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Yes, it's in the dictionary. Now pipe down

The lexicographers I have met personally or encountered on the Internet have been, mainly, low-key, decorous individuals. They may not be, as Samuel Johnson famously defined the tribe, harmless drudges, but one does not visualize them trashing hotel rooms or crashing stolen police cruisers into buildings.

That is a good thing. If they were more easily inflamed by uninformed comments on their craft, very few ignoramuses would ’scape whipping.

I share the disdain of my colleague Brian White expressed in his post at Talk Wordy to Me, “Please stop whining about the OED’s new words.” He is referring to the commotion over the recent addition to the Oxford English Dictionary of LOL, OMG, and other neologisms that have become widely current, and he is particularly exercised by a Washington Post op-ed piece accusing the Oxford lexicographers of a ludicrous attempt to be hip.

You may be astonished that a newspaper would publish a humorous essay that is not funny, expressing opinion that is not informed, but I’m concerned with something broader than that feeble effort. Why is it that people do not understand what dictionaries are for?

The OED in particular describes itself as a dictionary on historical principles. It attempts to establish the pedigree and descent through generations of every word it lists. And so it is full of words that had their day but are no longer written and uttered. You can find brabble there, a word meaning to quarrel noisily about trifles. It lost out to squabble a long time back. Because it is such an enormous word-hoard, it will be consulted for decades, perhaps centuries, by scholars and by readers who are puzzled by obscure words. Someday, someone reading texts from the early twenty-first century will not know what OMG means, and the OED will be there.

Beyond that, it has been fifty years since the descriptivist Webster’s Third New International came out, giving schoolteachers the fantods because it included ain’t and sending Dwight Macdonald and other worthies to the ramparts to fume. We have now had five decades of the publication of dictionaries that earnestly attempt to show how people actually speak and write English rather than instruct them how they ought to, and people who write op-ed pieces still want lexicographers to legislate for the language.

I suppose such people are demanding certainty. And when they die and are in Hell they can demand fresh-squeezed lemonade, with as much consequence.

If you want to know the ways people use the language, consult a dictionary. If you want advice on how to use the language effectively, you can consult [cough] You Don’t Say.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:13 AM | | Comments (8)


We 'boomers' have seen the future, and the future is NOT us!

The 'writing' used to be 'on-the-wall', but now it's on the smart phone, the Blackberry, the iPad, the Kindle, or computer screen. It's a whole new world, and us aging boomers are seemingly, more and more, merely along for the ride, trying to cope w/ the onslaught of new, and fast evolving technology.

Folks, TMI ("too much information") and BFF ("best friends forever") have already made it into the OED Online 'repository'. Non-techie terms such as "la-la land", "muffin top", and "wassup" have also been given the OED Online dictionary's March 2011 official seal of approval. (Ugh!.......... please, gag me w/ a 'spoonerism'.)

Geez, what's one of them high-falutin' Oxford University Rhodes scholarships really worth THESE DAYS? (Bill Clinton, Rachel Maddow and Kris Kritofferson. Thankfully, you folk were awarded yours when the goin' was good.)

Clearly, today, the "Y" Generation, and their like-minded teeny-bopper techno-freaks bringing up the rear..........RULE!

Us old (and older) fogies might as well just fold up our tents and head home to our land-line phones, and dusted-off vinyl record collections. Either us boomers get hip w/ the techie 'trip', or our goose is thoroughly cooked.

Perhaps I've been a tad hyperbolic here, w/ my doom-and-gloom, out-of-the-loop boomer scenario. Technological innovation and its evolution are an integral, and inevitable part of the human condition, and in the arena of human communications, and mass media which is so highly impacted by evolving technologies, it's clear that new idioms and vernaculars will enter the growing lexicon. Like all things new, only time and poplar usage will dictate how these, what may seem at first like mere niche-like words, or phrases, actually catch on, and settle into wider, or even universally accepted parlance.

Thankfully the English language, in all its tricky nuances and complexities (particularly for non-native speakers) has an inherent flexibility, and room for novelty and change; and is perhaps why, for many, it's one of the most expressive, rich, most challenging, and wonderfully descriptive languages in the entire panoply of world tongues.

Glad I managed to wrap up on a more positive note. Whew!

Enjoy your weekend, folks.

Ducky "Still An Optimist" Isaksson........................ LOL!

Loved this post! Perhaps, as well as certainty, people are looking for social/intellectual/academic validation of their own ways, a sort of "I'm better because I speak properly and don't use ain't" kind of thing. It uneducated snobbery, but like most of its kind, widely spread and quite catchy. I'll be toasting with lemonade for this post, preferably not in Hell.

Good point, well made. A lexicon is just that; a lexicon. It's a list of words with explanations of common usage and where possible etymological information. It's neither prescriptive nor condemnatory; if you don't like 'OMG' you are under no additional obligation to now use it. Frankly people should be glad that not all neologisms have been added. I can imagine future archivists saying to themselves 'I don't know what a Dirty Sanchez is, and frankly I don't want to know'.

I for one would be lost on the internet without urban dictionary and Know Your Meme.

Don't forget that even the most famous writers of all times such Shakespeare made up words and expression of their own and used them in their books, which now belong to the literary treasure of Great Britain.

Absolutely right, David, although, as the Honorary Treasurer, I am willing to announce that henceforward they shall the treasure of Everyman.

Oh heck. " Shall be the treasure " Need a Scotch, probably,

Having gone to the dictionary (a number of them) many times for help with precision, the adventure always had the same result. Lexical definitions are not precise. In fact, they are often not much help when one is looking for precision while trying to make a point in an article, essay or book. Dictionaries are often not much more than a repository of common use - different words used to mean the same thing. Not sure why anyone would get the least big agitated with new words being added since many of the "old" ones are so imprecise

Maybe someone should get off their high horse of traditionalism and realize the world is changing faster than ever. I'm sure our grandchildren will have kids even they don't understand.

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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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