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I fear that the gentleman is a coxcomb

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.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:12 AM | | Comments (17)
        

Comments

Coxcomb! I love the word, especially how it's used in Twelfth Night when Sir Andrew Aguecheek complains loudly about suffering a recent battery: "If a bloody coxcomb be a hurt, you have hurt me: I think you set nothing by a bloody coxcomb." (Act V, scene 1.)

Shakespeare seems to be commenting on more than Sir Andrew's knot on the head. The man's a idjit (as my old grandfather might have said), through and through. One of the best examples we have of a coxcomb.

I see that they've changed their motto, which used to be "A society is generally as lax as its language." I once tried to get Fiske to explain what that was supposed to mean, but either I'm too dumb to understand, or the string of words is just poppycock. They seem to have changed to "Well Spoken is Half Sung," tho I have my doubts about Fiske's opinions of, say, Jay-Z or Eminem or any of those well-spoken, half-sung artists.

One thing that all protectors of the status quo share against all change: They die.

Correct as usual, of course. But if we'e applying the evolution metaphor to language, let's not overlook the role of the predator in natural selection. "Contact" as a verb and "catalog" as a shortened spelling survived the initial objections whereas "gifting" and "thru" pretty much didn't (there are better examples, I'm sure). Which is not to say the OED would be wrong to include mutations that lived only from 1958 to 1961, only that there is at least some value to having hold-the-fort types as part of the linguistic ecosystem.

Quite right, but there are sensible hold-the-fort types to consult, like Bryan Garner and--dare I say?--Walsh and McIntyre.

I'm thinking of giving up being sensible. It's exhausting.

Damn, I left out Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster, who memorably said, "Language follows rules, but it does not follow orders."

Hmmmmm. Does this dastardly turn of events mean that I can no longer use the word "Princox?" Shakespeare would be whirling.

Wallace Stevens used "princox," so I guess it's still okay.

Wallace Stevens used "princox," so I guess it's still okay.

I suspect (although I don't quite know why) that Mr Clark Elder Morrow is too old to be a princox.

Somehow I want to accept the advice of someone calling himself by the magnificent name of Clark Elder Morrow, even if he is talking piffle.

I suspect that most of these people who are lamenting the OED's allegedly falling standards have never once used the OED.

Oh, Bill Walsh, I work for someone who uses "gift" as a verb (what seems like) constantly. Since I need the paycheck; she outranks me and she takes pride in her verbal skills, I fake serenity.


Eve,

I suspect your work 'superior' (in rank only, I would suggest HA!) could just be a loyal fan of "Seinfeld", the long-running, popular sitcom where the term "regifting", a spinoff of the transitive verb "to gift", I would imagine, became a kind of running gag motif.

As I vaguely recall, Elaine (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) tried to "regift" a cheesy label-maker that either George, or Jerry had given her on some significant occasion several years earlier.
Of course Elaine's regifting deception was discovered, much to her feigned embarrassment, but I seem to remember, as was her want, she came up w/ some lame, groveling defense of her attempt to deceive her pals.

Frankly, back in the early '90s this particular "Seinfeld" episode was my first exposure to the term "regifting", but now, w/ the show's ubiquitous popularity (as it still lives in constant reruns), to "gift", or more precisely "regift" now appears to be pretty much a de rigueur term, at least here in North America......... a testament to the huge influence of pop culture on the masses. Doh!

Hmm........ I guess an "Indian giver", would technically be a "degifter", no? (I take that back. HA!)

Eve, I mean one would think the verb "to gift" wouldn't come up that often in 'normal', casual parlance (although your co-worker must be an exception), but I don't doubt, for a minute, your serenity.......... faked, or genuine. HA!

ALEX

I hear "gift" used as a verb much more often than I would like. It's like fingernails on a chalkboard.

In my first job, Eve, I had a boss who abhorred the word "loan" used as a verb. I had to remember to always write "Yes, we would be willing to LEND you a microfilm copy of the manuscript."

Bill Walsh mentions the word "thru" in his comment.
Was it ever 'officially' a word? I'm in Oz and used to shake my head every time I saw it emanating from the USA.


Mark Muller,

Welcome aboard the Good Ship "You Don't Say", mate.

Great to see more comments coming in from the beautiful Land Downunder. Had the great pleasure of exploring your wonderful country/ continent back in your early fall of 1993 (our U.S. late summer), and was thoroughly blown away by the warm hospitality of you welcoming Aussie folk, the incredibly awesome and varied landscape, and of course your unique flora and fauna. Those chatty pink Gallahs (and gorgeous Rosellas) were impressive (I'm an avid birder), although I gather their huge populations (Gallahs that is), of late, have become problematic, particularly for your local farmers. Major crops destroyers to a fault, i've heard.

Sadly, didn't make it to Sydney, much to the chagrin of one of my expat Sydney born-and-raised tennis mates here in L.A.. The country is so sprawling, and intriguing that one really needs at least a couple of 2-3 week visits to do it any real justice. I would have liked to have checked out Perth on your west coast, as well, but just ran out of time.

We flew Qantas directly into Melbourne, non-stop from L.A., slightly bleary-eyed on touch-down, then spent about four days in this historic, but clearly modern-thinking, hip metropolis. The seaside port city of Adelaide was our next major destination, and then on to magical Kangaroo Island (a 3 day relaxing stop-over), then the opal mining region of Cooper Peddy, on up to Alice Springs in the ruddy-earthed Oz heartland, then up to the Top End taking in Darwin, the fabulous Kakadu National Park, several ancient Aboriginal petroglyph/ pictograph sites, topped off by a thrilling, leisurely cruise down the brackish Crocodile River to observe those fearsome saltwater crocs.

A marvelous three full weeks w/ my then new girlfriend, who I'm happy to report I'm still with after all these ensuing years. Our '93 Australia junket is one of our most treasured, shared travel memories, ever. But I digress.

As to the use of the word"thru", I think its increased usage reflects a combination of perhaps laziness, and feigned literary hipness on the user's part. I must confess, on occasion, on this very blog, I've slacked off and used "thru". Still doesn't make me a literary hipster. HA!

"Tonite" is another fairly common 'bastardization', but perhaps not as prevalent as "thru".

It seems like w/ the advent of such social networking phenomena as tweeting and text-messaging, almost obsessive pursuits of our younger generation, and post 'boomer' set, (where short communication exchanges have almost become the norm), the electronic MEDIUM, as the late philosopher Marshall McLuhan would say, has become THE MESSAGE, and shorthand text symbols (OMG, LOL, IMHO) and hip coined words have become the shared currency of 21st century digital intercommunications.

We troglodytic Luddites, or as our kids might label us, "old fogies" who resist the new technologies, should probably either get w/ the program, or forever rest in peace, basically on the outside, looking in.

Mark, hope you, and yours had a wonderful Easter.

Guday, mate!

ALEX

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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