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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 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."