"He brought them [beasts and birds] to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name" (Gen. 2:19 NIV). There's language, right there at the beginning along with the rest of Creation (if a bit tilted in favor of nouns). And a concern with ancient languages and the wonderfully flexible word "translate" characterizes the Mormon account of the restoration of the Church as well. So perhaps we should take language and even dictionaries a little more seriously. I just listened to the unabridged CD text of The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (OUP, 2003) by Simon Winchester, and got a short course in both the OED and the history of English. I'll make short comments on dictionaries, language, Mormon doctrine, and the Internet. Yes, they are all related.
Dictionaries - I was stunned to discover that before the early 17th century there really were no dictionaries. There were fancy word lists (crib notes for snobs) and translation guides giving foreign language equivalents for English words, but no true dictionaries. Language was too transparent, it seems. People never felt there was any need or importance to making a comprehensive list of words used and their meanings. Shakespeare wrote without a dictionary or thesaurus!
Language - Unlike French, which (like most other things in France) is regulated by the government, English is a free-market language. Nobody tries to keep English pure be excluding foreign words or new ones. When the OED was compiled, the scholars doing so didn't declare proper words and their meanings, they researched actual word usage then created definitions matching those usages. In other words, the meaning inheres implicitly in the words themselves, as used in relation to other words. The entire self-referential language just kind of hangs out there like a cloud, supported by a half-billion English speakers but regulated by none of them. There is no "Department of English" in Washington DC. The language evolves, and does so steadily and at a predictable rate. Anyone want to guess when "Bloggernacle" will show up in a dictionary?
Mormon Doctrine - If nailing down a word, its usage, and its meaning is tricky, consider the challenge of defining the usage and meaning of a doctrine. Creeds and catechisms attempt to do that for some denominations, but Mormonism has neither. Various texts (Mormon Doctrine, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism) have made a stab at it, but they always emphasize that the ideas offered are unofficial, preserving deniability by the "official" Church. It strikes me that one might pursue the meaning of some LDS terms and doctrines like descriptive lexicographers do with words, by surveying how average Mormons, or alternatively Mormon literature, use (and implicitly define) terms and doctrines. What we need is a Mormon Lexicon. I might give it a try on a couple of terms to see how it works over the next week or two. I'll start with something juicy, the term/doctrine "sin" and the related term "transgression."
Blogging - Interestingly, the OED compilers didn't do their own word survey, the scope of books in English literature was simply too broad. They recruited readers from the general public, just regular people who volunteered to read particular works and fill out slip after slip with quotations containing and illustrating individual English words. It was a radically decentralized process. Surprisingly like blogging or Internet processes generally, except it was all done with pencil and paper. The Wikipedia is an Internet example of a similar decentralized knowledge project that depends on volunteer labor. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is another.