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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Oh, Gawd! A Dictionary and the "W" Word?

You've seen me quote June Casagrande on this blog before. She is a fountain of knowledge and the best little grammar researcher I know. Here is one of her humor pieces I thought you'd a. enjoy and b. get lots from. Thank you for guesting, June!

Dictionaries Gone Wild
By June Casagrande

Webster's New World College Dictionary does not contain the word "McJob." American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language's fourth edition doesn't have it, either. Merriam-Webster does.

Webster's New World does not contain the term "air quotes." American Heritage doesn't have "air quotes." Merriam-Webster does.

Webster's New World does not list "dead presidents" as a synonym for money. American Heritage doesn't, either. Merriam-Webster does.

Webster's New World does not list "accidently" as an alternate spelling of "accidentally." American Heritage does, which surprises me. But Merriam-Webster's choice to report this spelling does not.

Webster's New World doesn't list "Frankenfood." Neither does American Heritage. Merriam-Webster does.

In the introduction to his 2005 Dictionary of Disagreeable English, "grumbling grammarian" Robert Hartwell Fiske examines Merriam-Webster's judgment, as reflected in its 11th collegiate edition, to make two points: 1. that dictionaries need to be more prescriptivist and less descriptivist, and 2. that Merriam-Webster are attention whores.

His first point is hogwash. But his second point is dead on.

Fiske and I would not hit it off at a cocktail party. Fiske hates language liberals, of which I'm one. But my liberalism has its limits. There's a difference between free love and prostitution. And Merriam-Webster's ability to make the NBC Nightly News website has "toot toot, hey, beep beep" written all over it.

I don't have in hand a copy of whatever press release Merriam might have used to score this segment on the home page of a nationally respected news program. But based on my experience receiving and sending press releases, I'd bet dollars to donuts that it touted some of Merriam's quirky, "fun," headline-grabbing new additions.

Fiske says of Merriam-Webster's approach: "It's a marketing strategy. It's not lexicography." I agree. A lot of people might ask, "What's wrong with that?" I have an answer.

Imagine you're the sweet, slightly mousy wallflower who has decided to try speed dating amid friends' assurances of, "Just be yourself. Guys will see how great you are." And imagine you get there and see that one of the other women is wearing a soaking-wet cropped T-shirt and starting every conversation by singing a few bars of "Do You Think I'm a Nasty Girl?"

You may not try speed dating again, but if you did, you'd definitely slap on some mascara first.

When dictionary-making takes its marketing strategy to Girls Gone Wild extremes, they lower the bar for all dictionaries.

Yes, dictionaries should be descriptivist. They should document how people use the language. But at the same time they must bear in mind the responsibility that comes with the job. Once they "document" a usage, they have, inadvertently or not, sanctioned it.

This is a responsibility that, before we reached the apex of our our cola-wars culture, they handled quite well. But with Merriam-Webster setting the terms of the competition, that may not be the case much longer.

Merriam-Webster seems to operate on a, "Hey, we're just reporting it, we're not saying it's right" philosophy. But they know perfectly well that, inadvertently, they are saying it's right. They should stop cheating and get back in the ring with the serious lexicographers who compete for our dollars by aspiring to quality through editorial and academic integrity.

June Casagrande is author of Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs -- Even If You're Right. She blogs at

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success at Learn more about her other authors' aids at, where writes will find lists and other helps on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed June's guest post and, in most respects, I agree. But her own words illustrate the issue I have with her take on dictionaries and modern usage. She says, "I don't have in hand a copy of whatever press release Merriam might have used to score this segment on the home page of a nationally respected news program." The key phrase here being "to score." That's an entirely modern usage. Merriam-Webster allows for such use in its 8th (of 9) ion: ": success in obtaining something (as money or drugs) especially through illegal or irregular means." Webster's also includes it. "5. To purchase drugs illegally." But it certainly is modern.
Given that language evolves constantly, should there not be some form of respectable lexicography that captures and reports new meanings associated with old words? Just because a dictionary has a marketing strategy to garner attention (and, therefore, presumably some credibility and advertising) doesn't necessarily mean that it's a bad thing to recognize new meanings. I'll agree with the point that accepting bad spelling in such a context is questionable. But, let's remember that we allowed journalism to eliminate the last comma in a series solely in the interest of saving ink and space--thus money.
My point is simply that language evolves faster than I can keep up with it. I'm grateful for a dictionary source to check out meanings that are new to me.

Terry said...

"W" word (in my best air quotes) - Wow? Way-to-go?

This was a delightful post. In this modern era, dictionaries will always be playing catch-up, but that doesn't mean they have to replicate everything they see or hear. There is a great piece in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine about a young boy who asked his mom why the F word was so bad ... having Googled it and gotten a full history ...

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