The 2011 Award for the Craziest Idea about Dictionaries goes to…

by Toma Tasovac. Average Reading Time: about 5 minutes.

Even though lexicography and madness go hand in hand, insane ideas should be ideally kept out of articles about dictionaries. But, apparently, that’s easier said than done. One of the wackiest things I have read this year was a Washington Post column by Alexandra Petri, who went all axis-of-evil on the Oxford English Dictionary after its editors added heart as a verb (as in “I ♥ NYC”), LOL, FYI, OMG etc. to its word list.

Listen, Oxford English Dictionary. [Is she really talking to a book?] You are the Oxford English Dictionary. Do you know what that means? [Uh... probably. It's a dictionary.] That means that you are never, ever going to be invited to the hip afterparties, no matter what you do or how many asinine “initialisms” you say are words. [Well, very few books get invited to afterparties, dictionaries are no exception.] You are not going to get to hang with Miley. [Who the fudge is Miley? No, I will not Google her.] You are a dictionary, and you are supposed to be a watchdog of language, not the one handing ID’s to every silly neologism so they can slip past the bouncers. Stop trying to be cool and do your job.

The idea that dictionaries in the 21st century can still serve as watchdogs of anything is plain crazy (“of unsound mind; insane, mad, demented, ‘cracked’” but also “distracted or ‘mad’ with excitement, vehement desire, perplexity etc., extremely eager, enthusiastic, etc. — Note how the OED seems fond of scare quotes, just like digitating Joey in that classic Friends episode. I will return to the question of scare quotes in lexical definitions on another occasion.)

Of course, I could claim that Alexandra Petri’s infatuation with the dictionary as an arbiter elegantiæ is crazy also in the sense of “full of cracks or flaws; damaged, impaired, unsound; liable to break or fall to pieces; frail, ‘shaky’ (now usually of ships, buildings etc.)” But then again there is some evidence to suggest that Alexandra Petri is neither a ship nor a building. I think.

The crazy thing about this crazy diatribe is that A.P. can be actually quite funny. And I mean: intentionally, not accidentally, funny. When she tries to convey how awful it is that the OED has adopted words like “dotbomb” and “ego-surfing”, she says “It’s like a grandmother wearing glittery makeup and jeggings. It’s like Yoda trying to sext you.” She goes into full-crazy mode when she compares the OED to a pedophile hanging around with “people hundreds of years younger trying to seem cool”, but she wins back her mad-hatter sympathy points when she admits that she supposedly (or supposebly, as Joey would have it) lurks outside middle schools trying to catch the wind of the slang today’s kids are using because she is “still young” and has “no dignity to speak of.”

The debate over descriptivism vs. prescriptivism is old and well-fought. Sound arguments have been put forward that one has to differentiate between general dictionaries and dictionaries for special purposes in terms of how much prescriptivism they can bear. And a softer kind of perscriptivism — the so-called proscriptivism (proposing solutions, rather than prescribing them) — has been discussed by the mogul of monofunctionality, Bergenholtz, and others.1 But there is one thing about Petri’s (and other such) freakouts that I could never understand: why on earth would the presence of OMGs and LOLs in any way diminish the reputation and prestige of the dictionary such as the OED? It’s not as if for every new word, the OED would in the age of electronic lexicography have to scratch out something from Shakespeare. It’s not as if the entire lexicographic enterprise consisted of simply selecting and rejecting words. And it’s certainly not as if lexicographers were actively trying to be cool: they are too smart to think they could ever be cool.

A.P. and other Cassandras could find solace in the fact there are still many words that haven’t made it to the OED: sext exists as a noun (“one of the daily offices, or canonical hours of prayer and worship, of the Western Church, traditionally said (or chanted) at the sixth hour of the day (about midday)” but not as verb in the sense of sending sexually explicit messages via mobile phones. No trace of jeggings either. Thank God, the leggings are there. And also a legging, in the singular, which, according to the OED, is “making a ‘leg’ or obeisance” — note the scare quotes again, and “propelling a boat through a canal-tunnel by human labour”).

The authority of a dictionary should not rest on the number of words it has banned. Unless you are in North Korea and you have to follow the dead-as-a-nail-but-still Great Leader Kim Il Sung’s directives for writing dictionaries based on Juche-inspired principles of self-reliance, party loyalty, modernness, & scientific prescriptiveness. But even without Kim Il Sung (or slang or Twiterese or sexting), dictionaries can’t help reflecting the cultural and ideological values of their own age. Commercial dictionaries are not watchdogs of language, as Alexandra Petri would like them to be, but — among other things — gatekeepers of the mainstream. The OED’s LOL-braggadocio is neither about trying to be hip (I mean, seriously: what is hip about saying “I heart NYC”? Puh-lease!) or about shattering Alexandra Petri’s dream of lofty, dignified, bespectacled, leather-bound lexicography. It is simply a statement about the influence of computer-mediated communication (CMC) on general language use. No more and no less.

So, we can all chilax now. And wait for chilax to appear in the OED, between chikungunya (“a mosquito-borne viral disease of tropical Africa and southern Asia, marked by fever and joint pains of crippling intensity”) and chilblain (“an inflammatory swelling produced by exposure to cold, affecting the hands and feet, accompanied with heat and itching, and in severe cases leading to ulceration”). Now, wouldn’t that be ‘cool’?

Show 1 footnote

  1. See, for instance, Bergenholtz, H. and R. Gouws (2010) A functional approach to the choice between descriptive, prescriptive and proscriptive lexicography, Lexikos, 20(0): 26-51; Gouws, R. H. and L. Potgieter (2010) Does Johnson’s prescriptive approach still have a role to play in modern-day dictionaries?, Lexikos, 20(0): 234-71.

3 comments on ‘The 2011 Award for the Craziest Idea about Dictionaries goes to…’

  1. [...] Next » I have become very interested in the (pre)history of electronic lexicography — the dark ages before the Internet, Twitter and Justin Bieber shook us to the core and made us who we are today: polycentered, posthuman and still desperately trying to get our hands on Justin’s One Less Lonely Girl nail-polish collection for Nicole by OPI (based on a novel by Sapphire). [...]

  2. [...] the dictionary as a source of ultimate authority on all questions of meaning. I am personally very fond of delusions: there is something cozy and reassuring about expecting that somebody else has all the answers. So, [...]

  3. Stuart says:

    Ah, Juche. I always smile when I see that word, fond memories of laughing hysterically as I read a half a dozen of so of Kim Il Sung’s masterpieces. Not at all funny for the victims of that madness, but for a 17-year old far away, hilarious stuff.

Leave a Reply