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Inartful:

Here's a question that I posed to Erin McKean, and that she graciously agreed to answer in the next few days.

The general question is: How do (and should) lexicographers decide whether to include a word in the dictionary?

The concrete example, contributed by Widener lawprof Ben Barros, is offered by the words "inartful" and "inartfully." Prof. Barros and I were both shocked to learn that the two words weren't in the OED or any dictionary accessible via onelook.com.

Some 20 years ago, William Safire wrote about inartful, and said "it is not a word." But of course that's wrong: It's a word that lawyers use often, though generally without recognizing it as legalese, and that nonlawyers seem to use on occasion as well.

A Lexis search through MEGA;MEGA for inartful! and date(> 1/1/2007) uncovers over 600 uses this year alone. Searches for past uses reveal published cases or summaries of lawyers' arguments using that term dating back to 1832. A search through a database of scanned 1700s English books found references from 1751 (Edward Kimber's The Life and Adventures of Joe Thompson 244 (2d ed.)) and 1759 (Samuel Derrick's [?] A General View of the Stage 26 (1759)). Kimber used it to mean "artlessly," but Derrick used it to mean "unskillfully," which seems to be the dominant modern meaning.

For whatever it's worth, unartful and unartfully do appear in Webster's 1913 Revised Unabridged Dictionary, though Google suggests that unartfully is over 30 times less common than inartfully.

So my questions to Ms. Mckean: Any thoughts on why the word isn't in the dictionaries, how lexicographers would decide whether to include it, and what people should do in the meantime?

TomH (mail):
Perhaps lexicographers should be bound by the inabitrary and incapricious standard of decision making.

(That way no one has to be wrong)
9.24.2007 3:57pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
Google suggests that unartfully is over 30 times less common than inartfully.

Now you're just trying to provoke the prescriptivists.
9.24.2007 4:11pm
Unclothed:
When my 4th grade teacher pronounced, "Ain't is not a word!", I asked her how many words were in that sentence.
9.24.2007 4:12pm
Anon Y. Mous:

...and what people should do in the meantime


Bow to the pronouncements of your language overlords. And, stop trying to cause trouble!
9.24.2007 5:15pm
Chris Burd (mail):
I believe the Oxford standard is two citations from published material at least 5 years apart.
9.24.2007 5:23pm
M (mail):
"inartful" is often used by philosophers, as well, to describe a poorly made argument, for example.
9.24.2007 5:37pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
'Artless' works for me.

Words can be created willy-nilly. I try to avoid laying on alternatives that do nothing to make more precise already serviceable words. To do otherwise is both lazy and artless.
9.24.2007 6:32pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
John Burgess: The trouble with artless is that two of its definitions -- in my experience, the more common ones -- are "free from deceit, cunning, or craftiness" and "not artificial; natural; simple; uncontrived."

True, "lacking art, knowledge, or skill" and "poorly made; inartistic; clumsy; crude" are also definitions of "artless." But given the ambiguity of the term, I wouldn't use "artless" to mean "unskillful."
9.24.2007 7:31pm
Fub:
Eugene Volokh wrote at 9.24.2007 6:31pm:
John Burgess: The trouble with artless is that two of its definitions -- in my experience, the more common ones -- are "free from deceit, cunning, or craftiness" and "not artificial; natural; simple; uncontrived."
I think that is as an antonym to "artful", as in The Artful Dodger.
9.24.2007 7:59pm