Don't hang the lexicographers
Erin McKean, tweeting as @emckean, alerts to a fresh blast of peevery at newsobserver.com, where one Barry Saunders inveighs against misuses of the language.
It appears that the prevalence of ginormous, a portmanteau of gigantic and enormous, has gotten his shorts in a bunch*. It’s a bastardization of two perfectly good words, he says, and he doesn’t care much for the people who use it—especially commercial enterprises that use it in their advertising. They will no longer have his custom.
I suppose I ought to feel more sympathy for him, given the number of words that grate on my ear. Not that one, though. Ginormous is, after all, used hyperbolically, and the combination of two hyperboles into a hyper-hyperbole seems oddly appropriate.
No, Mr. Saunders is welcome to sputter and fume as much as he likes about words and usages that he finds infelicitous. That’s his right, though we’re not obliged to heed him. But—and this is the important part—he needs to keep his hands off the lexicographers.
Conversate, he complains at one point, has been “accepted into respectable dictionaries.” And then: “The real culprits most likely are the dictionary editors who, in an apparent effort to be hip and inclusive, have lowered their standards.”
Mr. Saunders, it appears, expects lexicographers to be legislators. They are, he thinks, a fraternity’s or club’s membership committee. When a word presents for admission, they examine its pedigree—who its parents were, where it went to school, what kind of car it drives, all that—and then decide whether or not it is our sort and let it in to the dictionary.
But they aren’t gatekeepers. Lexicographers are more like botanists: When they find a new species, they examine it and describe it, and if it breeds true, they add it to the list. You may not care for dandelions, but there they are.
I read recently a brief outburst online by someone whose views appear to coincide with Mr. Saunders’s, complaining about the crazy idea that if enough people make an error in language, it’s then all right. (I can’t remember whether it was someone raving about irregardless or could care less or something equally pointless.) Well, that is exactly how it is. We have English because multiple generations of illiterate peasants demolished Anglo-Saxon grammar wholesale. And if enough people use a particular word or adopt a usage and agree on its meaning, then there it is.
Dictionaries tell you what words people use and how they use them. It’s up to you to decide which ones are suitable for your purposes. Keep in mind that when other people make different choices, the dictionary is not a rule book you can throw at them.
*That’s knickers in a twist for our trans-Atlantic audience.