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[Erin McKean, guest-blogging, September 24, 2007 at 10:57am] Trackbacks
Guestblogging Dictionary Myths:

Part 1: The Myth of the Lexicographer-Judge

What's a dictionary myth? A dictionary myth is something that people believe about dictionaries (and words as they appear in dictionaries) that simply isn't true. They can be semi-harmless dictionary urban legends (like the one that holds that antidisestablishmentarianism is the longest word in the dictionary) or they can be more pernicious, such as the widespread belief that if a word isn't in "the dictionary", it's not a real word.

A little bit more on the pernicious side is the belief that lexicographers -- the folks who edit the dictionary -- are somehow on a higher plane of word usage than the common person, and that they make decisions as to what does and does not enter the hallowed ranks of dictionary-words based on some exquisite aesthetic sense, some finely-tuned Sprachgefühl, a kind of lexical perfect pitch.

This, I hasten to assure you, is flatly not true.

Lexicographers are not the word-judging equivalents of the literary critic or the music reviewer; they're not the curators of the word museum. The lexicographer is, or should be, a scientist-journalist combo. They should research what words are actually being used, how, where, when, and by whom, and then report these facts of usage to the public in a clear, timely, straightforward manner. [Don't worry, we'll discuss what happens when what the lexicographer finds is 'wrong' later this week.]

Of course, the problem with current dictionaries (and pretty much all dictionaries everywhere at all times) is that there are often more words to be reported on than there is space in the printed book. So how to decide which words make it onto the page, and which don't? Lexicographers don't cherry-pick the pretty words, or the words with the best etymologies, or the words that are used in their favorite novels: they pick the words that will be of the most use to the largest group of people. They report 'newsworthy' words, words that they think will have sticking power, words that seem serviceable and sturdy, good for the long haul. (And, let's not forget, because making dictionaries is a commercial endeavor, they also pick words that will get publicity, attract attention, and drive consumers to their product. Those words are the chrome trim on the family sedan.)

Perhaps starting out a week of guest-blogging about dictionaries by undermining my own authority is not the brightest of bright ideas, but I feel curiously compelled to do it. By removing any special glamour from my job -- by making it just a job, and not a calling -- I hope that it will be easier to talk about the underlying data (how we know what we know about words) and to talk about the possible dictionaries of the future, instead of arguing about taste (because, as we all know de gustibus non est disputandum).

Oh, and by the way, the other myth about lexicographers is that we are horrified, appalled, and indeed, quite put out when we see misspellings, nonstandard usages, slang, or informality in general. This is ridiculous -- it's like expecting doctors to faint at the sight of blood. Our usual reaction to a word we haven't seen before (especially slang!) is "ooh, interesting!" We feel the same way about "errors," too, for the most part. Every error, every place where the language system breaks down, is a chance to deduce how language works, in the same way that every neurological injury gives us hints as to how the brain ought to function. So, please, don't let the fear of making a mistake in front of the lexicographer keep you from commenting!

FantasiaWHT:
What is the longest word in the dictionary?
9.24.2007 12:03pm
Tom952 (mail):
Major rad, dude.
9.24.2007 12:04pm
Snitty:
pneumonoultramicroscopticsilicovolcanoconiosis is in a bunch of dictionaries. It's a variant on black lung disease. It is also very long.
9.24.2007 12:12pm
byomtov (mail):
This promises to be fascinating. I look forward to reading your posts.
9.24.2007 12:13pm
Erin (mail) (www):
Snitty, check out the link above for longest word ... turns out pneumo, etc. was probably a hoax!
9.24.2007 12:20pm
notalawyer:
Welcome, Ms. McKean. When I teach Greek to theological students, I constantly have to fight their presupposition that a word "means" something in some ontological sense. Like the realtors' old saw about "location, location, location," we Greek teachers insist that a word's meaning comes from "context, context, context." I'd love to hear anything you have to say on the issue of inherent versus contextual meaning.
9.24.2007 12:38pm
CEB:
I, too, look forward to your posts. And I have to ask, what is your professional opinion on "cromulent"?
9.24.2007 12:40pm
Billy Beck (www):
"First thing we do, let's burn all the dictionaries."

