Decline of the Dictionary, The, by Robert Hartwell Fiske

This article, and the response that follows, originally appeared in the pages of The Vocabula Review and is reprinted here with permission. Fiske is the editor of The Vocabula Review, which can be found at http://www.vocabula.com.

The new slang-filled eleventh edition of “America’s Best-Selling Dictionary,” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Frederick C. Mish, editor in chief), does as much as, if not more than, the famously derided Webster’s Third International Dictionary to discourage people from taking lexicographers seriously. “Laxicographers” all, the Merriam-Webster staff reminds us that dictionaries merely record how people use the language, not how it ought to be used. Some dictionaries, and certainly this new Merriam-Webster, actually promote illiteracy.

Several years ago, the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary ("America’s Favorite Dictionary") caused a stir by deciding to include four-letter words in their product. Since the marketing strategy of including swear words has now been adopted by all dictionary makers, Merriam-Webster, apparently not knowing how else to distinguish its dictionary from competing ones that erode its marketing share, has decided to include a spate of slang words in its eleventh edition. There’s nothing wrong with trying to distinguish their product, of course, but when it means tampering with the English language — by including idiotic slang and apparently omitting more useful words—it’s reprehensible.

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Word of the Month: Nautical

Two weeks ago the movie Master and Commander, starring Russell Crowe, opened in theaters across the United States. The movie, based on the popular series of novels by Patrick O’Brian, is about the fictional adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend physician and spy Dr. Stephen Maturin. They sail together aboard the HMS Surprise, taking on Napoleon’s Navy and engaging in all sorts of adventures on the high seas.

O’Brian’s books and the movie they inspired are very faithful to details about life, including language, aboard ship in the age of sail. It is swashbuckling adventure to be sure, but pretty good history as well. Because the movie, which took in over $25 million at the US box office during its first weekend, will engender questions and enthusiasm for the language of the sea, our word of the month is:

nautical, adj., relating to sailing, ships, sailors, or the sea, 1552. The English word is adopted from the Middle French nautique, which is from the Latin nauticus, which in turn is from the Greek word for sailor.

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Book Review: The Grouchy Grammarian, by Thomas Parrish

Regular readers of A Way With Words know that I have little tolerance for those that arbitrarily declare their own styles and preferences to be grammatically “correct.” As a result, most grammar manuals do not fair well in these pages. But Thomas Parrish has written a grammar book that does not do this. He recognizes that usage trumps personal preference and that there is a difference between quality, aesthetically pleasing prose and prose that is grammatically correct.

Parrish does this with a rather fun conceit. He creates the character of the “Grouchy Grammarian,” supposedly an old friend of Parrish. Parrish plays Boswell to the fictional grouch’s Johnson, recording his observations and opinions. As a result the book is more fun than many sterile grammar manuals and allows Parrish to create a balance between the traditional enmity between descriptivist and prescriptivist positions. The Grouch grudgingly concedes, for example, that the distinction between healthful and healthy has largely disappeared.

The core of the book consists of examples from current media (newspapers and magazines, mostly, with some television quotes included) of questionable or poor usages. Parrish’s Grouch laments such forms as the reason why… (redundant, why is inherent in reason), misuses of between and among (contrary to popular belief, between is not limited to two parties, but expresses a type of relationship), and misuse of subject-verb agreement. The examples are largely negative ones, hence the book’s subtitle of A How-Not-To Guide to the 47 Most Common Mistakes in English Made by Journalists, Broadcasters, and Others Who Should Know Better.

While Parrish’s conceit of the Grouch makes for better reading than most grammar manuals, it does limit the book’s utility. Because it is not organized alphabetically, the book is less useful as a reference. Modeled more on Strunk & White’s classic, it is much longer than that predecessor, making it too unwieldy for reference use. It is not a substitute for a good usage manual.

But still, if one enjoys reading books about grammar and usage (and frankly there are more of us that do than care to admit it), this is a diverting and entertaining read.

Softcover, 186 pp, John Wiley & Sons, 2002, ISBN: 0965730964, $19.95

Dept. of Legal Affairs: Intellectual Property, Part 2: Trademark

In this two-part article, we examine the two types of intellectual property that relate to language, copyright and trademark. There are two other types of intellectual property, patent and trade secrets, that apply to physical inventions and commercial business information.

The point of intellectual property laws is to encourage the advancement of the art, science, and commerce by giving the creators of original works, ideas, and products a limited period within which they can exercise exclusive control over their works and derive profit from them.

In this second of two parts, we examine the concept of trademark and its effect on the language. We often hear of companies trademarking words and phrases, claiming them for their own. But can they do this, either realistically or legally? Can Fox News prevent someone (Al Franken, for instance) from using the phrase fair and balanced? Can Microsoft limit your use of the word windows? If you are named McDonald, can the McDonalds Corporation limit your ability to use your own name in your business? And how do trademark rights differ from copyright? There are many myths and misunderstandings regarding the concept of trademark; we hope to clear some of these up with this article.

