Idea: The Dictionary of Modern Ideas

Last summer I had an idea for a book: a compendium of popular words or phrases used in the media that encapsulate complex concepts not well understood. In other words, a digest of intellectual slang.

Success in today’s marketplace of ideas seems to be based on whoever can condense their broad-based, interdisciplinary and world-changing concept into the tiniest catchphrase: a kind of argotic arms race. Unfortunately, these terms — regardless of the value they bear in their specific fields — are often used irresponsibly in a more general setting. Such usage not only confuses the issue, but is usually a signal of lazy thinking.

My book would gather around one hundred of these ideas from the last one hundred years, potentially through a discourse analysis of popular media outlets such as _Time_ or _The Atlantic_. Some criteria for the terms could be the following:

* the term cannot be self-explanatory
* the term must appear in regular media (not academic journals etc)
* the term must be influential/popular

Below are some examples to describe the types of terms I am looking for:

* tragedy of the commons
* the long tail
* climate crisis
* intelligent design
* the long war
* mutual assured destruction

I would survey a random selection of the population to find the terms most widely known yet misunderstood. The survey results would be plotted on a graph from which the final terms would be selected. The entire methodology would be published as an appendix to the book.

Each idea would encompass a two page spread, include a photo of the originator of the term (if known), a 500 word explanation of the core points of the concept and its historical significance, and a list of resources for those interested in learning more. The ideas would be organized into chapters based on field of inquiry (politics, economics, philosophy, science etc).

The original Dictionary of Ideas proposal napkin
The original Dictionary of Modern Ideas proposal napkin

Rather than a reference work the _Dicitonary of Modern Ideas_ would be more of a coffee table book. It would have an attractive graphic design pleasurable to the eye, while being stimulating to the brain. The book would target two types of readers: 1) regular citizens who desire a deeper understanding of opaque terms often used in public discourse, and 2) the intellectually curious who want a tour of the ideas of our time.

This book idea has potentially already been published. If any of our commenters know, please let me know in the comments. If it hasn’t, maybe one day I will have to put it together.

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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4 Responses to Idea: The Dictionary of Modern Ideas

  1. McKellar says:

    This might be too broad, but I thought of the idea of “game,” as in our Victorians playing “The Great Game” or “The Game” of street culture. The basic idea is so simple, yet anthropologically it encapsulates this idea of an system with its own rules, meanings, culture, and possibilities that completely re-defines the lives of its participants, yet leaves outsiders fairly clueless as to what everything means.

  2. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    A book? How quaint!!

  3. Arcane says:

    I hate to break it to you, but such a book has already been published although it is due for revision and a few terms could be added. It’s called Ideas That Changed the World by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. It’s excellent!

  4. artist formerly known as munzenberg says:

    It’s already been done. It’s called the New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought. Has everything from new scientific areas, to areas within philosophy, to nascent political movements. One of my favorite reference books on my reference shelf, apart from the Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature.

    It also has everything you wanted in the book, apart from a photo of the person (it has a large explanation of about 500-1000 words, origin, further reading, associated concepts that can be found in the dictionary italicized, etc).

    Nonetheless it’s coming up to ten years old, but at the time it was brilliant, perhaps they’ll update it again soon, as they seem to update it every ten years. Probably needs an update with some terms you have mentioned though.

    @arcane Armesto’s book is alright. Also check out Peter Watson’s ‘Ideas’, which is a history of ideas from the the dawn of man up to 1900. Watson’s second book ‘The Modern Mind’ covers ideas from 1900 to now.