Monday, July 7, 2008

Dictionaries Gone Wild

Webster's New World College Dictionary does not contain the word "McJob." American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language's fourth edition doesn't have it, either. Merriam-Webster does.

Webster's New World does not contain the term "air quotes." American Heritage doesn't have "air quotes." Merriam-Webster does.

Webster's New World does not list "dead presidents" as a synonym for money. American Heritage doesn't, either. Merriam-Webster does.

Webster's New World does not list "accidently" as an alternate spelling of "accidentally." American Heritage does, which surprises me. But Merriam-Webster's choice to report this spelling does not.

Webster's New World doesn't list "Frankenfood." Neither does American Heritage. Merriam-Webster does.

In the introduction to his 2005 Dictionary of Disagreeable English, "grumbling grammarian" Robert Hartwell Fiske examines Merriam-Webster's judgment, as reflected in its 11th collegiate edition, to make two points: 1. that dictionaries need to be more prescriptivist and less descriptivist, and 2. that Merriam-Webster are attention whores.

His first point is hogwash. But his second point is dead on.

Fiske and I would not hit it off at a cocktail party. Fiske hates language liberals, of which I'm one. But my liberalism has its limits. There's a difference between free love and prostitution. And Merriam-Webster's ability to make the NBC Nightly News website has "toot toot, hey, beep beep" written all over it.

I don't have in hand a copy of whatever press release Merriam might have used to score this segment on the home page of a nationally respected news program. But based on my experience receiving and sending press releases, I'd bet dollars to donuts that it touted some of Merriam's quirky, "fun," headline-grabbing new additions.

Fiske says of Merriam-Webster's approach: "It's a marketing strategy. It's not lexicography." I agree. A lot of people might ask, "What's wrong with that?" I have an answer.

Imagine you're the sweet, slightly mousy wallflower who has decided to try speed dating amid friends' assurances of, "Just be yourself. Guys will see how great you are." And imagine you get there and see that one of the other women is wearing a soaking-wet cropped T-shirt and starting every conversation by singing a few bars of "Do You Think I'm a Nasty Girl?"

You may not try speed dating again, but if you did, you'd definitely slap on some mascara first.

When dictionary-making takes its marketing strategy to Girls Gone Wild extremes, they lower the bar for all dictionaries.

Yes, dictionaries should be descriptivist. They should document how people use the language. But at the same time they must bear in mind the responsibility that comes with the job. Once they "document" a usage, they have, inadvertently or not, sanctioned it.

This is a responsibility that, before we reached the apex of our our cola-wars culture, they handled quite well. But with Merriam-Webster setting the terms of the competition, that may not be the case much longer.

Merriam-Webster seems to operate on a, "Hey, we're just reporting it, we're not saying it's right" philosophy. But they know perfectly well that, inadvertently, they are saying it's right. They should stop cheating and get back in the ring with the serious lexicographers who compete for our dollars by aspiring to quality through editorial and academic integrity.

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Joel said...

June, this is lovely and it seems to me that you're defining a movement. Seriously. I love the metaphor. I'm especially fond of "There's a difference between free love and prostitution."

It does often seem like we who yearn for the emancipation of the language are hemmed in by neo-victorian ankle-covering, fascist, fundamentalist prudes on the one side and STD-infested, fetishist, gang-banging, profit-driven pimps on the other. Or, um, something like that.

June Casagrande said...

You just described the crowd at my local Ralphs grocery store to a T.

Seriously, thank you. When I saw that clip on the news site, it took me a while to decide how I felt about the whole business. In any "We're going to hell in a hand basket argument," there always seems to be so much fear that we're on a slippery slope and if we let go a little, we'll slide straight to hell. Therefore, powerful enforcements must be put in place.

But really, until this silliness, I think lexicographers have done a pretty good job of responsibly documenting our language. It's just our "Tune in Friday when an ankle-covering fascist and an STD-infested pimp play 'Wife Swap'!" that has affected it.

(I'll be laughing at those descriptions of yours all day!)

goofy said...

Are you suggesting that the M-W lexicographers are just adding words without researching their usage and history? I find this hard to believe. They might be adding words faster than other dictionaries, but that doesn't mean it isn't serious lexicography.

You seem to be saying that "air quotes," Frankenfood" etc. are not common enough to be part of the standard language. (I assume you're not taking the Fiskean position that these words shouldn't be in M-W just because you don't like them.) But how do you know? Other dictionaries might just not be as fast at adding them.

The OED includes all kinds of words that its editors might not "sanction" as well.

June Casagrande said...

I'm not say they're making the wrong choices. I'm saying I that I find their motivations suspect.

As you said, they may well be conducted very extensive and responsible research and may indeed just be ahead of the curve. But I suspect that attention-getting is influencing decisions that should be devoid of such influences.

Joel said...

I applaud M-W for being out in front with new words, especially some of the beautiful (no, I'm serious) and clever coinages I've seen in my lifetime.

I'm not so wild about their tacit approval of sloppy spelling and gross mispronunciation.

And, even in the area where they might more often get it right, it is difficult not to suspect their motives, especially in this infotainment, market-driven, sensationalizing, spin-doctored, over-promoted, Fox-News culture in which we live--and in which they seem just a little too comfortable.


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