On Dictionaries and Language Makers

We all love a good, juicy headline with a scandalous story to report.  The Telegraph article that Patricia responded to in her post yesterday likely got more hits out of the headline “Catcher in the Rye Dropped from US School Curriculum” than it would’ve with something like “US Expands Students’ Exposure to Nonfiction”—a more accurate summary of CCSS.

Ben Zimmer’s recent op-ed “Lies! Murder! Lexicography!” definitely scores with the juicy headline. (Er, well, until you get to that last part, which of course is the point.) Except his piece focuses not on broadcasting a scandal, but debunking one. The story making the rounds a few weeks ago was that a former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary had secretly omitted thousands of words of foreign origin from the OED and then, oddly, blamed his predecessors. Those sneaky dictionary editors! Toying with our minds! Killing off our words! Pointing fingers! You always knew lexicographers had to have a dark side.

Well, turns out it wasn’t quite the hushed linguistic assassination it seemed—the editor in question also added thousands of “more fully researched international entries,” and his minor omissions are currently being reconsidered.

Oh. . . . Okay. That’s good, then.

But let’s say, for a moment, that this OED editor really did have a secret plan to rid the English language of his least favorite words by quietly removing them from the dictionary. Egad! Would the richness of our language slowly have slipped away? Would our children have been deprived of a sizable vocabulary? That all depends. Would the English-speakers in all those places of “foreign origin” have stopped using the omitted words merely because the OED had cut them? Does the lack of an entry for awesomesauce in Merriam-Webster keep bloggers from using it all over the web?

No. Zimmer’s point is that lexicographers’ painstaking work is to document and reflect how language IS used, not how it should be used. Dictionaries record the words, pronunciations, and definitions that are widely understood so that we can communicate effectively.

From a recent discussion of the pronunciation of GIF, the OED’s US word of the year: “There’s no question both [hard g and soft g] are acceptable: Oxford Dictionaries sanctions both, as do Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary, each of them based on extensive data of what people say.” (Stan Carey, Sentence First blog, 12/12/12)

One of my favorite examples of how the dictionaries really do reflect usage, rather than dictate it, is the entry for the word comprise. From m-w.com:

1: to include especially within a particular scope
2: to be made up of <a vast installation, comprising fifty buildings — Jane Jacobs>
3: compose, constitute <a misconception as to what comprises a literary generation — William Styron> <about 8 percent of our military forces are comprised of women — Jimmy Carter>

Any grammar/usage sticklers you know might claim that saying something is “comprised of” something else is poor English—the earlier meaning of the word was “to include” or “to be made up of,” not “to make up.” But there it is: a respected dictionary listing “to compose” as the third acceptable meaning. M-w.com includes a usage discussion noting that, if you use comprise with the third meaning, you should be aware you may be subject to criticism. This helpfully gives the inquirer a heads-up that the first two definitions are the safer way to use the word if writing or speaking for an academic or professional setting. But the third definition is there because when Jimmy Carter uses comprise with that meaning—when many people every day use it with that meaning—the listeners understand perfectly well what is meant, whether or not they judge the speaker.

So go forth and stand tall, language makers. Over here in Editorial, we’ll keep making sure that the language in our texts is modern and accessible and, we hope, adding a little richness to our readers’ vocabularies.