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Don't Look It Up!

The Decline of the Dictionary

Aug 18, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 46 • By ROBERT HARTWELL FISKE
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Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition

edited by Frederick C. Mish, et al.

Merriam-Webster, 1,600 pp., $24.95

THIS NEW SLANG-FILLED edition of the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary does as much as, if not more than, the famously derided Webster's Third International Dictionary to discourage people from taking lexicographers seriously. "Laxicographers" all, the Merriam-Webster staff remind us that dictionaries merely record how people use the language, not necessarily how it ought to be used. Some dictionaries, and certainly this new Merriam-Webster, actually promote illiteracy.

Several years ago, the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary caused a stir by deciding to include four-letter words in their product. Since the marketing strategy of including swear words has now been adopted by all dictionary makers, Merriam-Webster, apparently not knowing how else to distinguish its dictionary from competing ones, has decided to include slang words in its eleventh edition. There's nothing wrong with trying to distinguish their product, of course, but when it means tampering with the English language--by including idiotic slang and omitting infinitely more useful words--it's reprehensible.

Merriam-Webster proclaims it has added some ten thousand words to its Collegiate Dictionary. To do so, as a company spokesman admitted, "some words had to be kicked out" of the earlier edition. More interesting than this new edition would be a book of the words abandoned. Were they sesquipedalian words that few people use or know the meaning of, or even disyllabic words that few people use or know the meaning of? For it's quite true that Americans are increasingly monosyllabic; many people cannot even manage to say "disparage" or "disrespect" or "insult," so enamored are they of the repugnant "dis" (included in the Collegiate tenth and eleventh).

What word did Merriam-Webster decide to omit to make room for "funplex" (an entertainment complex that includes facilities for various sports and games and often restaurants)? What word did they omit in order to add "McJob" (a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement)? What words did they omit in order to add "headbanger" (a musician who performs hard rock), "dead presidents" (United States currency in the form of paper bills), and "Frankenfood" (genetically engineered food)? Frankly, I rather like the coinage "Frankenfood." But if people do not enjoy or feel comfortable eating genetically altered foods, which I suspect is likely, the word will be fleeting.

Almost all slang, the people at Merriam-Webster should know, is ephemeral. Most of the slang added to the eleventh edition will never see the twelfth--or at least ought not to. The editors at Merriam-Webster, though, seem altogether perverse in their insistence on welcoming and then holding on to silly slang. Several editions ago, they added the term "far-out," and they have yet to remove it--even though almost no one (certainly no one I know) uses the word today.

As most people know by now, dictionary makers today merely record how the language is used, not how the language ought to be used. That is, lexicographers are descriptivists, language liberals. People using "disinterested" when they mean "uninterested" does not displease a descriptivist.

A prescriptivist, by contrast, is a language conservative, a person interested in maintaining standards and correctness in language use. To prescriptivists, "disinterested" in the sense of "uninterested" is the result of uneducated people not knowing the distinction between the two words. And if there are enough uneducated people saying "disinterested" (and I'm afraid there are) when they mean "uninterested" or "indifferent," lexicographers enter the definition into their dictionaries. Indeed, the distinction between these words has all but vanished owing largely to irresponsible writers and boneless lexicographers.

WORDS, we are told, with the most citations are included in the Merriam-Webster dictionaries. Are then words with the fewest omitted, or in danger of being omitted? The Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary includes "alright," but what word was "kicked out" so that an inanity, an illiteracy like "alright" could be kept in? All it seems to take for a solecism to become standard English is people misusing or misspelling the word. And if enough people do so, lexicographers will enter the originally misused or misspelled word into their dictionaries, and descriptive linguists will embrace it as a further example of the evolution of English.

Merriam-Webster's laxicographers, further disaffecting careful writers and speakers, assign the meaning "reluctant" to the definition of "reticent." "Reticent" means disinclined to speak; taciturn; quiet. "Reluctant" means disinclined to do something; unwilling; loath. Because some people mistakenly use "reticent" to mean "reluctant," dictionaries now maintain "reticent" does mean "reluctant." There are other examples of Merriam-Webster's inexcusably shoddy dictionary-making. According to the dictionary's editors, the spelling "accidently" is as valid as "accidentally"; the verb "predominate" is also an adjective meaning "predominant"; "enormity" means the same as "enormousness"; "infer" means the same as "imply"; and "peruse" means not only to examine carefully but to read over in a casual manner. The Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary actually promotes the misuse of the English language.

Of course, it's in the financial interest of dictionary makers to record the least defensible of usages in the English language, for without ever-changing definitions--or as they would say, an evolving language--there would be less need for people to buy later editions of their product.

A FEW MONTHS AGO (before the new edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate was published), I took a poll of Vocabula Review readers and discovered that 68 percent of the respondents rejected the strong descriptivist idea of dictionary-making, and only 4 percent would necessarily bow to the definitions and spellings found in the dictionary. More than that, though, the new Merriam-Webster is a sign that dictionaries, at least as they are now being compiled, have outlived their usefulness. Dictionaries are no longer sacrosanct, no longer sources of unimpeachable information. Dictionaries are, indeed, no longer to be trusted.

That a president can ask "Is our children learning?," a basketball star can use the word "conversate," a well-known college professor can say "vociferous" when he means "voracious," and another can scold a student for using the word "juggernaut" because she believes it means "jigaboo" is disturbing. But these are precisely the sorts of errors, if enough people make them, that the staff at Merriam-Webster will one day include in their dictionaries:

child: n, pl or sing children.

conversate: to exchange thoughts or opinions in speech; to converse.

vociferous: 1 marked by or given to vehement insistent outcry, 2 voracious.

juggernaut: 1 a massive inexorable force, campaign, movement, or object that crushes whatever is in its path, 2 usu offensive jigaboo; black person.

Over the last forty and more years, linguists and lexicographers have conspired to transform an indispensable reference work into an increasingly useless, increasingly needless one.

Robert Hartwell Fiske is editor and publisher of The Vocabula Review, a monthly online publication (www.vocabula.com). He is also the author of "The Dictionary of Concise Writing" and "The Dimwit's Dictionary."