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Wordsleuth (2006, volume 3, 4): The Dictionary: Disapproving Schoolmarm or Accurate Record?

Katherine Barber
(Language Update, Volume 3, Number 4, 2006, page 47)

It is a common experience of lexicographers at cocktail parties (if the pressure of meeting their publishing deadline ever allows them to attend one) that people to whom they are introduced clam up, saying "Oh, I’d better be careful about what I say if you’re a dictionary editor; I don’t want to make any mistakes." Many people think of lexicographers as the eternal disapproving schoolmarm, ready to condemn whatever comes out of the poor speaker’s mouth or writer’s pen. In fact, many people believe that that is what lexicographers ought to do, and chastise them for not laying down the law about what people should and should not say. But if lexicographers were to attempt to prescribe usage in this way, they would simply perpetuate certain prejudices about the language, without having any foundation for doing so. We all have certain words that we like and dislike, for various reasons. But lexicographers would be inexcusably arrogant if they made a recommendation against using a word about which they have a pet peeve.

Furthermore, they might not have the same pet peeve as a person consulting the dictionary or may hold the opposing view on a controversial matter. Many people think of the language in very cut-and-dried terms of "right" and "wrong" usage. But what one considers to be wrong may have to do with some (often half-remembered) pronouncement of one’s elementary school teacher, not critically reconsidered since. Many people get agitated about a pronunciation that they themselves do not use and that they find irritating when other people use it. But how are lexicographers to magically agree on the one user’s favoured pronunciation and record that one in the dictionary as opposed to the other user’s? The word "harass" is a good example of this: the people who stress the first syllable are disparaging about those who stress the second syllable, whereas the latter group considers the former affected. What is a lexicographer to do? There is no law written down somewhere saying that one stress is correct and the other wrong. All the lexicographer can do is attempt to determine which is the more common pronunciation amongst educated speakers of the language group for whom the dictionary is being written, and give both pronunciations with the more common one first. Indeed, this is what the Canadian Oxford Dictionary did, surveying a nationwide group of informants on all words having more than one possible pronunciation. But lexicographers cannot on the one hand decide that they are going to record the pronunciation of the word "celebratory" as SELL-uh-bruh-tory rather than sell-uh-BRAY-tuh-ree because the former is what Canadians say (the latter pronunciation, it may surprise Canadians, is what the British use), and on the other choose to ignore the fact that most Canadians pronounce "schedule" as SKEDjewel (the dictionary also records the pronunciation SHEDjewel, because many Canadians do use the latter, but it would be false to suggest that that is the only or the "proper" Canadian pronunciation).

But, you might say, isn’t a dictionary’s purpose to instruct people on using the language correctly? In many ways, dictionaries do indeed do this. They record the generally accepted spellings of words, for instance. A dictionary will not have an entry for "skule" because, by convention, that word is spelled "school" in English. But "convention" is the important word here; over the centuries, and as a result of many historical factors, "school" is the spelling that has established itself. If some spelling reform (or even some organic evolution) were to take place that convinced the majority of English speakers to spell "skule" or "skool," that would become the "correct" spelling, just as "music" ceased being spelled "musick" a few centuries ago.

So, when faced with a word that can be spelled in more than one way, a lexicographer has to determine what the convention is for the users who will be consulting the dictionary. Serious lexicographers cannot just say "I think "colour" should be spelled with a u because that’s the way I spell it, and I think all Canadians should spell it that way, and anyway my gut feeling is that that is how they spell it." They have to take a conscientious look at how Canadians actually do spell the word, and when they have determined that "colour" is the more common spelling in Canadian published sources by a factor of about 2 to 1, they can then assert that it is the more common spelling in Canada, but that "color" is an established and therefore correct variant.

Another aspect of the language on which dictionaries give advice is grammar. What is the past participle of the word "get": "got" or "gotten?" I never use the word "gotten" myself; if I were a prescriptivist, I might decide that I should advise all the users of my dictionary to avoid this word because I myself do not use it. But I would be wrong to do so and would deserve to be laughed at by the large numbers of North Americans for whom "gotten" is no more an incorrect form of the verb "get " than "forgotten" is an incorrect form of the verb "forget."

