Tag Archives: words

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.

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Sassy and also substantial

Peter Sokolowsky

Peter Sokolowsky (Image Source: cbs.com)

We’re having “a national conversation about language.”

So said Peter Sokolowsky, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster Dictionary, during an interview last week on CBS This Morning.

A national conversation about language? I don’t recall that ever happening before. If you ask me, it couldn’t come at a better time.

When the M-W Dictionary went online in 1996, Sokolowsky explained, it was the first time the dictionary’s curators could see what people were curious about. They’d never before been able to collect data about which words people were looking up.

In the past couple of years we’ve become hyper-aware of fake news, alternative facts, and the ways people use words to twist reality — or accuse others of twisting reality.

The watchers at M-W are doing their part: keeping close tabs on what people are looking up. When United Airlines sought volunteers to give up their seats and then had a passenger dragged off a plane, thousands of people went to the dictionary to look up the meaning of volunteer. Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account took note.Tweet from Merriam-Webster about the word volunteer

Increasingly, M-W’s tweets themselves have drawn attention. Continue reading

Create your story — and choose the right ingredients

Seth Godin took me to school. Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t realize it. But his April 11 blog post sounded like a direct rejoinder to my earlier piece: Just the right choice of words.

Here’s what Seth had to say:

If you watch a well-directed film with the sound turned off, you’ll get a lot out of it….

There are a few places where all that matters is the words. Where the force of logic is sufficient to change the moment.

The rest of the time, which is almost all the time, the real issues are trust, status, culture, pheromones, peer pressure, urgency and the energy in the room.

In fact, Seth’s post echoes the response Mark Baker wrote to my piece:

It isn’t the choice of individual words. It is the juxtaposition of words that achieves the effect. The art is not in the selection but in the arrangement, not in the vocabulary but in the story.

Both Seth and Mark know their stuff. So, did they take me to school? Do I feel chastised? Ready to write a retraction?

Um, well….No. Continue reading

Baseball, football, and just the right choice of words

As we embark on the first baseball season in 68 years without Vin Scully behind the mic, thank goodness we still have this classic comedy bit from George Carlin.

carlin

Image source: georgecarlin.com

I have a writerly purpose in sharing it with you today. Carlin’s piece demonstrates how, by choosing just the right words, a writer creates a mood and a sophisticated set of images for the reader. In this case it’s actually 2 moods and 2 sets of images.

We see, for example, that football is played on a rigidly structured gridiron, and baseball is played on an elegant diamond.

Football comes across as weighty, even sinister (down) while baseball is light and airy (up).

Football delivers an abrupt kick and slaps us with a warning; baseball provides relief and freedom to stretch.

While I’d never discount Carlin’s deft delivery, I think it’s his pitch-perfect choice of words that makes this piece the classic that it is.

With your writerly sensitivities thus enriched, sit back and enjoy the work of a master comic and master wordsmith.


I enjoy comparing baseball and football:

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game.
Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.

Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park!
Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.

BaseballBaseball begins in the spring, the season of new life.
Football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying.

In football you wear a helmet.
In baseball you wear a cap.

Football is concerned with downs – what down is it?
Baseball is concerned with ups – who’s up?

In football you receive a penalty.
In baseball you make an error.

footballIn football the specialist comes in to kick.
In baseball the specialist comes in to relieve somebody.

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice.

Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog…
In baseball, if it rains, we don’t go out to play.

Baseball has the seventh inning stretch.
Football has the two minute warning.

Baseball has no time limit: we don’t know when it’s gonna end – might have extra innings.
Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we’ve got to go to sudden death.

In baseball, during the game, in the stands, there’s kind of a picnic feeling; emotions may run high or low, but there’s not too much unpleasantness.
In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least twenty-seven times you’re capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.

And finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! – I hope I’ll be safe at home!

(Transcript source: Baseball Almanac. The original source, of course, is the inimitable George Carlin himself.)

Your Halloween treat: five tricky word pairs

This English language of ours is devilishly tricky.

Jack o'lanternFor your Halloween reading pleasure, here are five especially ghoulish word pairs.

If you use these words properly, you’ll win the respect and admiration of careful writers everywhere. If you don’t, your readers — some of them, anyway — will shriek in terror.

A new tact: Tack is what a yachtsman does to align a boat with the wind. Changing tack, or taking a new tack, sets the boat moving in a new direction. Taking a new tact simply doesn’t make sense. I can’t say it any more tactfully than that.

Don’t jive with me: Jibe, another word that comes to us from the sea, means to bring things into agreement. If your position jibes with mine, then we’re cool. But if it jives with mine, then you’re just being phony.

A rift on an old theme: I recently read a blog post in which another blogger was said to be rifting on a particular topic. A riff is a rhythmic phrase in music. A rift is a crack in the ground. Maybe the rifting blogger was making, um, wise cracks.

Now hear this: When you like what somebody has said, and you want others in the audience to listen, the expression is hear, hear! If you write here, here, that won’t get you anywhere, anywhere.

Honing in: When your focus narrows, do you home in or hone in? Do you come closer to home, or do you hone (sharpen) your sights? For my money, it’s home in — although much to my surprise, one of my favorite dictionaries, Wordnik, disagrees. So if you like to write hone in, I promise to keep my shrieking to a minimum.

At this witching season, which other homonyms (or near homonyms) have you heard being used in ways that are ghoulish?

Adapted from an article in the SDI blog, 28 October 2010