Juggernauts and jigaboos

Tuesday, 12 August 2003 — 10:38am | Literature

From The Weekly Standard comes Robert Hartwell Fiske’s review of the already much-ridiculed Merriam-Webster’s Eleventh:

This new slang-filled edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary does as much as, if not more than, the famously derided Webster’s Third International Dictionary to discourage people from taking lexicographers seriously. “Laxicographers” all, the Merriam-Webster staff remind us that dictionaries merely record how people use the language, not necessarily how it ought to be used. Some dictionaries, and certainly this new Merriam-Webster, actually promote illiteracy.

As most people know by now, dictionary makers today merely record how the language is used, not how the language ought to be used. That is, lexicographers are descriptivists, language liberals. People using “disinterested” when they mean “uninterested” does not displease a descriptivist.

A prescriptivist, by contrast, is a language conservative, a person interested in maintaining standards and correctness in language use. To prescriptivists, “disinterested” in the sense of “uninterested” is the result of uneducated people not knowing the distinction between the two words. And if there are enough uneducated people saying “disinterested” (and I’m afraid there are) when they mean “uninterested” or “indifferent,” lexicographers enter the definition into their dictionaries. Indeed, the distinction between these words has all but vanished owing largely to irresponsible writers and boneless lexicographers.

Of course, it’s in the financial interest of dictionary makers to record the least defensible of usages in the English language, for without ever-changing definitions–or as they would say, an evolving language–there would be less need for people to buy later editions of their product.

A few months ago (before the new edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate was published), I took a poll of Vocabula Review readers and discovered that 68 percent of the respondents rejected the strong descriptivist idea of dictionary-making, and only 4 percent would necessarily bow to the definitions and spellings found in the dictionary. More than that, though, the new Merriam-Webster is a sign that dictionaries, at least as they are now being compiled, have outlived their usefulness. Dictionaries are no longer sacrosanct, no longer sources of unimpeachable information. Dictionaries are, indeed, no longer to be trusted.

Over the last forty and more years, linguists and lexicographers have conspired to transform an indispensable reference work into an increasingly useless, increasingly needless one.

Well, isn’t this a regular pickle. On one hand we have the descriptivist approach that language is moulded by usage and misusage, which leads to dictionaries that model our society – specifically, our increasingly illiterate society. On the other hand, dictionaries that stick to the prescriptivist approach – though this is more significant regarding inclusion than definitions – are criticized for obsolesence. One recent criticism of Chambers, Britain’s pre-SOWPODS Scrabble word source, was (to paraphrase) that much of it existed only to provide for legal plays in said game.

Neither approach sounds particularly good. We do need linguistic standards to which we must adhere, especially in this age when first-world illiteracy is at an all-time high, thanks to the dark alliance of lazy typists and the Internet. At the same time, one needs to recognize that commonly adopted buzzwords and malaprop definitions are still fundamentally words and definitions, and a dictionary without them is an incomplete dictionary. Of course, all tabletop dictionaries out there are heavily edited and woefully incomplete as it is, which is why my homepage is Dictionary.com – it’s not quite there yet, but it’s another step up the ladder.

Fiske’s review itself, while noteworthy, does have its more questionable moments. He laments how “far-out” is still around despite its allegedly temporary relevance, in spite of the fact that yes, people do still watch movies from the sixties. He criticizes the inclusion of “alright”, but I defer to this usage note in the similarly disreputable American Heritage Fourth:

Despite the appearance of the form alright in works of such well-known writers as Langston Hughes and James Joyce, the single word spelling has never been accepted as standard. This is peculiar, since similar fusions such as already and altogether have never raised any objections. The difference may lie in the fact that already and altogether became single words back in the Middle Ages, whereas alright has only been around for a little more than a century and was called out by language critics as a misspelling.

One interesting case study, for those of you with too much time on your hands, is how dictionaries should approach a word like “gay”. Clearly it has the two distinct meanings, the “happy” one and the “homosexual” one, and I would not hesitate to ridicule a dictionary that excluded either. At the same time, shame on the dictionary that defers to the teenage school-bus usage of the word as applied in a derogatory manner to anything “stupid”.

My point? The line that divides overly conservative and overly liberal dictionaries is blurry and necessarily full of double standards. There is no happy medium, which is why using multiple dictionaries is the best solution.



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