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[Erin McKean, guest-blogging, September 25, 2007 at 12:14pm] Trackbacks
Why Inartful Isn't In

So yesterday Eugene asked me why the word inartful (meaning 'unskillfully') wasn't in any dictionary that he'd consulted, including the OED and all the dictionaries you can search through onelook.com.

He pointed out that this word has been used 600 times in 2007 alone, and that he'd found a cite going back to 1751, which seems like plenty of evidence of use to guarantee a seat at the grown-up table for inartful. So why has inartful gotten the go-by?

When thinking about how words enter a dictionary, the most important thing to understand is that there are many, many more words than there are places in any current dictionary. Because of this scarcity, lexicographers are driven to a kind of triage. Often, the question isn't 'how can I justify including this word?' but 'how can I justify EXCLUDING this word?'

It wasn't that lexicographers just weren't lucky enough to run into the word: we should assume that a lexicographer at one point saw and considered inartful, however briefly. How can I assume that? Well, Ben Zimmer at OUP let me know that the word shows up three times in the citations database the OED uses (Incomings) and shows up thirteen times in the Oxford English Corpus. In the natural course of things, then, a report should have been run on all the words in either of those databases that isn't already listed as a defined word, and the output of that report looked over.

So once inartful was on that list, why didn't it shoot straight through the process to definition and publication?

Well, inartful is fairly easily and superficially defined as "not artful". Often in- or un- words are not separately defined in dictionaries (again, the lack-of-space problem) because lexicographers assume that someone who knows in- and audible can put the pieces together on their own and figure out inaudible without our help. (These words, in lexicogger jargon, are often called derivatives or run-ons, because they are derived from and often run on to an entry, where they appear at the end, after all the definitions, in bold type.)

Of course, there are difficulties with this 'solution' to the space problem, and inartful is a good example of how this assumption of transparent meaning can go wrong. It seems that at the time inartful started to be used, artful meant, plainly, "Displaying or characterized by technical skill; performed or executed in accordance with the rules of art; artistic" [OED]. Artful had not yet taken on its later meaning of "Cunning, crafty, deceitful." [OED] So the in- + artful reading of inartful stopped working, along about the time that artful took on an unsavory character. It's not that the lexicographers were slacking off here (although it may seem that way). It may take several revision cycles for all of the in- and un- (and for that matter the re- and non-) words to get reviewed to make sure that their base word hasn't skewed off in a different direction than the prefixed version. Of course, inartful didn't even get the run-on treatment, as far as I can tell. If a word is rare enough, and it has no changes in its spelling or stress pattern or pronunciation when the prefix or suffix is added, even the run-on space may be judged as too valuable to waste on so marginal a word.

Another reason that inartful could have been left off the guest list of the A-Z party is that the word seems to be used mainly by lawyers. It's not anti-lawyer prejudice on the part of lexicographers (we tend to love lawyers, because lawyers tend to love dictionaries, and, more importantly, buy them ... ). But lexicographers know that legal terminology tends to be both contained in the law world and that the law world has good dictionaries of its own, which will provide adequate coverage. (Black's, especially, although I haven't been able to look up inartful in Black's. I don't know where my copy went!) Any kind of very specific jargon or restricted terminology won't show up in a general dictionary (I'm not really talking about the OED here, which does include a lot of specialist terminology) unless the lexicographer can show that the term does show up often enough in broader contexts.

Which should have been the case, actually, for inartful, since it was the subject of the Safire contretemps Eugene mentioned yesterday (he claimed it "wasn't a word"), AND then he retracted that claim ... based in part on testimony from a lawyer, Fred Shapiro. When a word is the subject of a public debate over its wordiness, that to me says it's a good candidate for inclusion in a general dictionary ... but I'm excusing myself from responsibility for following that particular debate, since it happened in 1985, when I was fourteen and not yet reading the Sunday New York Times on a regular basis (I don't think you could get home delivery of the NYT in Winston-Salem, N.C. in 1985).

