Category Archives: correspondence

Stigmatized and Still Alive: English in the Time of “Ain’t”

School has started up back in the U.S., which means that my Facebook feed is full of quizzes like “do you have better grammar than this fruit bat?”, and not-terribly-funny e-cards about the Oxford comma. These are the bane of September, and I’ve come to treat them like I treat the swelter of July: if I lay down on the living room floor and whimper quietly to myself for long enough, it’ll eventually be winter and I can be a human being again.

This September, however, yielded up a special treat: my FuhBook timeline was full of links to an article titled “A Step-By-Step Proof That Happiness Depends Partly On Grammar.” So many BookFaced people were sharing this article, complete with comments like “YES, THIS!”, that I peeled myself off the rug to see what all the fuss was about.

The article is an intro and apology (in the Greek sense) for a book written by N.M. Gwynne, M.A. (Oxon). The initial-loving Gwynne is a retired British businessman-cum-schoolmarm, so I think I’m safe in calling him a priggish eccentric. His article begins with a proof[1]–”yes, a proof that really is valid!” he trumpets, likely while waving his arms about, wearings his trousers as a jacket, and frightening pigeons and children–that good grammar leads to a good life. Students of Logic, start your engines:

1. We can’t think without words.

2. If we don’t use words correctly, then we can’t possibly think correctly.

3. If we can’t think correctly, we can’t make good decisions.

4. If we can’t make good decisions, we’re going to royally screw up our lives and the lives of people around us.

5. If we royally screw up our lives and the lives of people around us, then we won’t be happy.

If you pulled up short somewhere between 1 and 2, congratulations: you have more sense than Gwynne’s publisher, who thought that a book based on this proof was a good idea (and no, it’s not part of their humor line).

Knopf’s press sheet for Gwynne’s book begins with, “The greatest danger to our way of life is the decline of grammar.” I read this and returned, face-down, to the living room rug. Not war, not poverty, not obesity, not hunger, not sloth, not ADHD, not corporate welfare, not social welfare, not an ineffectual government, not a giant asteroid, not $2 Chicken McNuggets. The decline of grammar. I put a pillow over my head for good measure.

The insistence that “bad grammar”–by which Gwynne and plenty others really mean “usages I don’t like”–will eventually lead to anarchy makes me want to burn shit down, man. Not only is it a pathetic attempt at fearmongering on the most inane scale ever, but history proves otherwise. It is possible for “bad usages” to thrive in ignominy, lexical bastards, without doing any damage at all to English.

“Ain’t” is a perfect example of this. No one’s quite sure where “ain’t” came from–some etymologists link it to the contraction “amn’t” for “am not,” and some to “han’t” for “have not,” and we know its earliest form was “an’t” for “are not” and “am not”–but it was certainly in vogue during the 17th century, when, according to some, Charles II of England decided to make it A Thing. Its origins are murky because it was primarily spoken: its earliest uses are in plays and dialogue from the early 1600s, including the line “these shoes a’n’t ugly,” uttered by a character sublimely named Lord Foppington. God bless those Restoration dramatists.

But by the end of the Restoration, contractions became verba non grata. They were “the deplorable Ignorance that for some Years hath reigned among our English Writers; the great Depravity of our Taste; and the continual Corruption of our Style” (Jonathan Swift, The Tatler). Thank the good Lord the 18th century had Jonathan Swift, a beacon of sense and taste and literary judgment (“an’t you an impudent lying slut”–Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella).

The disparagement of “ain’t” went on from there. It was derided as an Americanism–by a guy we let sign the Declaration of Independence!–and branded as illogical (“A contraction must surely retain some trace of the resolved form from which it is abbreviated. What, then, is “ain’t”?“). If negative contractions in general were a blotch on English’s fair complexion, then “ain’t” was essentially the flesh-eating bacteria of the 19th and 20th centuries.

To prove how horrible “ain’t” was, popular novelists like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and William Thackeray put it in the mouths of despicable, inelegant people–thereby perpetuating its use. It began showing up in other places: fixed constructions like “ain’t I” and “things ain’t what they used to be”; in letters and correspondence, where it was a mark of a close relationship; and in reporting and fiction, when the author used it intentionally to “down-talk” into a lower, more working-class register. In short, as vulgar as it was, people kept using the damn thing.

