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What's in the dictionary

Books are not always put to the use for which they were intended. The Bible, for example, has been frequently consulted in bibliomancy, the practice of seeking guidance or divining the future by opening the book at random.* Another such book is the dictionary.

The lexicographer’s intention is quite clear: to record the spelling, pronunciation, derivation and common meanings of words. By common meaning, the lexicographer means the senses in which the words are actually used in speech and writing. It’s not part of the job description to tell you how you ought to talk and write.

But many of the people who use a dictionary expect it to have prescriptive, even legislative, properties. If a word or usage is recorded in the dictionary, they think, it has been legitimized. Thus in Gambit, Nero Wolfe burns Webster’s Third International, page by page, in the fireplace because it records that people use imply and infer interchangeably. By the same reasoning, if a word does not appear in the dictionary, it is not legitimate, “not a word.”

What is or is not a word has come up, here and here, in recent posts on Language Log, the first about inartful, the second about disappreciation. The former was objected to as “not a word” because it is not in the dictionary, the latter objected to as not in the dictionary though, in fact, it is. But the point is not whether a dictionary has conferred legitimacy on either word; the point is whether the word is comprehensible and appropriate in context.

You and I can make up words. It’s easy. For example, you can attach the prefix anti- to just about any noun in English to create a word that will be immediately understood — even though it’s not in the dictionary. It will be a word. The combination of letters aemn’rp, which I just produced by dropping both hands onto the keyboard, is not a word, but gibberish. “It’s not a word” is the wrong argument.

I learned this lesson in a news meeting in which Tim Franklin, the editor of The Sun, said that something was impactful. Seeing several editors giving him the fisheye, he asked me, “Is that a word?” I blurted out, “No.” He subsequently found a number of citations to it online, and at the next day’s news meeting I consumed a serving of crow, a dish with a familiar taste. I blogged about the incident and was taken to task, justly, by Mike Pope for calling such coinages gibberish — thus gaining a second serving.

I prefer not to use impactful myself, but it would be idle to pretend that many other people do not. Or that they are not understood when they use it.

A lexicographer looks to see whether new words, or new senses of old words, lodge themselves in the language. An editor looks at a new word or new sense and tries to determine whether the reader will understand it, whether it is clear and appropriate in context, and whether it conforms to the publication’s conventions. I don’t think that either party has any business issuing decrees about what is legitimately in the language. Not their jobs.


* I did this myself, allowing a Bible to fall open and then stabbing my finger blindly at what turned out to be a passage from the 38th chapter of Ezekiel: ”Thus I will prove myself great and holy and make myself known to many nations.”

I rather think not.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:33 AM | | Comments (8)


Mr. McIntyre, you've opened up a whole'nother argument, out here in our dusty ol' cow town.

certainly impactive.
A non-existent word coined by corporate advertising, marketing and business drones to make their work sound far more useful, exciting and beneficial to humanity than it really is. This term is most frequently used in "team building" seminars and conferences in which said drones discuss the most effective ways to convince consumer zombies to purchase crap they clearly do not need or even want.
"The board was convinced that my new ad campaign for arsenic and semen flavored lollipops for tots will be incredibly impactful and will generate heaps of sales."

Presented by Kel Richards

A NewsRadio listener has emailed asking me to expose an ugly new word.

We should leave it where we found it – in the rubbish bin of American journalism.

Well, I’m always happy to cheerfully deride ugly new words that we don’t need – and the word is question here is impactful – and it’s certainly ugly, and certainly unnecessary (the two words “with impact” will do the same job). The listener says he originally heard impactful used by work colleagues in Singapore, more recently he’s heard it used by the manager of the Australian cricket team in a radio interview and by work colleagues in the United States. The word is of American origin. I found it listed in the unabridged Webster’s where it’s supported by a quote from a movie review about “some of the most impactful heroines of current films”. So this ugly and unnecessary word appears to have been coined by American journalists. And we should leave it where we found it – in the rubbish bin of American journalism.

A pretentious word most likely to be used by pretentious people!

My first exposure to "impactful" was Jodie Foster's soliloquy about science, etc., in "Contact." So that word never had a chance with me.

Now you've done it. You've inspired the Editrix to try her hand at bibliomancy in the comments on my site. Except using a dictionary. So I tried it too. With embarrassing results.

"Tim Franklin, the editor of The Sun, said that something was impactful. Seeing several editors giving him the fisheye, ...

I prefer not to use impactful myself, but it would be idle to pretend that many other people do not. Or that they are not understood when they use it. "

Great. Take hackneyed-bureaucratic-usage and give it fetching new legs by adding -ful.

Only by combining it into the phrase "impactful event" would it be *even better.*

Did Tim mean something was important? Effective? Can we please consign "event" and "impact" to the nearest dustbin?

I've never been good at capitalization, so, when in doubt, I resort to the dictionary. Same with hyphenation. This seems to reflect an assumption on my part that, although dictionaries just record words and meanings, their practices about things like capitalization are in some way "authoritative" (or at least better than I'd likely do on my own). Or maybe this is just the any-port-in-a-storm phenomenon.

"A non-existent word coined by"

But...if it has been coined, it now exists, right?

And one cannot coin a word that ALREADY exists, correct?

It's an awkward word. A graceful writer won't use it. At least for 25 years, until it has made its way into much more common usage and everyone's ear is used to it.

That is, unless it has never really caught on.

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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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