Decline of the Dictionary: A Response, by Dave Wilton

Robert Harwell Fiske’s review of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (MW11), is a clear illustration of one of the two views that people have about dictionaries. In Mr. Fiske’s view, Noah Webster came down from the mount with his dictionary inscribed by God on stone tablets. The dictionary is sacred scripture and changing it is heresy. It should not even contain mention of usages deemed improper by an anointed priesthood of prescriptivist grammarians.

The other view holds that a dictionary should be a useful reference, not an icon to be worshipped. It should describe how the language is actually used and provide advice, where appropriate, on matters of grammar and usage.

The first view, if adopted by lexicographers, would rapidly render dictionaries useless. The basic task of a dictionary is to facilitate communication by documenting what words mean. If we only admit into the dictionary words and usages deemed to be proper, we will quickly render significant aspects of our culture unintelligible to others. Dictionaries will rapidly become empty shells of formal prescriptions that bear no relevance to the way we actually speak and write.

The article makes a two-part argument: the English language is in decline and lexicographers, especially those at Merriam Webster, are contributing to this decline.

Regarding the first point, the article provides no evidence. Is the language in decline? No evidence is provided indicating that this is indeed the case. The article does not even provide an objective standard to measure this supposed decline. Is the number of solecisms on the rise? You would not know from this article. It does list a few high profile anecdotes of questionable usage, but, as any freshman college student learns, anecdotal evidence is a weak form of argument. One can find similar solecisms from any century one cares to mention. The fact that a president or a basketball player makes a verbal gaffe does not mean the language is in decline (whatever that means). All it means is that an individual made an error.

When it comes to the second point, the article does present evidence of a sort. “Of a sort” is key. The arguments here are based on half-truths and vagaries. Mr. Fiske misstates and makes selective use of facts and he inaccurately characterizes the content of the dictionaries he abhors. It is difficult to present a concise rebuttal to his complaints because they are little more than a list of things Mr. Fiske does not like about the current crop of dictionaries. What follows, therefore, is simply a point-by-point rebuttal to those complaints.

Mr. Fiske bemoans the fact that the American Heritage Dictionary started to include four-letter words in 1969. He feels that we would all be better off keeping these words hidden. But what of the translator who is trying to find the English equivalent of a foreign epithet? Doesn’t the translator need a resource to find those English equivalents? Four-letter words may not be appropriate in most situations, but (for good or ill) they are very common in our speech and writing and pretending they do not exist will not make them disappear. People will use four-letter words whether or not they are listed in the dictionary. The notorious “F-word,” for example, did not appear in any general dictionary for over 170 years (1795-1965), yet this omission did nothing to discourage its use.

A similar objection is raised to the inclusion of the slang word def in MW11. But what of the white kid in Iowa who runs across it and wants to know what the word means? Not including the word would be to say that contemporary African-American culture is not worth recording. Nor is the word a passing fad. Def has been a staple of the Hip-Hop scene since at least 1979 and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang records West Indian use of the word as far back as 1907. The two-line entry in MW11 is appropriate and utilitarian. The problem here is not with the dictionary; it is with Mr. Fiske. His view of what is important and relevant is exceedingly narrow.

The article notes that most slang is ephemeral. While it is true that most slang is coined and used over a very short period by a small group of people, the slang words objected to here are decidedly not ephemeral or used by a very small group. They have had staying power and wide popularity. To be sure, they may eventually pass from our vocabulary, but they are in the midst of runs that have lasted decades and are showing no signs of abating:

  • Funplex is old enough to vote at 18 years.
  • McJob first appeared back in 1986 and (in the first of many omissions of fact) the article fails to note that the Mc- prefix is a prolific combining form, forming words like McDoctor, McPaper, and McSex.
  • Dis is into its 21st year.
  • Headbanger appears in 1979.
  • JFK was in the White House when phat made its appearance forty years ago.
  • Dead president is a slang term of our grandfather’s generation, dating to 1944, and still going strong.
  • And def, as noted above, is close to the century mark.
  • Ironically, the only one of these that Mr. Fiske actually likes is the newest coinage, Frankenfood, clocking in at only 11 years old.

One may certainly question the wisdom of particular editorial choices made by Merriam Webster. I have my doubts about how many people will actually ever need to look up funplex, for example. But nitpicking over individual editorial choices does not constitute a philosophical disagreement.

