The sinister vault
Calm yourselves. The Oxford English Dictionary is not run by the Priory of Sion.
Last week the diligent Michael Quinion reported in World Wide Words, a weekly newsletter, on an article in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, “Secret vault of words rejected by the Oxford English Dictionary uncovered.” The “vault,” Mr. Quinion explains, is “a rather boring office filled with filing cabinets housing citation slips.”
Now the estimable Ben Zimmer goes further in a post at Language Log linked to his article in Visual Thesaurus, finding that “the Telegraph's collection of words supposedly rejected by the OED includes ephemeral ad-hoc coinages that would never be seriously considered by any major dictionary, alongside words that could very well enter the OED in the near future.”
Despite the technological advances—huge electronic databases, for example—a good deal of the lexicographer’s work is much the same as when Samuel Johnson balanced himself on a chair missing one leg in a garret in Gough Street or James A.H. Murray sat amid millions of paper slips in a shed in his garden. They comb sources, looking for developments in the language: old words in new senses, words dropping into obsolescence, new words arriving. And when they identify coinages, they have to determine whether the neologism is ephemeral or has lodged in the language. When they are preparing a printed edition, they must winnow ruthlessly to keep the text within the limits that the publisher can stand.
The “secret vault” nonsense in the Daily Telegraph points to the public’s disinclination to take dictionaries for simple indications of how words are commonly used and understood. They want lexicographers to be legislators—hence the silly campaigns that are occasionally mounted to lobby for inclusion of words in the OED. They want to be able to say that something is “not a word,” based on whether a dictionary has supposedly ratified it. They want to be able to use dictionaries to settle bets in bars. They want dictionaries to ratify their preferences and proscribe their dislikes. Even the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook, who are people who ought to know better, for Fowler’s sake, tweeted last week about “preferred” spellings in Webster’s New World.
If you’re looking for a rule book, buy Hoyle’s, not a dictionary.