The April number of The Vocabula Review publishes an article by one Clark Elder Morrow that opens thus:
The once mighty Oxford English Dictionary continues its slide into stark irrelevancy, I see: the OED just released its addendum of words for the March 2011OED Online, and some of these entries are not even words. Old James Murray's labor of love deems it advisable to continue adding acronyms to its once-fabled wordhoard, and -- not content with that (and feeling a little old-fogeyish about limiting its collection to mere words and initialisms) -- pops in symbols as well. That's right: the once-august and once-respected tsar of all dictionaries has opted to include in its pages the heart symbol as one definition under the entry for love. The OED mandarins of modernity boast that this may very well be the first time an entry has derived its origin from "t-shirts and bumper-stickers." They must be very proud. What do they care if they've just helped precipitate the Apocalypse of St John?
So it is now undeniable that there is no phrase, no adjectival compound, no tattoo symbol, no random smudge on a page or a pair of pants anywhere in the world, that the editors of the OED will not enshrine in its pages -- electronic and otherwise. ...
The rest is available only by subscription, but I can save you the cost; this is tosh. Tosh, you can find in the OED, means “Bosh, trash; nonsense, rubbish, twaddle.” Its high-water mark appears to have been about a century ago.
Mr. Morrow’s article is tosh for a couple of reasons. The first one is that it brandishes an error. The OED has not, in fact, included the heart symbol. That information was included in an erroneous newspaper report, the falsity of which has been widely demonstrated to anyone paying attention.
The second is that he does not understand what the OED is or what it is for. Yes, it is a tremendous wordhoard, but it is not a shrine to language, and it is not its business to police the respectability of English. It is to record what English is, according to the way people speak and write it.
I suggest in the headline that Mr. Morrow is a coxcomb. The word, originally meaning a fool’s hat shaped like a cock’s comb, came to be extended to mean “A fool, simpleton (obs.); now, a foolish, conceited, showy person, vain of his accomplishments, appearance, or dress; a fop; ‘a superficial pretender to knowledge or accomplishments’—that last, the “superficial pretender,” taken directly from Samuel Johnson. The OED also records coxcombic, coxcombical, coxcombing, coxcombly, and coxcombry.
So apparently it is just fine with Mr. Morrow to preserve obsolete slang from the eighteenth century in the shrine that is the OED, but he balks at the inclusion of twenty-first-century slang. Hmmm.
He can leave Sir James Murray out of it. Though Murray may have been restrained by some Victorian conventions—the major obscenities were let in later—he was a scholar and an exhaustively inclusive one. Were he at work today, I have no doubt that he would have pounced on the terms that trouble Mr. Morrow and his audience, and added them to his store.
What Mr. Morrow appears to have forgotten is what dictionaries are for. We turn to them to look up the meanings of words and expressions that we do not know, and where they came from.
I regret having to say something so elementary. I can recommend to Mr. Morrow an excellent book by Elizabeth Knowles, How to Read a Word (Oxford University Press, 191 pages, $18.95). She can explain to him lucidly how an historical dictionary like the OED works and how it differs from general-use dictionaries. She can explain to him how lexicographers operate. More to the point, she can explain to him, at least for a start, how the English language has changed and how it continues to change. $18.95 would be a wise investment for him.
Or perhaps—I shrink from saying so—Mr. Morrow is not interested in learning but merely at inveighing against, you know, the Young People who use expressions he dislikes, thereby establishing his unassailable cultural superiority in the face of the impending eschaton. Thus he takes his stand, pike in hand, among the peevers; they whine, they whinge, they fume, they carp, all to little purpose.
I myself have developed a highly favorable view of lexicographers and linguists like Ben Zimmer, Wendalyn Nichols, Grant Barrett, Jesse Sheidlower, Mark Liberman, and Arnold Zwicky. They write well, and they are fascinated by the richness and variety of our evolving language, which they attempt to describe. They are not blind men straining to bring down the pillars of the temple.
I’ll take my stand with those who have chosen not to make a vain and misguided attempt to limit the language.
Disclosure: I have had some involvement with The Vocabula Review, which published a short article I wrote about the term arabber, for Baltimore street vendors.