(Although now that the NYT archive is open, does anyone want to help me do a survey of all the On Language columns to see what percentage of words discussed are, in fact, included in major dictionaries? I'll take volunteers in the comments, on a first-come, first-served basis ...)

Those are just two of the reasons you can't find inartful between inarch and inarticulate in your dictionary. They're not especially good reasons, but then again the reasons for most failures aren't especially good ones.

And, really, I don't think inartful is an especially rare case. I encounter a word that's not in a dictionary but probably could be nearly every single day. Grant Barrett has built an entire web site that lists words that aren't in the major dictionaries. Dictionaries are probably only the tip of the English iceberg — there might be as much as 90% of the language hiding below the waterline.

So tomorrow I think I should discuss how lexicographers could keep this kind of inartful failure from happening, both ideally and practically. If you want a sneak preview, you might want to check out the video of my talk at the TED conference, where I discuss this same topic. (Warning: sound starts immediately as the page loads.)

John (mail):
The question is, why is "artful" in the dictionary, when we have "ept"?
9.25.2007 1:38pm
AK (mail):
Uninteresting.
9.25.2007 2:11pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Why does a lexicographer care about space restrictions anymore? Even if there are 10 times as many words in usage as appear in a published book, it would still be child's play to make them all accessible on a website. The website you link about words that aren't in the dictionary, I think, proves that point.

Based on this, the only reasons for not including a word in the online dictionary are because 1) it failed to come the attention of the publisher; or 2) because its not a word. Now, is it possible for some utterance or text to enter general usage, but still not be a word?
9.25.2007 2:23pm
AF:
Like Duffy, I am somewhat skeptical of this explanation, and, more generally, of how you can maintain that (1) you make no critical judgments about what words belong in the dictionary, but (2) you nevertheless choose to leave certain commonly used "words" out of the dictionary.

It appears to me that you do make critical judgments, and that your primary criterion is whether, in your view, the word adds something to the language. I have no problem with that -- in fact, I agree with it. But it seems a bit disingenuous to turn around and say this judgment is a purely contingent one based on space constraints and business realities -- and is not meant to be prescriptive -- when you (a) you could eliminate space constraints by publishing a digital version of the dictionary and (b) you know very well that your dictionary is commonly used as an authority on what "is" a word.
9.25.2007 2:34pm
CDU (mail):
Based on this, the only reasons for not including a word in the online dictionary are because 1) it failed to come the attention of the publisher; or 2) because its not a word.


Or 3) Lexicographers are still stuck in the print mindset of limited space.

I think this is more likely at this point.
9.25.2007 2:40pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
I was interested in your comment that "there might be as much as 90% of the language hiding below the waterline." Not that I think it's necessarily incorrect, but I wouldn't have guessed that the percentage was that high. Is there some intuitive way to make this clear? Is the 90% number that high primarily because of specialized jargon and slang?

Also, as to AF's comment: It's fully coherent to say that because of time and space restrictions, not every word makes it in (though Duffy and CDU may be right that these restrictions are obsolete) -- and sure, this constraints-based approach implies some hierarchy of which words are more and less worthwhile to include -- but that this judgment is separate from a judgment of "non-wordiness."

The "in-" or "un-" words are just one example where inclusion is considered redundant, not inappropriate for any other reason. Similarly, journal editors choose which submitted articles to accept based on judgments of quality, relevance, novelty, etc., but that doesn't mean the rejected articles aren't articles.
9.25.2007 3:07pm
AF:
Sasha: I agree with you that it's logically consistent, but it's a bit disingenuous (or naive) as a practical matter. Forget about the question of what "is" a word -- the real issue is whether a "word" should be used. Prescriptions about what "words" shouldn't and shouldn't be used are inevitable in some contexts (eg, schools) and inevitably, dictionaries will sometimes be used as a basis for these prescriptions. It doesn't do for dictionary editors to ignore this fact -- particularly if they also assert the prerogative to exclude commonly used words of which they are aware on the ground that they are not useful.
9.25.2007 3:41pm
Erin (mail) (www):
We'll get into this more tomorrow, but it's not as simple as people think to 'just put everything on the web'. Most publishers' web presence right now is an afterthought: every single process is geared towards making print books, and most web dictionaries are just the print book put on a web page -- without extra features.

