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.

Merriam-Webster proclaims it has added some ten thousand words to its Collegiate Dictionary. To do so, as a company spokesman admitted, “some words had to be kicked out” of the earlier edition. More interesting than this new edition would be a book of the words abandoned. Were they sesquipedalian words that few people use or know the meaning of; disyllabic words that few people use or know the meaning of? It’s quite true: people are increasingly monosyllabic; after all, many people today prefer dis (included in the Collegiate tenth and eleventh) to disparage or disrespect or insult. And now, in the eleventh, there is also the equally preposterous def, another word, Merriam-Webster assures us, for excellent or cool (which among many younger people today, is also spelled kool and kewl, and though both words may have as much—or as little—currency as def, neither, curiously, Merriam-Webster saw fit to include in their compilation).

What word did Merriam-Webster decide to omit to make room for the all-important def? What word did they decide to omit to make room for funplex (an entertainment complex that includes facilities for various sports and games and often restaurants)? What word did they omit in order to add McJob (a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement)? What words did they omit in order to add headbanger (a musician who performs hard rock), dead presidents (United States currency in the form of paper bills), phat (highly attractive or gratifying), and Frankenfood (genetically engineered food)? Frankly, I rather like the coinage Frankenfood. But if people do not enjoy or feel comfortable eating genetically altered foods, which I suspect is likely, the word will be fleeting. Almost all slang, the people at Merriam-Webster should know, is ephemeral. Most of the slang added to the eleventh edition will never see the twelfth—or ought not to. Consider this paragraph from the Merriam-Webster site:

Many new words pass out of English as quickly as they entered it, the fad of teenagers grown to adulthood, the buzzwords of the business meetings past, the cast-off argot of technologies superceded [sic], the catchy phrases from advertisements long forgotten. It is likely that many such ephemeral coinages will never be entered in dictionaries, especially abridged dictionaries where space (or time or money or all of the above) are at a premium. That does not mean, however, that the words did not exist, simply that they did not endure.1

Odd that Mish and his minions would then agree to the addition of so much slang to the eleventh edition. (Odder still, perhaps, that slang like far-out and groovy, even though the popularity of these words has been much reduced over the years, are still entries in the Collegiate.2) But, as I say, it’s a marketing strategy. It’s not lexicography. These slang terms are not meant to improve the usefulness of their product; they’re meant to help sell “America’s Best-Selling Dictionary.” Slang, Merriam-Webster believes, sells.

Lexicographers are descriptivists, language liberals. People using disinterested when they mean uninterested does not displease a descriptivist. A prescriptivist, by contrast, is a language conservative, a person interested in maintaining standards and correctness in language use. To prescriptivists, disinterested in the sense of uninterested is the mark of uneducated people not knowing the distinction between the two words. And if there are enough uneducated people saying disinterested (and I’m afraid there are) when they mean uninterested or indifferent, lexicographers enter the definition into their dictionaries. Indeed, the distinction between these words has all but vanished owing largely to irresponsible writers and boneless lexicographers.3

Words, we are told, with the most citations are included in the Merriam-Webster dictionaries. Are then words with the fewest omitted, or in danger of being omitted? Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary includes alright,4 but what word was not included, or “kicked out,” so that an inanity, an illiteracy like alright could be kept in? Boeotian is not in Merriam-Webster’s; is alright truly a better use of space for a “college dictionary”? I think not.

All it takes for a solecism to become standard English is people misusing or misspelling the word. And if enough people do so, lexicographers will enter the originally misused or misspelled word into their dictionaries, and descriptive linguists will embrace it as a further example of the evolution of English.

Merriam-Webster’s laxicographers, further disaffecting careful writers and speakers, assign the meaning reluctant to the definition of reticent. Reticent means disinclined to speak; taciturn; quiet. Reluctant means disinclined to do something; unwilling; loath. Because some people mistakenly use reticent to mean reluctant, dictionaries now maintain reticent does mean reluctant.

