Dictionary Man
Posted: 09 October 2007 05:15 AM   [ Ignore ]
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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.

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Posted: 09 October 2007 06:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Thanks. I hadn’t seen it either (and it quotes me). It probably dates to sometime in early 2004, since it talks about the January 2004 ADS meeting. The piece from which I am quoted was written in 2003.

While it’s colorfully written, I have some problems with the article. First, it sets up the descriptivist-prescriptivist debate as one among lexicographers. This is not the case. English language lexicographers are overwhelmingly descriptivist. Prescriptivists come from outside the field.

Second, it gives the false impression that descriptivism got its start in 1961 with W3. Nothing could be further from the truth. Descriptivism goes back to Johnson, and perhaps even further. What W3 did that was radical was to expand the corpus of literature that was being described and a lot of people got really upset over this. It also makes it sound as if W3 is still a matter of controversy. It isn’t. Everyone has gotten over it. (Except Fiske, who is obsessed with it.)

Third, it makes Fiske sound like a working lexicographer and a leading voice in the field. He’s a crank. A card-carrying member of the green crayon brigade. (It also describes me as a “linguist,” which is flattering but inapt.)

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Posted: 09 October 2007 08:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Yeah, it’s old. I don’t remember when I spoke to her, but the HTML file is dated June 21, 2004. Most of the problems with the piece are attributable to two things: one, Emily (a friend of a friend) was a journalism student. Two, it shows all the hallmarks of having what I call an introduced controversy, still believed by too many journalists as necessary in just about every kind of newspaper writing.

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