A Thing About Words

Posts From the Editors

May 22, 2013

Dictionary Fundamentalism and Other Heresies

Every sacred book draws a range of followers, some of whom invariably turn out to be extremists.


That the dictionary is one such holy text is evidenced by the frequency with which the clergy open homilies, not with Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but with “Webster’s says.” That speaks of Authority.


We also see that for some the dictionary represents a secular Authority: social norms and values, standards of expression, status. Thus the shock when Becky Sharp, leaving school at the opening of Vanity Fair, flings her presentation copy of Dr. Johnson’s dictionary out the carriage window. It is the act of a woman who is no better than she should be.


Many people seek Authority. They crave certainties, and in that craving shape the text to meet their needs. The Revelation of St. John becomes a calendar on which the date of the Parousia can be circled, the dictionary an instrument of discipline by which a substandard utterance can be given a good thrashing.


Never mind that lexicographers painstakingly explain that their task is simply to describe how people use the language in speech and writing, not to instruct how they ought to. Never mind that Samuel Johnson himself, after boldly announcing in his Plan his intention to fix the English language in certainty, ruefully admits in his Preface that such a task is beyond lexicography. Never mind that linguists have explained in detail why this should be so. The relativism of lexicography must be a trahison des clercs.


Thus Clark Elder Morrow, writing in scorn of Webster’s Third1 at The Vocabula Review, can suggest, apparently seriously, that people use Webster’s Second instead. That is, to reject a dictionary that is fifty years out of date in favor of one that is eighty years out of date. Why not, then, Noah Webster’s first of 1828? Or even Johnson’s of 1755? The attitude of such people, even when they give lip service to the reality of change in language, is to think of English as some kind of external Platonic ideal form separate from the people who use it.


But lexicographers are Aristotelian empiricists.


Now it is true that one function dictionaries serve is to ease social anxiety. Johnson’s and Webster’s dictionaries were written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a rising middle class was assuming economic and political power. The middle class is always under some apprehension of embarrassing itself, of not being correct, and therefore in need of reassurance.


For example, the comic misspellings of Winifred Jenkins’s letters in Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker2 in the eighteenth century and of Petroleum V. Nasby in the nineteenth offer readers the opportunity to feel superior to the semi-literate; possession of a dictionary protects one from ridicule of one’s own orthography.


But lexicographers, apparently bewitched by the scientific empiricism of linguists, have declined to produce a manual of decorum and etiquette for language snobs. Even the American Heritage Dictionary, founded in opposition to Webster’s Third, now offers nothing beyond the split decisions of its usage panel, currently headed by Steven Pinker, the arch-hobgoblin of usage relativism.


Still, the socially anxious middle class (one is middle class, after all), with its uninstructed young, should have something to meet its needs. Unfortunately, unsound advice abounds, the schoolroom shibboleths and zombie rules of traditional education enhanced by Strunk-and-White fundamentalism and amplified by the Internet.


Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is chock full of informed historical commentary and sensible laying-out of the available choices. Unfortunately, it does require a degree of sophistication, which gives rise to querulous complaints from the seekers after Absolutes. In Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner is more straightforwardly prescriptivist, though even Garner, who has engaged in testy back-and-forth with descriptivists, has devised a sliding scale of acceptability, tinged with relativism.


It may be that the best way to determine how to speak and write is the old way, to imitate the speech and writing of the people one admires. Imitation is how we learned speech and grammar in the first place, and it is the way in which we ultimately discover our own voice in writing as well.


And rather than chase after a chimerical Authority, we might instead luxuriate in the democratic freedom of the language. Yes, we will have to conform to the demands of the classroom martinet, the dissertation adviser, the idiot boss, but on our own we are each participants in the great democracy of English, each of us with one vote, all of us collectively shaping it.


English is born free, though everywhere someone is trying to put it in chains.



1 For a thorough and engaging account of the brouhaha surrounding the publication of Webster’s Third, have a look at David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t.


2 You don’t know Humphry Clinker? An epistolary novel with one of the great openings in fiction: “The pills are good for nothing – I might as well swallow snowballs to cool my reins.”

John McIntyre, the night content production manager for The Baltimore Sun, writes the blog You Don't Say, a compendium of excellent advice on writing, and is the author of the recently published The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing.

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4 Responses to “Dictionary Fundamentalism and Other Heresies”

  1. Excellent post, John. There’s really nothing else to say.

  2. lecoccaro says:

    Good writing, but, did you call Strunk and White’s pamphlet, zombie rules?

  3. Paul Trusten says:

    Rowan and Martin looked it up in their Funk and Wagnalls.

  4. Hear hear. I especially love your last line. I’m a freelance copyeditor, and I’m sorry to say that too many of my fellow tradesfolk are among those trying to put the language in chains — often at the behest, request, or flat-out orders of production editors and managing editors.