Why does this happen? Well, publishers haven't really figured out how to best monetize web dictionaries yet. Even the OED, which has a $295/year subscription price for individuals, hasn't figured it out. So they concentrate their work on print, which still has a defined sales channel.

As for judgments, I think that there is a difference between deciding, based on evidence and frequence of use across domains that one word is less widely used than another and should wait for another edition, and just plain leaving out the word because I think it's ugly. I think too many people think lexicographers are supposed to to the latter.

Sasha: It may not be 90%. But if you think of all the possible suffixations and prefixations of words that are ignored now (├╝ber-artful? mega-artful? quasi-artful?), even if they each only happened once (the most common of the three words there got seven Google hits) ... that's still a lot of things that are technically words. Do they need defining? I'm not sure.

Sometimes I think dictionaries need to come with a warning, something like the classic "THIS IS NOT A FLOATATION DEVICE" only it will say "THIS IS NOT AN ARBITER OF WORDINESS" on it. (It will also say "THIS TAG NOT TO BE REMOVED EXCEPT BY THE CONSUMER".)
9.25.2007 3:43pm
cvt:

But lexicographers know that legal terminology tends to be both contained in the law world and that the law world has good dictionaries of its own, which will provide adequate coverage. (Black's, especially, although I haven't been able to look up inartful in Black's. I don't know where my copy went!)

Inartful isn't in Black's (8th ed.). Actually, I would be surprised if it were. It doesn't strike me as arcane enough for Black's. It seems that most of the words or phrases in Black's are either unusual or have some special legal meaning.
9.25.2007 3:45pm
CDU (mail):
Well, publishers haven't really figured out how to best monetize web dictionaries yet.


Speaking of web dictionaries, what do you think of Wiktionary?
9.25.2007 3:53pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
AF: Erin pretty much gave the answer. If I were writing a dictionary, I would leave out many words that should be used, because they're just too uncommon to be useful in a general-purpose dictionary. This implies no judgment as to whether one should use it. On the other hand, pretty much every dictionary should include the word "fuck," even though we would all agree that it's inappropriate to use in at least some contexts. Therefore, the judgment of inclusion is very different from the judgment of use-worthiness.

Therefore, your view that the lexicographers' judgment is whether the word "adds something to the language" is either vague or incorrect. And as for the fact that some people will use the dictionary as an arbiter of correctness -- well, that's partly their fault, and to the extent to which it's not their fault, dictionaries can cater to that need by pointing out which spellings are more standard, which words are considered vulgar, etc. Note that "vulgar" isn't a value judgment in my mind -- vulgarity is appropriate and necessary in some social contexts -- but just a sociological statement.
9.25.2007 4:00pm
A.C.:
Out of curiosity, what's the definition of "artful" among lawyers? Before I went to law school, I had only heard the word used in the sense of "deceitful" or "cunning." The idea that it might be a synonym for "displaying skill" never entered my mind.

But I have heard lawyers use it that way, or seem to. I'm not actually sure they mean to say something positive -- sometimes I think they are trying to say something unpleasant but deny responsibility for the insult if challenged. In any case, I find the word very annoying because it means two different things that, if not opposites, are at least on opposite ends of the value scale.

And that's before you even get to the question of what happens when you add the prefix.
9.25.2007 4:14pm
M.:

Based on this, the only reasons for not including a word in the online dictionary are because 1) it failed to come the attention of the publisher; or 2) because its not a word. Now, is it possible for some utterance or text to enter general usage, but still not be a word?



