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It's in the dictionary

You reach for a dictionary seeking certainty, and it turns out to be a rope of sand.

A regular feature on the examinations in my copy-editing class at Loyola College is a section in which students are to identify and correct misspellings. The most recent midterm exam contained nickle, which one of my students marked correct and which I marked wrong. She appealed, pointing out that her dictionary listed nickle as an alternative spelling.

So it did. It was a Merriam-Webster publication. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which I recommend for the class because it is the one the Associated Press uses as a basis for its style, does not. Neither do Random House Webster's, the American Heritage Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary. (Well, the OED does list nickle as a North Midlands variant of nicker, or woodpecker, but my student is not from the Midlands.)

Neither, for that matter, does the editing textbook assigned for the class, which includes nickle in its list of misspellings.

But I raised the student’s grade a point; I’m not a brute.

Lexicography, at least in current understanding of the craft, seeks simply to record the language as people speak and write it, and all of us should be grateful to the assiduous attention lexicographers give to their obscure labors.

It is also clear that language can’t be fixed. If it could, dictionaries would tell us to say that the covering garment worn during cooking is a napron, the original 14th-century spelling, “corrupted,” as the OED puts it, by the migration of the initial consonant to the indefinite article. But they don’t insist on it, and neither do I.

If such an error, if you insist on calling such a change an error, persists, then it becomes standard. Napron is now apron. So nickle, over time, may well achieve legitimacy in multiple dictionaries,  as supercede for supersede has done in getting itself mentioned as a variant.

But there are things one would like to have nailed down. To imply something is different from inferring something. Accommodate should have a double m. A podium is something to stand on, not lean on. People should pay attention to what they say and write.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:06 AM | | Comments (3)
        

Comments

Another one that is creeping in is miniscule for minuscule. (And newt was formerly ewt.) Changing the subject slightly, but staying within the arena of lexicography, has anyone observed what is happening to the word scuffle? Sports writers and athletes alike have for the last few years been using it to mean struggle (especially as a verb), but not in the sense of a fisticuffs. "We're really scuffling now," a manager might say during a slump. I've actually only encountered this in baseball. (Sent a note to William Safire, but no ink.)

You make another point (or is it implied?): all dictionaries are certainly not the same. This comes as a shock to many, especially those who have The American College Dictionary, circa 1961, on a shelf. (And neither Webster's nor Roget's is a trademark, if I am not mistaken.)

NPR offered the dictionary defense this week, arguing that "restauranteur" is OK because it's in the dictionary. (The "Morning Edition" host didn't cite a particular dictionary.) Others, including the AP Stylebook, prefer "restaurateur."

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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