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Word of the Month: Soviet

The October Revolution is famous the world over. In October of 1917, Lenin and his followers seized control of the government of Russia, ushering in 75 years of Communist rule. But few today realize that the October Revolution actually happened in November. Tsarist Russia had not converted to the Gregorian calendar and while by traditional Russian reckoning the revolution took place in October, from the perspective of the rest of the Western world it happened in November. One of the first acts of the new Communist government was to change the calendar to bring it in line with the rest of the world.

So in honor of that event some 86 years ago this month, our word of the month is:

Soviet, n. & adj., an elected council that performs governmental functions. English use dates from 1917. Soviets operated at all levels of government in the Soviet Union, the highest being the Supreme Soviet or national legislature. The word literally means council in Russian. The noun was also used to mean a citizen of the Soviet Union. As an adjective, it is used to denote things associated with the Soviet Union.

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Dept. of Legal Affairs: Intellectual Property, Part 1: Copyright

In this two-part article, we will examine the two types of intellectual property that relate to language, copyright and trademark. There are two other types of intellectual property, patent and trade secrets, that apply to physical inventions and commercial business information.

The point of intellectual property laws is to encourage the advancement of the art, science, and commerce by giving the creators of original works, ideas, and products a limited period within which they can exercise exclusive control over their works and derive profit from them.

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Book Review: Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions

Do you know the difference between crisps and chips? How about between a boot and a trunk? Or between an identity parade and a lineup? The difference is that in each case the first term is British and the second is American. Otherwise, they are the same.

Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions, by lexicographer Orin Hargraves, is a must-have book for anyone interested in the differences between the British and American dialects. Hargraves systematically documents and explains these differences. 

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Book Review: Slayer Slang

Michael Adams, English professor at Albright College, has produced what will probably be the definitive study of the language associated with a rather unique television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Buffy, or BtVS, made its debut on the WB network in the spring of 1997 and continued until the series concluded this past spring (making a shift to the UPN network along the way). BtVS was one of the most innovative shows in television history. It cannot be pigeonholed into a genre, being simultaneously a horror show, a comedy, a teen drama, a feminist saga, and a martial arts show.

But perhaps the most innovative aspect of the show was its use of language. Buffy and her friends continually engaged in creative banter. Vampires might give someone the wiggins, hearing the events of a hot date to a friend is to engage in vicarious smootchies, and a bad cream rinse is neither creamy nor rinsey. The writers used a combination of real teen slang, created words, and pop culture references to produce a show filled with linguistic delights.

Slayer Slang is the ultimate compendium of the language used on the show. Adams has written four essays on the show’s use of language. These essays constitute the first half of the book. The second half is a lexicon of the various words and phrases used on the show, used in the BtVS novels that have been written, and used by fans of the show in Internet chat rooms.

One caution for those thinking of buying this book, this is a serious study of language. While the research subject may be light-hearted, this book is not. The words and usages described in it are a lot of fun, but the core of the book is serious academic study. Fans of the show looking for a light-hearted look at fun Buffy words may be daunted by the serious nature of the Slayer Slang.

Those who may want a brief look at the slang used on BtVS may wish to take a look at the two articles on the subject that appeared in the October and November 2002 (Vol. 1, Nos. 3 &4) issues of A Way With Words.

Hardcover, 308 pp, Oxford University Press, June 2003, ISBN: 0195160339, $19.95

Word of the Month: File Sharing

This past month has seen the issue of duplicating and distributing copyrighted music files over the Internet become front-page news. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has filed lawsuits against several hundred people who have “shared” music files over the Internet. So our word of the month is file sharing, n., the distribution of data files, such as music, in a peer-to-peer network.

While on the surface this issue is about music, there is a deeper issue regarding intellectual property in electronic media. The new stories about file sharing have focused on the music industry, with a secondary focus on Hollywood and the movies, but at its core the issue affects all types of copyrighted material. Music is not the only thing that can be shared over networks like Napster, Morpheus, and Kazaa. Any type of files can be distributed, text, photos, movies (actually, the bulk of material distributed over these networks is not music, but pornography).

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American Dialect: Alaska & Hawaii

In this final installment of our series on American dialect we take a look at the dialects spoken in the two newest states, Alaska and Hawaii. Both were American possessions since the 19th century and both were admitted to the Union in 1959. Other than that, they have very little in common. Alaska is the only arctic state and Hawaii is the only tropical one. Alaska is the largest state in terms of area (over twice the size of Texas the next competitor) and Hawaii is one of the smallest (47th of the 50). Hawaii, on the other hand, has nearly twice the population of Alaska.

Linguistically, both have a strong native influence, but the similarity stops there. Alaskan terms are strongly influenced by Tlingit and Inuit (with a faint hint of Russian dating back to the days before the Tsar sold Alaska to the US), while Hawaiian is a Polynesian language. Outside of a specialized vocabulary relating to the arctic environment, Alaskans speak a very standard form of American English. Most Alaskans are not natives, having moved there from the Lower-48. There are, however, distinct Hawaiian pronunciations and grammatical rules to the English spoken there.

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