Or simply because the process of defining something is not automatic, and that's why Ms. McKean/Grant Barrett have jobs. If the statistics are remotely close, that there might be 10x as many words that could go into an online dictionary, who is going to write all those definitions and check all those cites? And then come here and be abused for making judgements about them? And then how will this lexicographer get paid-- from the vast wealth to be made from internet dictionaries?
9.25.2007 4:23pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
A.C.: For what it's worth, I've heard lawyers use "inartful," but not "artful." "Inartful," in lawyer-speak, just seems to mean "lacking skill," but that doesn't mean there's a corresponding word "artful" that means "having skill." "Artful," I think, still has the modern common meaning of "deceitful" (though once upon a time it did mean "having skill").

This is what Erin was referring to when she talked about how the root ("artful") drifted away from some original meaning while the "in-" form didn't. Then, it's not a matter of figuring out the meaning of something before adding the prefix; rather, the prefixed and non-prefixed words are their own animals, with very different meanings that can't be derived from each other.
9.25.2007 4:59pm
AF:
Sasha: Dictionaries are meant to be used. Including a word in the dictionary does not endorse its use in every context, but excluding a word discourages its use in any context (relative to including it). Dictionary editors can't escape the charge of prescriptivism by claiming that people are misusing dictionaries by preferring words that are included over words that are excluded.

The only way a dictionary could be non-prescriptive would be if its criteria for inclusion were purely objective. But Erin has said that her editorial decisions are based on what words "seem serviceable and sturdy, good for the long haul," not simply what words are most common. This, it seems to me, is a normative judgment about what words are best, not a purely "sociological" claim about what words are actually being used.
9.25.2007 5:24pm
A.C.:
Thanks, Sasha. Your response suggests that my reaction to lawyers who do say "artful" is not paranoid. Or maybe their use of language is merely inartful.
9.25.2007 5:40pm
bittern (mail):

I was interested in your comment that "there might be as much as 90% of the language hiding below the waterline." Not that I think it's necessarily incorrect, but I wouldn't have guessed that the percentage was that high. Is there some intuitive way to make this clear? Is the 90% number that high primarily because of specialized jargon and slang?

Sasha: It's the long tail. Could perhaps be partly tested by googling randomly ordered letters to see whether anybody had used the sequence as a word on the computer, and among the hits, checking the dictionary. And then if you add off-computer local dialects, who knows. I assume the 90% means 90% of all words are below the water line, not that 90% of any one person's output is so obscure.

excluding a word discourages its use in any context

Most people don't check to see if the words they used are memorialized in a dictionary. When they use them, In most contexts. In my experience. I don't think your effect is going to be very strong. Best reason to find a word in the dictionary is likelihood of someone coming across it and not knowing what was meant by the author. Agree?
9.25.2007 5:58pm
AF:
Best reason to find a word in the dictionary is likelihood of someone coming across it and not knowing what was meant by the author. Agree?

That's how I usually use dictionaries, but they don't seem to be written with that as their purpose; otherwise, they would omit the most unversally known words and include the most obscure words. I agree that the effect of dictionaries on useage isn't that strong. My point isn't that dictionary editors are all-powerful, but that their editorial decisions are normative (ie, prescriptive).
9.25.2007 6:29pm
Erin (mail) (www):

But Erin has said that her editorial decisions are based on what words "seem serviceable and sturdy, good for the long haul," not simply what words are most common.


The problem with going by "most common" is that we don't have a perfect dataset to work from. There are holes, and there are lumpy bits that are bigger than they should be. Which means that the lexicographer has to make decisions based on inadequate data. That those decisions are taken as normative is a consequence that used to be intended and now is slightly less so. What I want to do is reflect what is, as far as I can tell, is the norm. I do not want my decision to *create* the norm.

