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.