September 27, 2011

On Language

Sadly, Ben Zimmer's column "On Language" has disappeared from the NYT Magazine, but this week,  something very much like it was published in the magazine, albeit under the label "essay." Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg reminiscences over the uproar caused by the decidely descriptive approach of Merriam-Webster's  Third New International Dictionary, which came out 50 years ago and which, according to Nunberg, "signaled a turning point in Ameri can attitudes about language."
...it was widely denounced for what critics viewed as a lax admissions policy: it opened its columns to parvenus like “litterbug” and “wise up,” declined to condemn “ain’t,” and illustrated its definitions with quotations from down-market sources like Ethel Merman and Betty Grable. That was reason enough for The Times to charge that Merriam had “surrendered to the permissive school” and that the dictionary’s “say as you go” approach would surely accelerate the deterioration already apparent in the language. 
Today, there's enthusiasm rather than outrage when a dictionary goes "permissive" and, for example, includes acronyms like "OMG," thereby elevating them to the status of real words (whatever that may be) in the eye of the public. Merriam-Webster even included "staycation," which I still have to hear a real person use in a real conversation. Nunberg drily puts it this way "A lot of these items will expire before your hamster does." But while they live, a dictionary is their display case.

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