Another statement that is often heard is "you can’t use that word; it’s not in the dictionary." But this is totally unjustified, for the notion behind it is ridiculous: if no word can be used unless a dictionary has included it, no new words would ever be added, for why would a dictionary enter a word that nobody has yet used? Dictionaries do not invent words; only when words are already being used do dictionaries acknowledge their use by listing them. A word may be in one dictionary but not in another, for any number of reasons. The notion of "THE dictionary" is unfounded; there are any number of dictionaries, of different sizes and designed for different publics. Most notably, Canadian words have been totally ignored for years by the big dictionary publishers, who are based in the U.S. and Britain. But try telling a Canadian that "tuque" is not a word.

Another complaint that people make is that the language is deteriorating from some previous golden age and that dictionaries should preserve the old meanings and resist any changes in language. Should we then define "girl" as "a child of either sex" or "silly" as "innocent," or "entrepreneur" as "an organizer of musical entertainments?" That is what those words meant when they first entered the language. People who make this criticism of dictionaries are very selective in the words for which they wish the "original" meaning preserved. But lexicographers cannot choose to treat some words one way and other words another way. They must be consistent in the way they tackle an entry throughout all the entries in their dictionary, which may total 150,000 or more. And there are in fact dictionaries that record the former meanings of words; these are historical dictionaries, and the Oxford English Dictionary is the best known of them. If someone wants to know what "silly" meant in Chaucer’s time, they need only consult it. But the OED is 20 volumes long and growing; a user who wants a handy, affordable, one-volume dictionary to help with writing a letter or a job application doesn’t want to plough through several archaic senses of a word before getting to the meaning required.

Other people say that the "proper" meaning of the word is the meaning to which it can ultimately be traced in some ancient language. English words have travelled a long and often tortuous path over the centuries, and it would be laughable to try and say now that the word "cider" should not be applied to non-alcoholic apple juice because the word from which it is derived in ancient Hebrew meant "strong drink," or that "cubicle" should not be used for enclosures in workplaces or libraries because it comes from a Latin word meaning "to lie down," or that people should take all their clothes off when they go to a "gym" because the term is derived from a Greek word meaning "naked." The meanings of many words in English can indeed be explained by referring to the language in which they originated, but that is not true for all English words by any stretch of the imagination. As for meanings, so for usage. Some people maintain vociferously in the face of all current evidence that "media" has to be a plural noun, because it is plural in Latin. Yet they would never suggest that "stamina" should be treated as a plural in English, although it too is a plural in Latin, and so it was when it first entered English.

Some people think this approach to dictionary-making is a shocking new departure, and that authoritative dictionaries, especially Oxford dictionaries, should follow in what they believe is an established tradition of prescriptivism. "What would Samuel Johnson or James Murray have to say?" they harrumph. What indeed? Here is Samuel Johnson, in the Preface to his dictionary:

"I do not form, but register the language; [I] do not teach men how they should think, but relate how they have hitherto expressed their thoughts . . . . With . . . justice may the lexicographer be derided who . . . shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation."

And James Murray, in his preface to the Oxford English Dictionary:

"The living vocabulary. . . is not to-day what it was a century ago, still less what it will be a century hence. Its constituent elements are in a state of slow but incessant dissolution and renovation. "Old words" are ever becoming obsolete and dying out: "new words" are continually pressing in . . . . There are many claimants to admission into the recognized vocabulary . . . that are already current coin with some speakers and writers, and not yet "good English," or even not English at all, to others. "

Dictionary publishers tend to promote their newest dictionary as "the authority," by which customers usually understand that it will lay down the law on the language. But a dictionary is only truly authoritative if it records a language accurately; a dictionary that perpetuates outmoded or fanciful standards is not authoritative, it is useless. Language moves on, it waits for no dictionary. Dictionaries must keep pace with the language or lag into irrelevance.

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