Finally, John Opdycke, a usage maven of the early 20th century, took matters into his own hands. WAKE UP, SHEEPLE:

WELL THAT TAKES CARE OF THAT

 

 

 

It was a strong statement, and though it took time, people submitted to Opdycke’s wisdoNOOOoooooooo–

Louis Jordon, you majestic troll, you.

Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby (1944)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Ain’t” has been maligned for most of its existence, and yet a great dictionary notes, “although widely disapproved as nonstandard and more common in the habitual speech of the less educated, ain’t … is flourishing in American English.”

You know what else is flourishing in American English? The rest of American English. In spite of the wrong-headed “ain’t,” a word that just about no one likes but everyone uses, we’ve still managed to communicate with one another beautifully. In fact, it’s almost as if people are able to use “ain’t” and still think clearly, act rationally, do rightly, live happily, and otherwise verb adverbially in a generally positive way.

That’s what makes Gwynne’s proof so ridiculous. There are people in the world who speak beautifully, whose powers of rhetoric and usage are keen, and yet who are nonetheless horrible people who wreak havoc in people’s lives. Yes, fine, Godwin’s Law invoked: I’m talking about Hitler. But we don’t even need to look that deep into the heart of grammatical darkness. We all know someone who is 100% orthodox in their grammatical opinions, spotless as a lamb, and whose life is still a shambles.

Let’s flip the proof: what about those of us with unhappy, messy lives? If my friend’s husband walks out on her, are you claiming, Gwynne, that it ultimately stems from the fact that she misuses “beg the question”? For I might take issue with that, Sir, and indeed claim you are a witless jackass.

I think English is pretty great, and I believe that she’s resilient and far more nuanced than Gwynne would have you think. But more than that: I think that people (for the most part) are pretty great and I believe that they are more nuanced than Gwynne would have you think. Perhaps for some, good grammar leads to happiness. I am glad for those people. I am also glad for the people for whom personal happiness doesn’t depend a good goddamn on grammar. N. M. Gwynne, who by his own proof must be the happiest person on the planet, who is so confident in his happiness that he states “I am on the point of making history,” has made, to my count, at least two grammatical errors in the dedication of his book, and yet he doesn’t seem any worse off for it. That might be proof enough.

 

[1]. For your great patience, I now present to you the logical proof that I discovered written into the back cover of my 10th-grade Geometry text book, and which I thought was so amazing that I memorized it and nothing else in Geometry.

A Proof To Establish How Many Legs A Horse Has

  1. Horses have an an even number of legs.
  2. They have two legs in back and forelegs in front.
  3. Two plus four is six.
  4. Six is an odd number of legs for a horse.
  5. The only number which is both odd and even is infinity.
  6. Therefore, horses have an infinite number of legs.

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Filed under grammar, peeving and usage, the decline of English

Editorial Correspondence: Introductory Paragraphs I Cannot Send

[For more on editorial correspondence, go here or here or most definitely here.]

Dear Sir:

Thanks for your email, in which you claim a “smirky blogger” has ruined English by telling you that the rule regarding the use of “that” and “which” is not based on actual usage. I’m the smirky blogger in question (though technically I’m a vlogger) and that’s not a smirk, but a medical condition. Thank you for bringing up such a painful subject; I hope I can be helpful.

—————

Dear Sir:

Thanks for your all-caps email. I must confess I had a hard time following your complaint about the existence of the world “self-abuse” due to the tremendous pile-up of gerunds in your primary paragraph. “Immediately stressing and so much annoying damaging” indeed. This paragraph on masturbation is a form of masturbation in and of itself, and I congratulate you on this subtlety.

—————

Dear Ma’am:

Thanks for your complaint about our app and your request for a free app upgrade as a consolation prize for hating our app so much. Your email was forwarded to me for response, which is a pity, because someone else would have deffers been nicer to you than I am about to be.

