Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wonderings and Googlings (Wherein I wonder about words, then I Google them)

It's in the dictionary = 23,800 hits

It's in a dictionary
= 88 hits

In September, in a Mediabistro class I sometimes teach, I mentioned some disagreements between dictionaries. Students were shocked. They hadn't known that dictionaries disagreed with each other. They especially hadn't known that two dictionaries containing the name "Webster" — such as "Merriam-Webster" and "Webster's New World" — could disagree.

Like so many other people I've encountered, they thought a dictionary is a dictionary is a dictionary — it's all "THE dictionary."

I think that, in our brave new marketing-obsessed world, this is becoming a problem. It creates an incentive for attention-seeking lexicographers to make bad choices. Take, for example, yesterday's Comcast news headline: 'Meh': Apathetic expression enters dictionary.

I learned about this news story on an Internet message board on which a user announced that the word was now in "the dictionary." But it's not. It's in A dictionary — Collins English Dictionary — whose publishers, I bet, sent out a press release announcing the sassy new addition.

If more people realized just how different dictionaries are, dictionary makers would not be awarded the instant clout they now have. Fewer people would accept any one dictionary's word as gospel. And there would be less incentive to eschew serious lexicography in favor of press-release-driven, headline-seeking dictionary additions.

I'm not saying "meh" is a bad word to include in a dictionary. Personally, I like it. As I've discusssed before, I just worry that Collins is part of a trend in which ethical and scholarly lexicography is being undermined by PR whoring.

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Joel said...

I think I agree with almost everything you're saying (and I'm glad you're saying it and love the way you say it) . . . BUT I guess I think of "the dictionary" as a collective that encompasses the multiple, sometimes contradictory instances. I liken it to "the media" and "the Church," two of my other favorite misunderstood and maligned communities.

Indeed, all three organisms share the misfortune of being perceived as monolithic and homogeneous and, yes, all three are being corrupted from within by PR whoring. I'd argue that even the term "gospel," since you mentioned it metaphorically, falls into a similar class.

Maybe I'm just quibbling. In fact, I probably just think that the problem is much bigger and gets at a more fundamental flaw in world view. On the one hand, I do cherish the notion of speaking of these entities as such--and think that it's actually useful. On the other hand, I wish there were a way to slap people into a more appropriate frame of consciousness in understanding and discussing them.

Hmmm, speaking of favorite soap boxes (this is all stream of consciousness, BTW; a better man might have planned to arrive at this point; I did not), I think recent application of the term "Real America" has bearing. The problem isn't that we refer to ourselves as Americans (well there are problems with that, but, if our neighbors to the north and south don't mind, I'm going to ignore those for now); it's that we think we should all think alike and if we don't, some of us aren't really.

I'm not sure how peculiar my sense of "the dictionary" is though. (That might be my version of Roseanne Roseannadanna's "never mind.")

June Casagrande said...

Yeah, I'm with you on the collective concept of "the dictionary." It just has a little problem in that it reinforces some common confusion about any one dictionary's authority.

Regarding the "Real America," I don't know where I heard or read it, and you've probably come across the idea already, but someone somewhere pointed out that the very people who idolize Sarah Palin's "Real America" are in for a nasty surprise as their very demographic is about to become a minority and Real America is going to take on a face they see as "outsider" or "other."

That'll learn 'em.


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