How I Became an Amateur Lexicographer

I am so touched by the welcome I have received here at Ricochet. To which I say, “Right back at you.” Get it?

In a later post, I will hold forth some more on the principles of English Language Arts, but for now I want to tell a story. 

When I was a kid, my parents dragged me and my five siblings to mass every week, and I remember very clearly the pastor opening one homily after another with the words, “Webster’s says.”

He would give a dictionary definition of, say, charity or grace and then tell you what he thought the true definition of charity or grace was. From my Holden Caufield-esque perspective, this was kind of hilarious. Here was the pastor, boss of the parish, overseer of the priests, and spiritual leader of the school, picking a fight with the boss of the English language. It was authority versus authority.

It seems germane to mention that in my teens I underwent a major spiritual crisis, but it’s not so germane that I am going to finish that story. But here’s a working hook: In my twenties, while working as an editor and a writer, I came to wonder about the authority of dictionaries.

At the magazine where I worked as an associate editor (a rather junior position in my experience), I was told to steer articles clear of slang. I can’t remember what overly youthful or evanescent bit of phrasing provoked this comment from a senior editor, but I wanted to keep my job, so I went to the dictionary.

One phrase after another that I took to be slang was, however, not so labeled. I consulted another dictionary. This one marked many more words slang or colloquial or informal, but these included many words and phrases I knew to be acceptable for magazine use.

I then tried to reason my way to the answers I needed. I tried to extrapolate from words and phrases I knew to be totally appropriate or inappropriate to judge the fitness of the word or phrase currently puzzling me. But each word got more and more particular the longer I studied it—and less like whatever I was comparing it to.

Finally I got smart and started using search engines to gather examples of sentences in which a suspicious word or phrase was used. The only problem with this solution was that it was so laborious. I quickly realized I could either do my job as a junior editor or compile my own dictionary of usage, but I could not do both. But, finally, I was looking to actual evidence of usage to make determinations about the status or appropriateness of words and phrases.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was reenacting the history of lexicography, relying first on my own feel for the language, then seeking advice from authority, then turning to reason, and then finally looking to the authority of usage itself. This is not so different from what made Webster’s Third, the so-called permissive dictionary, the most controversial dictionary ever published. More tomorrow.

  1. Percival

    KC, I’m going to have to get that book.  The origins of words has always fascinated me.

    One of my favorite quotes:

    The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

    – James Nicoll

  2. Mimi
    (this was kind of hilarious…) Here was the pastor, boss of the parish, overseer of the priests, and spiritual leader of the school, picking a fight with the boss of the English language. It was authority versus authority.

    It is hilarious to try to express the greatness of God through Webster’s word meaning confines.  As you said, first we start out with a feel for the language in choosing words to express the big feelings or thoughts that we have.  Literary tricks, poetic meter and rhythm, and even the use of foreign language can help in trying to express what we feel.  A writer should be free to pull out all the stops to illuminate an idea.  That said, the writer would already have a good grasp of language and grammar.

  3. Frightened American
    David John: Clarity and precision are paramount.

    E.g., and to a point of contention relevant to Ricochet, I regret the loss of 2nd person singular, “thou”. This has led to subtle confusion and conflation of the individual and society.

    The King James version of the Bible reads, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,… These are commandments to the individual, “thou”. Subtly and perversely, You shall not steal, You shall not lie,… can be understood as Ye shall not steal, Ye shall not lie,… collective notions.

    Thus, the likes of Michael Moore claim that socialism is like Christianity, But Christianity  stresses individual responsibility.

    I’m developing a paper on this… comments and suggestions are very welcome. · 7 hours ago

    Edited 7 hours ago

    My son, a junior in high school, recently learned something in class that I found interesting, please tell me if it’s correct.  “Thou” was the form that one in authority used to address a subordinate.  Thoughts?

  4. KC Mulville
    masscon

    My son, a junior in high school, recently learned something in class that I found interesting, please tell me if it’s correct.  “Thou” was the form that one in authority used to address a subordinate.  Thoughts?

    You and thou have gone back and forth between the formal and the familiar. Ultimately, English just plain dropped the distinction.

  5. flownover

    Rik Hertzberg is Ackley .

  6. TucsonSean

    Just as a nation without borders is not a nation, a language without a prescriptive dictionary is not a language.  I hate websters third.

  7. Mickerbob

    A facinating subject…

    I am currently reading “Freedom’s Forge” by Arthur Herman and while I find the book to be a great read, I was caught off guard by his use of the term, “willy-nilly.”  I wanted to throw a penalty flag for just such a violation.

  8. Astonishing

    It seems like you’re saying that the dictionary must follow the meaning that exists by usage, rather than the dictionary dictating the meaning and the way words can or should be used.

