Tag Archives: dictionary

Look that up: the lexicographer’s conundrum

Old dictionary advertisement

“The one dictionary that puts your family in command of today’s English”

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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“Accept Nothing Less Than the SUPREME Authority”

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.

Old dictionary advertisement

“All human knowledge since the world began is concentrated in this one mighty book”

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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Dazzling their giddy readers

Back in 1946 an unnamed editor at the Saturday Evening Post had a bone to pick with the then-current Second Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. Specifically, he (given the era and the medium, the editor most likely was a he) was worked up because the dictionary would present all of the various definitions for a word without sufficiently distinguishing the generally accepted ones from the offbeat or archaic ones.

Post cover showing two cleaning ladies in an empty theater

A classic Post cover from, yes, 1946 (source: Saturday Evening Post)

As quoted on Twitter by Peter Sokolowsky, a contemporary lexicographer for Webster’s, the editor had this to say:

Is There a Lexicographer in the House?

This magazine, and every other magazine, we suppose, has frequent recourse to a dictionary for enlightenment on the proper usage of words that crop up in manuscripts. As we are an American publication employing what is called the American language, we use an American dictionary. It is a big, fat, leather-bound volume, heavy enough to snap a man’s instep if it should fall off its stoutly contrived stand. It is also a big, fat fraud. In most instances, it is no more a guide to correct meaning than astrological writings and the prophecies of Nostradamus are guides to the future. Its scholarship, if such pack-rat hoarding of oddities can be called scholarship, is of the on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other variety. Any meaning, no matter how far-fetched or archaic, can be justified by anyone willing to risk his eyesight on the small print. It doesn’t deserve the title of dictionary, although it is highly ranked in lexicographers’ circles; it is largely an anthology of word meanings and it serves only to compound confusion. The English language, from which our own derives, is an unusually lush language, and our English cousins try in a scholarly way to encourage a reasonably disciplined approach to it. The ungoverned tendency here in America is to admit every novelty with which frontier wits and modern saloon columnists have sought to dazzle their giddy readers.

This seems to be as good a time as any for our lexicographers to get together and work toward some semblance of authority in their works. It is even conceivable that one courageous lexicographer with a sound background and a decent respect for the virility of the American language could cut away some of the spurious trimmings without injuring the tree. Is there such a lexicographer in the house? If not, our language stands in danger of growing so many sucker branches that we won’t be able to see the tree for the suckers.

It’s entertaining to read the rant of a 1946 magazine editor. I’d like to go back in time and ask him what he meant by the virility of the American language.

Whatever he meant, his plea for “a decent respect” for the language gets to the real purpose of dictionaries — especially for those of us who write and edit.

Photo of Webster's Second edition

The “big, fat, leather-bound fraud”: Webster’s Second Edition (source: Amazon)

I think that most writers and editors, and certainly most lexicographers, agree that dictionaries should describe how words are used rather than prescribing how they should be used. Yet merely describing, without making some judgment calls, isn’t helpful.

Why is that? Well, why does a writer consult a dictionary? To ensure that the words we choose will communicate our intended meaning to our readers.

That means we have to know, first, how our readers (our audience, in the parlance of technical writing) will understand the words, based on their backgrounds and their frame of mind. Are they academics? Farmers? Politicians? Are they more or less comfortable with new usage, with slang, with meanings that derive from popular culture?

Then, second, we have to know the words themselves. This is where the dictionary comes in. It should be able to tell me whether the words I have in mind are going to connect with the readers I’m writing for.

If it does, true communication is possible. If it doesn’t, then as a writer I’m simply throwing darts in the dark and hoping they hit something. Or worse, I’m a frontier wit seeking to dazzle my giddy readers.

Please, no. Anything but that.

Epilog: The editor, Sokolowsky notes, eventually got his wish, although he had to wait a while. Webster’s Third, published in 1961, was far more discriminating. In Sokolowsky’s words, it jettisoned the all-but-the-kitchen-sink approach — and that policy has continued to the present day.