—————

Dear Ma’am:

Thanks for your lengthy email about the meaning of the word “agnostic.” It’s an astonishing piece of writing in that it hardly uses any punctuation at all. But its real genius is that it delivers an almost-convincing argument that agnosticism is atheism is pantheism. I mean, wow: well done. Not many self-proclaimed agnostics can go from claiming that agnostics simply cannot know whether any deity at all exists to claiming that agnostics therefore worship no gods and all gods, which are in all things/everywhere. Before I respond to your request to change all the meanings of these words in all dictionaries throughout space and time, let me quote some Monty Python at you: “There’s nothing an agnostic can’t do if he doesn’t know whether he believes in anything or not.”

—————

Dear Sir:

Thanks for your response. I am sorry to hear that the last person you were corresponding with was a crazy, unreasonable asshole, but I am not surprised in the least: the last person you were corresponding with was me. Since we’ve got a dynamic going, I hope you won’t mind if I continue to be crazy and unreasonable.

—————

Dear Sir:

Thanks for your email. I’m impressed that you want to create your own dictionary and have therefore compiled a list of all the science words in our dictionaries. That said, I have to laugh at your suggestion that perhaps we define them for you, since defining is a major waste of your time. I’ll get our top editors on that right away: after all, we live for doing our jobs for no pay, no recognition, and in violation of our in-house ethics code and common sense. Hey, look at that, it’s already done! It’s called the Collegiate Dictionary and you can put your name on it for $155 million dollars.

—————

Dear Student:

Thanks for your complaint that we don’t supply you with enough example sentences so you can complete your vocabulary homework without any effort on your part. Haha, YA BURNT!

—————

Look, Guy:

This is the third time I’ve written back to tell you that we will not remove “spoon” from the dictionary. I don’t know why you keep writing, but I am really enjoying the amped-up hysteria and poutrage in this last email you’ve sent. Do you think you can wear me down by force of will or by repeatedly throwing an e-tantrum? Tant pis, si triste, mon ami: I am a lexicographer. I am impervious, placid, unfeeling as stone, and I care not a whit that I hurt your widdle fee-fees by refusing to comply with what is a patently stupid request. I am happy, however, to go one more round with you because I have nothing better to do, I’m sure.

—————

Dear Richard from Toronto:

There are two ways to write a stranger and express your admiration for their work (in this case, the video series on the M-W site). The first is to focus on the content of the piece, thank the presenter for teaching you something new, and then express hope that we will continue to do such good work. The second is to send a slobbery, grunting note that ignores the content completely and instead praises (if that’s the word I want to use here) that presenter’s hair/eyes/makeup/wardrobe/body in fetishistic detail. Notes written in the first mode get a nice little response. Notes written in the second mode get passed around the office as an example of a) how amazing humanity is in the wrong sort of way, and b) why no one else on the editorial floor wanted to do these videos. But since you sent a love letter that began with an in-depth analysis of how dowdy we were before we fixed our hair, wore better makeup, and donned “more feminine” clothing, I’m going to shame you by name on the Internet! Richard from Toronto, King of the Douchebags, you give troglodytes a bad name. Your note is an affront to good sense, good grammar, and just plain good. As we say where I’m from, I wouldn’t piss on ya if you were on fire. OMG, OMG, look: I noticed you! Why are you butthurt that I noticed you? Isn’t that what you wanted? Why would you write in if you didn’t want me to notice you, YOU TEASE?

—————

Dear Ma’am:

Thanks but no thanks for your email.

—————

 

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Filed under correspondence

In Defense of Talking Funny

[Ed. note: Five months! I know. My (very poor) excuse is that I was working on another big project that I can’t tell you about yet. In the meantime, here’s an extra-long post to pay you back for the extra-long wait.]

I was talking with a friend–well, a “friend”–about some of the videos we were about to shoot for M-W. We were at a crowded, chichi restaurant, the type of place where the waiters pull your chair out for you and ask if you want sparkling, still, or mineral water. In short, a place far above my usual grab-and-go, paper-napkins milieu. A place where it behooves you to not only look smart, but sound smart. A place where you’d use the word “behoove.”

So I was behooving, using some expansive vocabulary and trying not to think about how I was paying $12 for a glass of wine when I can buy a whole bottle of it for $12 at my local discount booze shack, when my friend interrupted me. “You’re saying that wrong.”