    That seems necessary, because a dictionary cannot capture all the possible meanings and uses of a word. Meaning is inseparable from usage. Every time a word is used it has a “new” meaning peculiar to the context. All a dictionary can do is give vague clues about the range of meanings and uses of a word. The amazing thing, the really miraculous thing, is how the human brain can sort through the vagueness of language to find meaning in a flash.

  9. Indaba

    6 children – congratulations to your mother. How wonderful to be from a large family.

    It is difficult to be the last authority on any subject it seems.

  10. Rachel Lu
    C

    Anyone who hasn’t should read Simon Winchester’s “The Professor and the Madman”, all about the making of the OED. A delightful read, and gives som nice perspective on dictionaries.

  11. David John

    Clarity and precision are paramount.

    E.g., and to a point of contention relevant to Ricochet, I regret the loss of 2nd person singular, “thou”. This has led to subtle confusion and conflation of the individual and society.

    The King James version of the Bible reads, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,… These are commandments to the individual, “thou”. Subtly and perversely, You shall not steal, You shall not lie,… can be understood as Ye shall not steal, Ye shall not lie,… collective notions.

    Thus, the likes of Michael Moore claim that socialism is like Christianity, But Christianity  stresses individual responsibility.

    I’m developing a paper on this… comments and suggestions are very welcome.

  12. Nanda Panjandrum

    Welcome, David…I eagerly await your further posts!

  13. Annefy

     Delightful. 

    Keep us posted David John. Sounds fascinating. Your subject is a favorite of mine. 

  14. Amy Schley
    David John:

    E.g., and to a point of contention relevant to Ricochet, I regret the loss of 2nd person singular, “thou”. This has led to subtle confusion and conflation of the individual and society.

    The King James version of the Bible reads, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,… These are commandments to the individual, “thou”. Subtly and perversely, You shall not steal, You shall not lie,… can be understood as Ye shall not steal, Ye shall not lie,… collective notions.

    Thus, the likes of Michael Moore claim that socialism is like Christianity, But Christianity  stresses individual responsibility.

    I’m developing a paper on this… comments and suggestions are very welcome. · 38 minutes ago

    Edited 36 minutes ago

    I would also, as part of this paper, explore how the KJV editors deliberately chose “thou” the informal, singular 2nd person pronoun for God, yet as “thou” vanished from English in favor of the more egalitarian “you,” Christians began assuming that “thou” must mean the formal 2nd person. To call God “thou” is not a word of solemn respect for authority, but rather a term of endearment for a close Companion.

  15. KC Mulville

    Years ago, my wife bought me a book of word histories (the current edition here). 

    Every bathroom should have two books in reach; the most recent year’s almanac, as well as the book of word histories. 

  16. Ross C

    You do not mention the OED and its reliance on usage changes over time rather than a fixed definition of words.

    I have a paper OED (the kind with the magnifier) and though I love the way they track the usage of the words over time.  I get a bit of a charge when I come across a particularly old reference.  However, I kind of hate the magnifier and bulky book and wish I had the online version.

    Also, with the explosion of “print” it seems like they have an impossible task of tracking every distinct usage of a word going forward.

  17. Ross C

    And slightly off the subject, how did “not optimal” or “less than optimal” or “not helpful” or “not acceptable” work their way into our political lexicon such as they are?

    Aren’t “bad”, “poor”, “evil”, and “horrific” still usable?

  18. Richard Finlay

    Okay, so usage is the ultimate determinate of language against which formal prescription struggles mostly in vain, but if prescription can influence usage (as it certainly has done, as evidenced by the way I speak and write), hasn’t it self-justified?

  19. Indaba
    Rachel Lu: Anyone who hasn’t should read Simon Winchester’s “The Professor and the Madman”, all about the making of the OED. A delightful read, and gives som nice perspective on dictionaries. · 18 hours ago

    I was given this book as a gift and thoroughly enjoyed it. 

  20. Chris Johnson

    Ahhhh, usage.  If enough people jump off a bridge, we should follow.

    For example, “dissection”.  Oh how those that have never really taken up dissection love to use that word, while pronouncing it as if they were cutting an animal in half (bisection).  They might chafe if usage by others required them to accept that disappear and dissemble were pronounced as they pronounce dissection.  However, today, the incorrect pronounciation is now dominant, merely because so many say it as they have heard it from people that ignore the actual spelling or etymology.

    It isn’t useful to say it incorrectly, as it robs the word of meaning.  It is now pronounced as if it means halving, whereas it truly means the teasing apart into multiple components.  The “usage” prounciation brings to mind a cleaver, not tweezers.

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