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Look that up: the lexicographer’s conundrum

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Some of the best stuff you’ll read on Twitter is the wit and wisdom of Kory Stamper and her fellow lexicographers — including the fresh and very woke tweets from Merriam-Webster itself. Those tweets prove the point that Stamper strives to make in her book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries: that lexicography and lexicographers aren’t as boring as you thought.

Stamper makes her point well, in a distinctively breezy, engaging, and elbow-nudging way. Although a few of her chapters run long, going a little deeper into the weeds than necessary, I recommend the book for anyone who’s interested in writing or language in general.

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The best chapter is the one titled “Marriage,” in which Stamper deftly portrays the tension between lexicographers, who know that their job is to describe the language as it is, and their employers, who for more than a century have touted their dictionaries as the absolute authorities on how our language should be used.

Stamper emphasizes that our language is a river, and lexicographers work tirelessly to discover and track all of its whorls and eddies. It took her weeks, for example, just to update the various definitions of take.

(My use of took in that last sentence is sense 10e of the definition for take, the verb. I haven’t even mentioned take, the noun.)

Yet since the days of Noah Webster, at least, dictionaries have contended in the marketplace by claiming to be authoritative, by insisting that they alone can give you a mastery of words. Funk & Wagnalls, in its pre-Laugh In days, trumpeted that its dictionary contained all human knowledge since the world began.

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Even today, Stamper’s own Merriam-Webster displays these words on your browser tab when you display its home page: America’s most trusted online dictionary.

How should we reconcile the difference between the marketer’s insistence on prescribing and the lexicographer’s work of describing — especially in an age when dictionaries rely on online ads, not sales of printed books, to survive financially?

Stamper doesn’t give an answer, and I suppose there probably isn’t one. People expect dictionaries to tell them how to write (and speak), while lexicographers compile dictionaries to reflect what people are writing.

It truly is a question or problem having only a conjectural answer — sense 2a of the definition for conundrum.

Meanwhile, our language flows on, whorling and eddying as it pleases.

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