Wednesday, June 25, 2008

If I Were a Webster (Wherein I criticize highly skilled lexicographers for not doing their job they way I think they should)


I would add another definition for the word "complement." It would be:
v. to go well with

This is how people often use it. And I believe there's a subtle but clear difference between how people use it and how the dictionaries define it. Webster's New World and Merriam-Webster's give the definition: "to complete."
something that fills up, completes, or makes perfect -- Merriam-Webster Online

But it seems to me that's not exactly how people use it. When they say, "This wine complements the meal nicely," they're not always saying that it completes the meal. Often they just mean it goes well with the meal.

Plus, you often hear stuff like, "That wine complements the chateaubriand nicely" or "That rug really complements the couch." Clearly, these people don't mean that wine completes meat or that rugs complete drapes.

A dictionary's job is to report how the language is being used. And when it comes to "complement," I think they've been asleep at the switch. (Either that or wine drinkers know something I don't about meat.)

7 comments:

Drew said...

I feel like when people use the word "complement," they often do so without any awareness that it functions differently than the word "compliment." When they say that a wine complements a given dish, they probably think of it terms of the wine making the food seem especially nice or otherwise good. It's a stretch and also clearly wrong, of course, if you know what the words actually mean, but I feel like it would be an obvious connection for anyone who doesn't.

June Casagrande said...

Not long ago, I had a freelance copy-editing job for a publication whose EDITOR didn't understand that.

I gently tried to explain to her that hollandaise doesn't "compliment" fish, but she said, "I think it does."

Quoth the hollandaise: "Say, baby, you're one fine-lookin' hunk of salmon. You must work out. Let me guess, you've been swimming UPstream, right?"

Cathleen Mesquita said...

"Quoth the hollandaise..."

:)

June Casagrande said...

I consider hollandaise the Churchill of sauces, best-known, of course, for the immortal words:

"'Tis a far, far butter thing I do ..."

(I just had to push it, didn't I?)

goofy said...

Perhaps this usage is very new or so far only confined to speech.

June Casagrande said...

I suspect you're right. But it's also something that could continue to fly under lexicographers' radar for a while, since every instance of this new usage could probably be interpreted as meaning the old usage.

Plus, it was probably the best chance I would ever get to criticize the dictionary makers, so I took it.

: )

Drew said...

I agree. Speech has likely driven this, I'd suspect, because the notion of "complement" completing something is a lot easier to see what you're looking at the letters in the word.

That's, of course, if the world actually is spelled correctly.

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