So: if a word is in the dictionary, that means the word is most likely accepted in general use. If a word is NOT in the dictionary, that means ... the word is not in the dictionary. Nothing more, nothing less.
9.25.2007 6:45pm
Verbage:
The only time I've ever seen (or heard) the word "artful" is in a trademark/trade dress case in law school revolving around the "Artful Dodger," which was I believe a bar in New York. IIRC, they were sued by the LA (nee' Brooklyn) Dodgers.
9.25.2007 7:56pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
Sasha Volokh: "For what it's worth, I've heard lawyers use 'inartful,' but not 'artful.' 'Inartful,' in lawyer-speak, just seems to mean 'lacking skill,' but that doesn't mean there's a corresponding word "artful" that means "having skill." 'Artful,' I think, still has the modern common meaning of 'deceitful' (though once upon a time it did mean 'having skill')."

While possibly true as a general descriptive statement*, I find it interesting that "artfully" seems to be a different case. A quick look at the first few pages of a Google search on that word returns a few hits that might reflect the "deceitful" sense and many that mix "skillfully" and "artistically". For that matter, even the "deceitful" senses read to me as including an element of "skillfully" -- something like "skillfully employed deceit".

* I don't think it's really true in my idiolect, but that's not dispositive.
9.25.2007 8:14pm
Just Dropping By (mail):
It seems that most of the words or phrases in Black's are either unusual or have some special legal meaning.

Hence the name Black's LAW Dictionary, rather than Black's All Purpose Dictionary. ;-)
9.25.2007 8:29pm
Syd Henderson (mail):
The Artful Dodger made it into Charles Dickens' works.

The Inartful Dodger kept getting hit in the head with the ball.
9.25.2007 9:13pm
Caliban Darklock (www):
While I've never heard a lawyer say "artful", I have heard at least one say "artfully".

Personally, I find the word "artful" to be awkwardly ambiguous - how does one fill an art, exactly, and how much does it hold? - but I don't have the same issue with "artfully".

Similarly, I don't understand the implied relationship of "assload" and "shitload". Which is bigger? Is the assload bigger because an ass is bigger than its shit, or is the shitload bigger because it has overflowed the capacity of its ass?

That's actually a serious question, although it undoubtedly just seems juvenile and stupid to a lot of readers.
9.26.2007 1:05am
Syd Henderson (mail):
I always assumed a shitload is bigger since I picture a truckload of manure.
9.26.2007 2:41am
nichevo (mail):
So why has inartful gotten the go-by?

Could it be because we have artless instead? Just a thought.
9.26.2007 3:48am
Aultimer:

nichevo: Could it be because we have artless instead? Just a thought.


"Artless" means "bad" or "merely utilitarian" inartful means "done well enough, but not fine quality"

"workmanlike" is a great "inartful" synonym, as it can be both a compliment and an insult to the subject's skill, depending on the category of performance.
9.26.2007 11:10am
nichevo (mail):

"Artless" means "bad" or "merely utilitarian" inartful means "done well enough, but not fine quality"



Hmmm...I should have thought 'artless' to mean 'ingenuous' or 'unrehearsed,' 'spontaneous,' 'natural.' An effect consciously arrived at. I quote from Patrick O'Brian's THE MAURITIUS COMMAND:


Poor lady, she had but a sad time of it. She had dressed with particular care in garments designed not to offend Mrs Aubrey by being too fashionable or becoming yet at the same time to beguile Captain Aubrey, and she had prepared an artless speech about sailors" wives, Clonfert's respect and affection for his old shipmate, and her perfect familiarity with life aboard a man-of-war, together with some slight hints as to her acquaintance with General Mulgrave, the First Lord, and with Mrs Bertie, the wife of the Admiral at the Cape. This she delivered to Stephen, wedged into a dim corner by the clock under a drip, with some charming asides to Sophie; and she was obliged to repeat it when Jack appeared, trailing cobwebs from the attic and bearing his chest. It is difficult to sound artless twice in quick succession, but she did her best, for she was sincerely devoted to the prospect of escaping an English winter, and the idea of seeing her husband again filled her with a pleasurable excitement.




Of course, perhaps this does not suit the case? You would seem to want a word meaning 'clumsy.'
9.27.2007 3:04am