mistakes in their conclusions, structure arguments that have holes in them, don’t focus on the true point of the discussion, and fall into any number of other mishaps with regards to information and learning.

In Islamic studies the place where this whole process is really fine-tuned is in the field of comparative jurisprudence (al-fiqh al-muqaran). True students of Islamic law do not actually study comparative jurisprudence to quickly access the opinions that are out there and come to conclusions. It is considered an inadequate method of research. True research requires going to the major books of each school in order to double-check the opinions that are mentioned. What comparative jurisprudence does is train the mind in fine-tuning arguments and understanding language and evidences and their usages. Many people are lazy in this regard. They would rather sift through a few pages and find what fits their purposes and run with it. The process is tedious, but over time the person develops an ability to distinguish between valid and invalid arguments.

All of this actually relates to language and words as well. It’s all the same process of understanding meanings and indications and using them effectively. That starts with looking up words and understanding what they mean. It starts with the dictionary.

And get a physical copy, not these online ones.

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