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Not in the dictionary

Samuel Johnson, who knew about lexicography, said, “Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.”

The comments on last week’s post about impactful

have reminded me of one of their limitations: They can tell you what a word is, how it is used, and where it came from, but not necessarily who uses it. The social nuances of language are subtle, difficult for lexicographers to capture in their nets.

The use of contact as a verb is one example. Widely scorned in the 1940s and 1950s as an irritating vogue usage, it has settled into the language over the past few decades as the means of getting in contact with one another have multiplied. It is now a neutral and acceptable word.

But why was it first execrated? I suspect because of who used it. My impression is that it became a vogue word in advertising circles, which incurred the scorn of people who despised Madison Avenue parvenus.

There are two sides to vogue words; as shibboleths or argot, they enable an in-group to identify its members and establish solidarity, but they also, of course, signal to non-members that they are outside the group.

Sometimes non-members want to be outside the group. There is no question that impactful is a word, that its meaning is clear to all who hear or see it, and that it has a history in the language. The question the dictionary can’t settle is whether you want to be the sort of person who uses it.

When Mike Waller, a former copy editor. was publisher of The Sun, you could hear his growl echo down the hallway when someone filed a memo about “growing the business.” You can grow cotton, and you can grow corn, but to grow the business is advertising/marketing/circulation argot. It may eventually take root in the language, but for now it’s a weed.

My wife, Kathleen Capcara, grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where she was mystified in English class to be taught that to learn is an intransitive verb. Who, she wondered, would get that wrong? But I grew up in eastern Kentucky, where there was a supply of bullies ever willing to learn me not to give myself such airs as a bookworm. Learn as a transitive has a long history in English, probably surviving in Appalachia as a remnant of the 18th-century English of the first Scotch-Irish settlers. But no one heard that usage coming from my mouth, because it  would have identified the me as subliterate.

When, in the preface to Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him,” he referred to class-bound accents, but vocabulary is also part of the impression. Detecting those nuances — and determining which ones are important to take account of — is an element of the judgment editors are expected to exercise.   

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:52 PM | | Comments (3)


"A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man."
--- Jebediah Springfield

>taught that to learn is an intransitive verb

What about "to learn a lesson" or "to learn English"? I am guessing you mean "to learn" is intransitive only in the sense of "to learn" as a substitute for "to teach," as in "that'll learn ya."

I believe you mean that "learn" is a transitive, not ditransitive, verb. Learn can take noun phrases or infinitive phrases as its complement - direct object;; it can even take full clauses, with or without the complementizer "that". Teach can also have a noun phrase indirect object, while learn can only have a prepositional phrase in the reciprocal position.

This is a relatively recent development; the use of "learn" to mean "teach" is not a substandard innovation, it is a throwback (substandard now, to be sure) to the original usage, which is seen in most IndoEuropean languages, in which the same verb is used for both 'directions' of learning. English's loss of pronomial inflections made the distinction (learn + dative = teach; learn + genitive = learn, as we still see in "learn from someone"). I'm not at all surprised that the new usage had to be taught.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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