(Without apology to Shakespeare.)

That's what I think every time I see even a barely sophisticated attempt to establish the essence of every government inimical to freedom, and some imbecile starts trotting out the superficial distinctions between "socialism", "fascism", "communism", etc., culled from these arbiters of popular ignorance.
9.24.2007 12:46pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
Every error, every place where the language system breaks down

My favorite breakdown is "for all intensive purposes."
9.24.2007 12:48pm
Zubon (mail) (www):
I am sure that many commenters will echo your view that the way people use the English language online very closely resembles brain damage. ;)
9.24.2007 12:51pm
Lively:
Tolerance, in the dictionary, used to mean permissive attitude (i.e. the kid behind me on the airplane is screaming and I'm tolerating it).

Now it means "freedom from bigotry." More succinctly it means to advocate or support.
9.24.2007 1:00pm
Charlie Tips:
You do know what Thomas Jefferson is reputed to have said when told that Merriam Webster was compiling a spelling book, don't you?

"I have no regard for a man who can spell a word but one way."

I'm ready to collaborate with you right now on a dictionary that relays much more of the overtones and atmospherics of important words. Seen too many opinion pieces lately that fall apart because the author has only a pedestrian grasp of words like "hypocrisy" or "tolerance."
9.24.2007 1:06pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
I, for one, look forward to this opportunity to embiggen my horizons.

- AJ
9.24.2007 1:17pm
Richard A. (mail):
To Erin McKean:
Can you explain the urge to make up false etymologies for simple words based on initials, e.g. "Constable On Patrol" for "cop" and the even more absurd "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge?"
This urge seems to be almost primal among humans.
9.24.2007 1:23pm
AF:

[Lexicographers should not] make decisions as to what does and does not enter the hallowed ranks of dictionary-words based on some exquisite aesthetic sense . . . .
They should research what words are actually being used, how, where, when, and by whom, and then report these facts of usage to the public in a clear, timely, straightforward manner. . . .
[But] there are often more words to be reported on than there is space in the printed book. . . .
[So lexicographers] report 'newsworthy' words, words that they think will have sticking power, words that seem serviceable and sturdy, good for the long haul.


I look forward to learning why:
(1) the "space in the printed book" is a limiting factor in the digital age;
(2) given resource constraints, the most "newsworthy" words should be included, rather than those words that are "actually being used" the most;(3) a lexicographer's sense of what words "seem serviceable and sturdy, good for the long haul" is not an "aesthetic" one.
9.24.2007 1:31pm
mobathome:
To Erin McKean: Will you say something about the choices lexicographers make about what, if any, restrictions they put on the language used in the definitions?
9.24.2007 1:34pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
Two references, if you know them.

Wm. Empson, the chapter ``Dictionaries'' in _The Structure of Complex Words_, on what a dictionary ought to be, and decrying the modern trends as of the 1950s.

Wm. Kerrigan, ``The Neurotic's Dictionary'' in Raritan XI:3 (Winter 1991), on Random House Webster's College Dictionary, as overcome by the prissy.
9.24.2007 1:44pm
David Huberman (mail):
An unexpected intellectual bonus from VC this week - yay!
9.24.2007 1:53pm
Fred Red:

A little bit more on the pernicious side is the belief that lexicographers -- the folks who edit the dictionary -- are somehow on a higher plane of word usage than the common person, and that they make decisions as to what does and does not enter the hallowed ranks of dictionary-words based on some exquisite aesthetic sense, some finely-tuned Sprachgefühl, a kind of lexical perfect pitch.


They are in France!
9.24.2007 2:12pm
M.:
What a nice thing to have Ms. McKean here, shame it's an opportunity for pathetic commenters to exercise their grudges about dictionaries, of all things. Like she says, it's a tool, not an oracle; no need to get political about it.
9.24.2007 2:19pm
John D (mail):
Quick note to Charlie: Webster's first name was Noah. Merriam is the name of the publishing company that bought the copyright to Webster's dictionary, now Merriam-Webster.