There are other examples of Merriam-Webster’s inexcusably shoddy dictionary making. According to the dictionary’s editors:

  • The spelling supercede is a variant of supersede
  • The spelling accidently is as valid as accidentally
  • The verb predominate is also an adjective meaning predominant
  • enormity means the same as enormousness
  • infer means the same as imply
  • hone in means the same as home in
  • flaunt means the same as flout
  • peruse means not only to examine carefully but to read over in a casual manner
  • incent means incentivize, itself ungainly
  • impactful is listed as an adjective of impact
  • The pronunciation of nuclear is NU-klee-er or NU-kya-ler

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary actually promotes the misuse of the English language.

Of course, it’s in the financial interest of dictionary makers to record the least defensible of usages in the English language, for without ever-changing definitions—or as they would say, an evolving language—there would be less need for people to buy later editions of their product.

A few months ago, in The Vocabula Review, I offered the following TVR Poll:

Dictionaries should be much more prescriptive, far less descriptive, than they now are.

  • Yes! More than that, laxicographers promote the dissolution of the English language (and even society) with their misguided liberality: 19%
  • Quite so. Dictionary compilers need to maintain, and perhaps even decide, distinctions between words; they need to guide us on matters of usage: 27%
  • A mix of guidance and license is probably the best course—it’s also the commonest course: 22%
  • Lexicographers are necessarily descriptivist for their job is simply to record how people use the language: 28%
  • Obviously, we all must bow to the definitions and spellings found in the dictionary: 4%

As you see, 68 percent of the respondents rejected the strong descriptivist idea of dictionary making. Still more heartening to me is that only 4 percent of the people who participated in this poll believe that the definitions and spellings a dictionary offers are those we are necessarily bound to. More than that, though, the new Merriam-Webster is a sign that dictionaries, at least as they are now being compiled, have outlived their usefulness. Dictionaries are no longer sacrosanct, no longer sources of unimpeachable information. Dictionaries are, indeed, no longer to be trusted.

That a president can ask Is our children learning? a basketball star can use the word conversate, a well-known college professor can say vociferous when he means voracious, and another can scold a student for using the word juggernaut because she believes it means jigaboo is disturbing. But these are precisely the sorts of errors, if enough people make them, that the staff at Merriam-Webster will one day include in their dictionaries:

  • child n, pl or sing children.
  • conversate to exchange thoughts or opinions in speech; to converse.
  • vociferous 1 marked by or given to vehement insistent outcry. 2 voracious.
  • juggernaut 1 a massive inexorable force, campaign , movement, or object that crushes whatever is in its path. 2 usu offensive jigaboo; black person.

Over the last forty and more years, linguists and lexicographers have conspired to transform an indispensable reference work into an increasingly useless, increasingly needless one.

1From the Merriam-Webster website: Passing Fancies.

2Merriam-Webster does publish a number of “specialty dictionaries,” including Merriam-Webster’s Biographical Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Geographical Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms, The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations, but they have not published a dictionary of slang. Since the editors at Merriam-Webster are so enamored of slang, let them publish a specialty dictionary of it.

3Lexicographers often try to justify the inclusion of solecisms like disinterested (in the sense of uninterested) in their dictionaries by citing examples from authors who have used these words solecistically. The obvious response to this is that authors—well known or not—are not immune from misusing and misspelling words and have forever done so. In the seventeenth century, according to the OED (a dictionary we can still respect), disinterested did have the meaning “without interest or concern,” but for the last three hundred years, the word has meant “impartial or without bias.”

4Though Merriam-Webster’s is likely the most descriptivist dictionary on the market today, many of my criticisms of it are also applicable to other popular college dictionaries. The American Heritage College Dictionary, The Oxford American College Dictionary, and Microsoft Encarta Dictionary, for instance, all include, and thereby sanction, the solecism alright.

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