I’m not sure how old this article is (Dictionary Man) is but it’s the first time I’ve seen it. It’s an entertaining and instructive look at the battle between prescriptivism and descriptivism in lexicography.
I had no idea of just how instrumental the 1961 edition of Merriam Webster’s Third International Dictionary was in sparking this debate and getting the descriptivist ball rolling.
Day One for the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate occurred in 1961 when Merriam Webster’s Third International Dictionary, the W3, hit the shelves. It is the Abraham of the descriptivist dictionaries; all of them, including the forthcoming HDAS, are descended from it. Instead of polling a handful of academics about the words they use and including only those entries, which is how dictionaries had historically been written, the editors of the W3 turned to popular publications to find out what words people were actually using in writing and in speech. The result was a revolt. Magazines and newspapers called the W3 “monstrous,” “deplorable,” and “a scandal and a disaster.” Out of this debate rose the movement for prescriptivism and, ultimately, the 1969 American Heritage Dictionary, the one that did not include “fuck” or “groovy.” In the front matter, editor Morris claims “a deep sense of responsibility as custodians of the American tradition in language as well as history.” He cited the need to record “with accuracy and authority those elements of our language which are of concern to literate people.”
The piece includes an interview with Grant Barrett and a wonderful vignette of him in his office.
Barrett lords over this debate from his cubicle, in a room filled with identical cubicles in a steely gray office on Madison Avenue. He stares at a monitor all day long, reading annotations, communicating with the other editors, sifting through etymological data, and reading the emails that engage in this ideological discussion. There is no Round Table of intellectuals trading verbal quips and rants about the worthiness of including eight versus nine usages of “shit”; rather it is a relatively small group of individuals, in other cubicles staring at other monitors all over the world, who trade written articles and diatribes back and forth with one another. It is at once a lonely enterprise and something intensely communal.