General note on meanings: Not to hijack the thread, but I find the "dictionary argument" (the claim that the dictionary says that marriage means a man and a woman) against marriage rights for same-sex couples the most tiresome and least persuasive. Next time I'm confronted with it, I will make certain my opponent reads Ms. McKean's wise words.
9.24.2007 2:30pm
Piers:
So help me but this is the first thing I thought of:

Dr. Samuel Johnson: Here it is, sir. The very cornerstone of English scholarship. This book, sir, contains every word in our beloved language.
Blackadder: Every single one, sir?
Dr. Samuel Johnson: Every single word, sir!
Blackadder: Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.
Dr. Samuel Johnson: What?
Blackadder: "Contrafribularites", sir? It is a common word down our way.
Dr. Samuel Johnson: Damn!
Blackadder: Oh, I'm sorry, sir. I'm anispeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericombobulation.
9.24.2007 2:45pm
K Parker (mail):
"Can you explain the urge to make up false etymologies for simple words based on initials [emphasis added]"

While I'm confident our guest would be able to supply more examples of this than the average person could, for an explanation of the motiviation wouldn't a psychologist, anthropologist, or sociologist be a better source of insight?
9.24.2007 2:49pm
Erin (mail) (www):
Whoa, okay :: making quick notes :: lots of comments! Great!

CEB: I think cromulent embiggens our language. I'm sure Alaska Jack agrees with me.

Tony Tutins: if you like "for all intensive purposes", you will love the Eggcorn database.

Charlie Tips: The "I have no respect for a man who can spell a word only one way" is usually attributed to Twain, but Fred Shapiro at Yale has antedated a similar saying to 1880.

Richard A: for a good look at the bacronymic tendencies of modern folk etymologists, I recommend Word Myths by David Wilton.

AF: We'll get to the whole print/digital thing this week, I promise. Also the frequency myth (your #2) and, sure, I guess you could say that deciding whether a word is good for the long haul is a kind of aesthetic judgment, but it's not along the same lines as whether a word is beautiful or not, which is how people often assume these decisions are made.

mobathome: I will try to discuss defining vocabulary ... there's a lot to cover in a week!

Ron Hardin: Thank you for those links! I don't think I had seen the Raritan piece.

Fred Red: I forgot to add my usual "This Applies to American English Only; Your Language May Vary" disclaimer.

Whew!
9.24.2007 3:01pm
Milhouse (www):
I think you're wrong about antidiestablishmentarianism. The article to which you like justly dismisses pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis as a hoax, and floccinaucinihilipilification as a mere stunt word, but then goes on to dismiss antidiestablishmentarianism on the grounds that it "has become limited to simply yet another example of a very long word".

It's true that antidiestablishmentarianism doesn't come up much in ordinary conversation nowadays, but that's for the same reason that "Know-Nothingism", "whiggery", or "antifederalist" don't come up much; ordinary conversation rarely turns to the subjects where those words would naturally be used. Whenever conversation does somehow turn to British politics of the 1860s, antidiestablishmentarianism is sure to be used, because it was a real and important force, with nothing stuntish about it.

Lots of words are just as rarely used, and yet just as legitimate: consider "trichinosis", "antediluvian", "antiphonic", "okapi". "Ai" and "zo" are know much more widely as legitimate Scrabble™ words than as actual creatures that one might see in a zoo, but that doesn't make them "stunt words". (For reasons that I cannot fathom, "ai" is in both OSPD and OSW, while "zo" is only in OSW; do the compilers of the OSPD really think that the average USAn is more likely to come across an ai than a zo while walking in the park?)
9.24.2007 3:06pm
Milhouse (www):
Oh dear. I don't know how it happened, but "link" became "like", "now" became "know", and those long words ought to have been in quotes.
9.24.2007 3:11pm
Ryan Waxx (mail):
The problem with saying that dictionaries are not the authority on 'what is a word' is that sometimes an authority on that subject is necessary, and almost always the dictionary is the only realistic stand-in.

How many english professors would be out of a job if they couldn't drop you a grade because a word you use isn't in their dictionary?

A dictionary is the closest thing to a consensus of society on what a word means, and weather it exists, that an ordinary person is ever likely to see. So its not an error to treat the dictionary as authoritative for 90% of the population.

