November 26, 2007

language museums?

Loosely tied to the recent (August 2007) publication of a new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (if you don't have it, get it, it's the best dictionary you can get for the price), the Times has an article on the whole OED enterprise, in which Edward Rothstein focuses on what is not exactly news in the world of lexicography: Dictionaries are not museums for words, and lexicographers are not language watchdogs in the stickler sense, they document language usage, they don't sneer at it. To quote from the preface to the 2nd edition of the OED:
The aim of this Dictionary is to present in alphabetical series the words that have formed the English vocabulary from the time of the earliest records down to the present day, with all the relevant facts concerning their form, sense-history, pronunciation, and etymology. It embraces not only the standard language of literature and conversation, whether current at the moment, or obsolete, or archaic, but also the main technical vocabulary, and a large measure of dialectal usage and slang. Its basis is a collection of several millions of excerpts from literature of every period amassed by an army of readers and the editorial staff. Such a collection of evidence - it is represented by a selection of about 2,400,000 quotations actually printed - could form the only possible foundation for the historical treatment of every word and idiom which is the raison d'ĂȘtre of the work. It is generally recognized that the consistent pursuit of this method has worked a revolution in the art of lexicography.
This has been the OED's mission since its inception. Therefore, it's somewhat surprising that Rothstein makes it look as if some radical changes have happened between now and then.

Much has changed since then, when Walter Scott — now a literary wraith — was the dictionary’s second most-quoted English writer after Shakespeare. And the new Shorter Oxford provides a telling example of those changes, reflecting, and partly anticipating, the transformations unfolding in the unabridged third edition of the O.E.D. (as the project is called). That new O.E.D. began in 2000 with the letter M, and, as of September 2007, reached the word purposive, each successive change made available for the dictionary’s online subscribers. (See

[...] included here are 2,500 new entries that treat language more as living menagerie than as natural history museum. Along with restless leg syndrome and flatline come more questionable entries, where use becomes the main criterion for inclusion. “Generic,” for example, has given birth to a verb that makes even appendicitis seem attractive: “genericize.”
I'm not quite sure what is so questionable about this. If not use, what else should be the main criterion for inclusion in a dictionary? Aesthetics? Whose aesthetics? The lexicographer's? As in the days of Samuel Johnson, who wrote things like "a ludicrous word" about words he didn't like? You may not like the verb genericize, and I may not like the metaphoer that an adjective "has given birth to a verb". Fortunately, it doesn't matter. Both exist, both are used, both are part of the language.

Or not?

But once description trumps prescription and currency eclipses timelessness, it becomes difficult to capture the slippery shifts in tone and fashion that accompany new words.

Let me stress again, that there is no such thing as a timeless word. You may think you know exactly what the word nice means. Fine. Look it up in the OED and you'll find that originally it meant something quite different, namely "foolish, silly, simple, ignorant". That's the beauty of the OED: It gives you the use of a word throughout history without implying that one is better than the other.

But the biggest difficulties are in the “ historical principles,” which seem to have become historical themselves — held over from the past, only to be jettisoned when inconvenient. This is clearest in the use of quotations. Of course the first O.E.D. was skewed in its choices, reflecting few writers of the 18th century, and offering a selection not fully representative of the language’s powers. But now the O.E.D. does not even pretend to offer “all the great English writers of all ages.”

And why should it? That's not the mission of a dictionary based on linguistic scholarship. Yes, Johnson's dictionary was a major cultural accomplishment, but it was also a reflection of its editor's tastes and whims -- unlike the OED.

Diversity becomes a greater priority. The Shorter dictionary has 1,300 new quotations from writers like Susan Faludi, Spike Lee, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Zadie Smith, and the editors emphasize their broad demographic intentions. This can be illuminating. I like, for example, the Shorter’s definition for “mook” (“a stupid or incompetent person”) with an illustration from Mr. Lee, “Who are you gonna listen to, me or that mook?” But in that case, there is also too little information: Only cross-references lead the reader to guess that the word evolved out of a racial slur.

Did it? According to the OED, the origin of the word is uncertain, and early uses don't confirm this claim.
The Internet is now the O.E.D.’s perfect home — as revisable and seemingly beyond codification as language itself. But the new O.E.D. also seems tempted by the unbounded possibility of that infinite revision, as if the very idea of a “treasure-house of the language” were somewhat quaint. And to that one can only respond with an exclamation that has just made it into the O.E.D.’s third edition: “Puh-leeze!”

Oh, puh-leeze, if you think the mission of a dictionary should be to provide a finite list of a language's "treasures", you absolutely missed the point. It can't be said often enough:

"The vocabulary of a widely diffused and highly cultivated living language is not a fixed quantity circumscribed by definite limits." (OED, 2nd edition)

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