The denunciation of the inclusion in MW11 of the uninterested sense of disinterested makes one wonder if Mr. Fiske actually read the dictionaries he criticizes. MW11 includes a lengthy usage note on the word—almost three times as long as the main entry. MW11’s review of the history of the word mirrors that contained in the OED2, a dictionary that Mr. Fiske says “we can still respect.” The OED2 also includes a usage note on the uninterested sense, saying that it is “often regarded as a loose use.” The Shorter OED also includes a usage note on the word, as does American Heritage. One wonders where these “boneless” lexicographers are who include the sense without comment. The only dictionary I have found that fails to include a usage note on this word is Merriam Webster’s 1961 Third, which has no usage citations whatsoever. It is disingenuous to revive a forty-year-old argument about one particular dictionary and applying to lexicographers in general. This is like criticizing George W. Bush for the Bay of Pigs invasion.

In a footnote, the article takes on the very basis of descriptivism, claiming that just because a writer, no matter how esteemed, makes an error, does not change the fact that it is an error. On its face, this seems reasonable. Any human being is capable of error. The question to the prescriptivists is who is the authority? Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, according to Fiske, committed a solecism in his use of enormity to mean large. Arguments from authority are always dicey and if it were just Fiske v. Steinbeck, Fiske might have a point. But when one adds Paul Theroux, J.B. Conant, and E.L. Doctorow (all quoted in MW11’s usage note on the term) to Steinbeck’s camp, then one has to wonder exactly when would Mr. Fiske accept a particular usage?

The article objects to the one-line entry in MW11 for alright. That one line entry is followed by a seven-line usage note, a fact that is omitted from the article, which also fails to note that the word is also included in the OED2 and that H.W. Fowler himself said that although it is “seldom allowed by the compositors to appear in print, is often seen in [manuscripts].” The idea that it be removed from the dictionary in favor of Boeotian is so laughable that one begins to wonder if this article is not a parody of the prescriptivist position. If one has to dig this deep into the vocabulary barrel to find a word that MW11 omits, then the editors have done a fine job at being comprehensive.1 There can be no doubt that far more people will crack open the dictionary to look up alright than will to look up Boeotian. Is it not better for someone to look up the word and find a usage note stating that it is often considered an erroneous spelling than to find nothing at all?

The article then launches into a string of words it regards as errors:

  • Supercede. The article objects to this spelling variant, but MW11 includes a usage note (that once again the article fails to mention) that explains this spelling has been common in published writing since the 17th century, even though many consider it to be an error.
  • Infer to mean imply and peruse to mean to read in a casual manner. These are classic examples of hypercorrection. Infer and imply have been synonyms for centuries and peruse has never meant anything other than simply to read. And again, the article does not mention the usage note in MW11 regarding infer and imply.
  • Hone in to mean home in. Again the article neglects to mention that MW11 includes a usage note recommending against this usage.
  • Flaunt for flout. Again, the article neglects the usage note, which says, “if you use it, however, you should be aware that many people will consider it a mistake.”
  • Incent and impactful. The article fails to make a case why these are errors. They are ungainly and inelegant to be sure, but hardly “wrong.”
  • The pronunciation of nuclear as /NU-kya-ler/. Three recent presidents, one a nuclear engineer by training (Carter), have made this pronunciation famous. One ought to be careful in declaring this one wrong lest one incur the wrath of millions of Southerners who are proud of their dialect.
  • Reticent meaning reluctant, accidently, and predominate as an adjective. Finally the article makes a few correct points, albeit minor ones. MW11 should have included usage notes for these.

The essay concludes by introducing a meaningless survey. First, it is a survey of readers of The Vocabula Review—hardly a representative sample of public opinion or even experts on usage. Second, the questions are poorly constructed. Any survey choice that begins with “Yes!” is going to skew the results. Also, the final choice is not on the same continuum than the other four. It answers a different question. Finally, no information on survey size or margin of error is included.

One might counter that this is just fun and “unscientific,” but if so, why include it? The data are meaningless and do nothing but show that Mr. Fiske is so desperate to find support for his untenable position that he is clutching at whatever straws he can grab.

Ultimately, the question is who is the authority on language. Should we rely on those who actually use the language, the writers and editors, or should we rely on a handful of self-proclaimed experts who ignore actual examples of usage in favor of their own personal preferences?

There is a place for well-crafted language and a place for reasoned advice on usage, but this goal is not served by shrill complaints about the licentious lexicographers, half-truths, and poorly constructed arguments. Those concerned with clear and elegant use of language would be better served by reason than by simply declaring things to be wrong because they do not like them. This unreasoned prescriptivism does little except place a strait jacket on the English language, turning it from a flexible and expanding language into a rigid and increasingly less useful one.

Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary, defined a dictionary as “a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.” One has to ask who is more likely to bring Bierce’s nightmare to fruition, the descriptivist lexicographers who chronicle how people actually use the language while providing sensible usage advice or rigid prescriptivists who want to deny that other usages even exist.

1Subsequent to this article being written and published in TVR, another commentator pointed out that Beotian is indeed in M-W’s 11th. The word does not appear in the main dictionary but does appear in the lexicon of geographical terms at the back of the volume.

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