Though I will admit that a writer of dictionaries might be part of the remaining 10% =)
9.24.2007 3:30pm
JosephSlater (mail):
This promises to be the best VC guest-blogging stint ever. Seriously.
9.24.2007 5:09pm
BobH (mail):
Only peripherally on-subject, but what the heck. I just wanted to say that my favorite German word (and possibly -- though not likely -- the longest word in that language) is:

die Gleichgewichtzustandwiederherstellungsmoeglichkeit

Or, as we would say in English, "the possibility of re-establishing a condition of equilibrium."

Two - four - six - eight, English should agglutinate!!
9.24.2007 5:15pm
Justthisguy (mail) (www):
This reminds me of a story.

It seems that Noah Webster was stealing a kiss from his maidservant one day, and his wife happened upon that.

She said, "Noah Webster, I'm surprised!"

He said, "No, Madam, _I_ am surprised, _you_ are amazed."
9.25.2007 1:52am
presbyter (mail) (www):
"You boys is as dumb as a sack of hammers. Why this here valley had to be flooded... Yessir, from now on everything is gonna be run on a payin' basis. Out with the superstition and ignorance and in with science and reason." paraphrase from "Brother Where Art Thou"

-----

"Lexicographers are not the word-judging equivalents of the literary critic or the music reviewer; they're not the curators of the word museum. The lexicographer is, or should be, a scientist-journalist combo. They should research what words are actually being used, how, where, when, and by whom, and then report these facts of usage to the public in a clear, timely, straightforward manner."

Wow. What a para-graph.

It seems none have a clue as to absolute truth, even, indeed esp. those who hold themselves out to be gate-keepers of supposed will-neutral common encapsulations of parts of reality expressed in phonetic and alphabetical blocks. The need for more and more common terms as reducing vocabulary to cover complex reality in larger and larger blocks isn't a grand statement about the flexibility of those deceived they have free will, but more in line with one generation being able to understand many things in fluid, ever-changing, ever-growing language and fully understanding what language is while the next generation wants a reduction in the number of words and a very static ( and yet supposed will-neutral) environment to encapsulate more of reality per word to get to the supposed emotion delivered as speech quicker. One wants the freedom of a stick shift while the other wants the automatic/push-button "down and dirty/just get it done/less talk more action" speech as if speech really were a will-neutral device at the beck and call of a non-fallen Man. Both are deceived they have free will and both work for the advantage of their heart.

Perhaps it is time to recall the dire warnings of those of former centuries who warned what would happen if and when a supposed "ideal" book were written and enforced that included some words and excluded others; the poverty of mind and spirit in the inflation of the fallen heart. Now that we live in an era that makes it seem only the words in the dictionary exists as legitimate spirits and that there has never been an era in which dictionaries did not exist, the prophets voices of past ages supposedly make no sense because not only are the words spoken through them left out and yet supposedly are translated into others as that very supposed will-neutral stuff, but the lens on language itself has shifted to keep them out as defining all language as non-creating/will-neutral --as if mere human "free" will could actually accomplish that even by accident.

Luke 11:52 Woe unto you, the doctors of the law, for ye have taken away the key of knowledge; yourselves have not entered in, and those who were entering in ye have hindered.


After having fallen for a lie that total reality is will-neutral and supposedly, magically maintains itself as such, and after having, as a compounding of that lie fallen further for the lie that speech is a non-living thing that is necessarily subordinate to the will of Man as supposed "proof" of the first lie, it is not suprising that a thing plainly stated not to exist and fought against in former ages and which doesn't actually exist as an extention of the free will of Man in reality now claims it does and yet has trouble defining what exactly it is to those over whom it would rule in the guise of merely reporting "about" language and words: "Lexicographers". I suppose it to be a dogma among "lexicographers" that their authority derives from others not knowing what they really are. You can be a "legitimate" Mystery?


Psalm 12:2-5 They speak falsehood every one with his neighbour: with flattering lip, with a double heart, do they speak. Jehovah will cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that speaketh proud things, Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail, our lips are our own: who is lord over us? Because of the oppression of the afflicted, because of the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith Jehovah, I will set him in safety, at whom they puff.

In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen
9.26.2007 1:06am