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The Words, They Are A-Changing

Thursday, August 1, 2013

What is the role of the humble dictionary in an era when word usage changes by the hour?

As a one-time employee of the Merriam-Webster company, publishers of dictionaries and other reference works, I of course subscribe to the official credo that the job of a dictionary is not to lay down the laws of proper English but to describe how words have been and are currently being used by reputable writers of the language. That’s the modern official credo. The Bl. Noah, from whose 1828 dictionary those of Merriam-Webster descend in direct line, would have had none of it. Noah Webster was a reformer, and every reformer is a prescriptivist in his own way. In the previous century, Dr. Johnson set out to perfect and fix the vocabulary of English in his dictionary, though he was wise enough to learn from experience along the way that it can’t be done.

Johnson’s quiet reversal never attracted much attention, leaving prescriptivists in succeeding ages free to beat their various dead and dying horses. It was not until the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 1961 that descriptivism came out of the academic closet where linguists toil and announced that “ain’t” ain’t always bad.

The immediate consequence is a celebrated moment in American cultural history. What might be called the Second Dictionary War (the first having been Webster’s versus Joseph Emerson Worcester’s) pitted W3 (as we insiders know the third edition) against some of the leading pillars of literary culture. Best remembered among the salvoes launched against W3 was that of Dwight Macdonald, whose orgasmic eructation in The New Yorker called it more or less the end of civilization as he knew it.

And that was, of course, his real point. W3 did not describe the language as he knew it, as he preferred it, and as he thought it ought to remain. The great underlying weakness that prescriptivists struggle with in these sorts of melées is that they do not necessarily agree among themselves on what is correct, nor do they agree on what “correct” means, either.

Meanwhile, the linguists and their handmaidens the lexicographers simply continue noticing what is actually going on, language-wise. Do contemporary writers use “infer” in contexts where, a generation or two ago, most writers would have written “imply”? Note this down: sometimes, “infer” means to suggest. Or, to take a favorite example, what does “literally” mean when someone can write, “I was literally blown away” and there are no tornadoes or explosives in the tale? Evidently, it is simply an intensifier of some sort, making the statement more dramatic.

The central insight upon which the descriptivist outlook is based is that language changes over time.

An extreme instance of change can be seen in the word “f---ing,” which once was either the name of a popular social activity or the present participle of the associated verb. Now that sequence of sounds is not a lexeme at all but merely a signal that the following word will be a noun, or maybe a verb.

The central insight upon which the descriptivist outlook is based is that language changes over time. Every language does; English – because of its multiple sources and widely distributed use – perhaps more than most. We need not look far back into “The Canterbury Tales” or even “Hamlet” to notice this. There is a large and well-remunerated segment of our economy that spends a great deal of its time on such questions as what can have been intended by that comma in the Second Amendment: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Changes in spelling, grammar, or the meanings of particular words that have already occurred and been accepted seldom concern us so long as we are not lawyers. But it is a little harder for some of us to accept that change is still going on, right now, today, before our very eyes and ears. Change-in-process means that some people today are writing and saying things in ways that the elder among us were taught to do otherwise. And when they don’t do it as we were taught, we’re inclined to call what they do wrong, barbarous, or worse.

Defining Definitions Down

Now, in my ninth paragraph, I finally arrive at “but.” (Is this how Montaigne or Pascal would have organized an essay?) But, while the fact that language changes over time is undeniable, we have no way of telling whether any given error – beg pardon, change – is part of that apparently natural process or is some random, singular, and unaccountable deviation. Looked at another way, what seems to be less discussed among the enlightened is what causes change. Can it be that something in the Zeitgeist nudges people to begin using a certain word differently or to change its spelling? It surely can’t be a conscious process, as any number of frustrated spelling reformers – like Theodore Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, and the Chicago Tribune’s Colonel Robert McCormick – will admit. (Actually, Noah Webster was fairly successful at it, but then he had a lively reservoir of anti-Redcoat sentiment to work with.)

Some change is pretty clearly driven by faddishness. When marketers and management consultants, always in search of more vivid and attention-grabbing language, begin saying “impact” instead of “affect,” their more impressionable clients will pick up the usage. Television and all the other media spread it around, and before you can say “antidisestablishmentarianism” you can hardly find “affect” anywhere outside a psychiatrist’s office. (And yes, “effect” is affected as well.) More generally, there has been a marked trend in recent decades to dragoon nouns, and sometimes adjectives, into service as verbs; see journal, dialogue, security, parent, text, or Google. (The process is called “verbing,” and, as the comic strip character Calvin has observed, “Verbing weirds language.”)

Change-in-process means that some people today are writing and saying things in ways that the elder among us were taught to do otherwise. And when they don’t do it as we were taught, we’re inclined to call what they do wrong, barbarous, or worse.

I had a friend in college who from time to time would importune “Borrow me a dollar.” Of course, I knew what he meant. But if he had ever had occasion to write to me and mentioned that he had borrowed ten dollars, I would not have known for certain which way the money went. The case is similar to the imply-infer pair, with reciprocal meanings becoming confused. And why? Ignorance is the only explanation that presents itself – ignorance coupled with lack of care.

I would give odds that a majority of people who regularly misuse “literally” do not even know the word “figuratively.” What they hear when “literally” is used correctly is a nice sounding word that takes up space in a sentence just where one wants an extra moment for the tension to build a little, and so that is how they use it.

And then there is “ironic.” There can hardly be a more abused word in the language. The dictionary provides a long, multipart definition of irony in which the recurring idea is that of incongruity – between what is said and what is meant, between what is happening and what is expected or what is made of it. It is often a subtle tone in literature, but it can get down and dirty in the form of sarcasm. What it is not is a synonym for “coincidental.” (A tip for writers: if your use of “ironically” can be replaced without change of sense by “coincidentally,” “oddly enough,” or “as chance would have it,” you’ve misused it. And you’ve likely done that because you are ignorant of the meaning of the word.)

Defining Dictionaries Down

“But” number two: but my old friends at Merriam-Webster – or by this time, I guess, their children – are reading all those misuses and at some point, as surely as there was a Great Vowel Shift, they will decide that they have to report this sense of the word in the dictionary. And that will put the seal on the solecism. Then you’ll be able to look it up.

But careful speakers and writers will have lost another fine distinction and will be forced to speak or write around Robin Hood’s barn in order to express a certain meaning. Just as they find themselves now explaining that when they say that something is “literally” the case, they mean that it is really, truly, actually, no kidding, the case and not merely a flight of fancy.

It’s only going to get worse. The electronic media, from email onward, have provided a platform from which all but the literally illiterate may now display their myriad idiolects for all the rest to puzzle over. Add to the tsunami of uncorrected texting the neologisms and shortcuts encouraged by Twitter, and, IMHO, it’s KBTD (that’s “Katie bar the door”). “Change” is hardly adequate to describe how the language is mutating.

Montaigne and Pascal would have come up with a neat concluding pensée – something like "The more things change, the more different they become, and we’re not at all pleased." It would sound better in French, of course.

Robert McHenry is former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica and is a contributing writer to He is the author of How to Know.

FURTHER READING: McHenry also writes “On the Origins of Bunk,” “Rule Britannica” and “The Problem with Bambi-nomics.” John Steele Gordon writes “English: The Inescapable Language.” Michael Auslin calls attention to a “Grammar Watch at the Financial Times,” while James Pethokoukis says “Harvard, We Have a Problem: Too Many Liberal Arts Majors,” and Henrik Temp looks at “8 Fun Facts About the Incredible Rise of Social Media.” Mark Falcoff considers “The Perversion of Language; or, Orwell Revisited.”

Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group

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