It was the cliché record scratch, a loud fart in church. “What?”

“‘Towards’. You’re saying it oddly– ‘TOE-wards’. It’s ‘TWARDS’.”

I blinked and dropped a forkful of frisée-glacé-reduction-foofaraw down my shirt. “It is?”

He looked unnerved: the English language is supposed to be my area of expertise. “It’s pronounced ‘TWARDS’. I mean, right? Here, we’ll ask the waiter.”

My stomach hit my shoes. “No, no, I’ll take your word for it.” And we attempted to go back to the conversation we had before I started talking about the videos. I say “attempted”: we did, in fact, have more conversation, though I don’t recall much of what was said. I was just trying to avoid saying the word “towards.”

Fast-forward a week and I’m sitting in the back conference room at Merriam-Webster. We’re two hours into my portion of the video shoot. Though we’re using “cool lights,” it’s 100 degrees in the room; my throat is raw; I am wearing enough makeup to cover the surface of the moon; my antiperspirant has long since given up the pH-balanced ghost and I am sweating through my clothes. I know that we are fast approaching the tipping point when I will end up slipping into complete incoherence and blinking idiocy, the point when I will not be able to say my very own name without getting it wrong, which means we need to finish this script quickly, quickly.

It is, of course, the script that features the word “towards.”

My reserves, which are naturally on the scanty side when you put me in front of a camera, were very low as we started. I tried to relax as I came up on “towards,” but I could feel my stomach tighten. “That’s the one that etymologists lean oh oh oh I am so ashamed I’ve been saying this word wrong my entire life how is that possible now is my chance to get it right  TWAAAAAAARDS,” I brayed like Balaam’s ass.

The director looked out from behind the monitor. “Um, okay,” she laughed. “Let’s try that again?”

It took five more takes, each sounding slightly less asinine before we moved on to the next script. Even now, I can’t watch the video because there is still a hint of ohmigod, ohmigod in my eyes as I say “towards.”

We finished; I raced back upstairs to the burlap comfort of my cubicle; I pulled up the entry for “towards” in the Online Dictionary.

hee-haw, motherfuckers I put my head down on my desk in relief. “I knew it,” I whispered, prompting my long-suffering cubicle mate to mutter, “I’m sure you did.”

Dialects are a funny thing: everyone speaks one, but we only notice them when they’ve been dislocated. They’re part of the reason why we have five listed pronunciations of “towards” in the Online Dictionary; they’re the birthplace of words both loved (“kerfuffle”) and despised (“irregardless”); they’re the linguistic air we live and move and have our being in. 

To get technical, dialects are varieties of a language that have their own set of speakers with their own vocabulary, grammatical rules, and accent, and they can be regional, socioeconomic, ethnic,  tonal, and even a combination thereof. American English has eight major dialects–or 24, or hundreds, depending on who you ask and what they define as a “dialect.” Most of us don’t just speak a dialect, but switch between several depending on where, why, and how we are. And this is frustrating for the people who think that language shouldn’t be bound by culture, era, or region: that one kind of English (usually theirs) is good enough for every single English speaker in the world, all the time.

You know what I mean. You’re on the bus, heading home from work. Some people are reading; some people are talking on their phones; some people are having loud, shrieking conversations with each other. (I am leaning against the window, hoping the swaying of the bus will jostle my after-work brain back into place.) Two teenagers are talking:

“Yeah, I aks him, how many tesses you gonna give us? And he’s all, I ain’t tell you that!”

“We better not have no tesses on Wednesday. I workin’ Tuesdays.”

“I hear that.”

At this point, I will close my eyes, because there will be at least one person on the bus (and usually it turns out to be the person sitting next to me) who will crane their neck to verify that the teens in question are black, and then will turn to me and sneer, “God, don’t they teach English anymore?”

I will keep my eyes closed, because I do not want to have this conversation right now. I do not want to open my eyes and stare sweet, smiling death at this person and inform them that what the teenagers are speaking is, in fact, English. I do not want to try to explain to this person–a person who is, no doubt, just as tired and carsick as I am–that the teenagers are speaking a dialect called African American Vernacular English, that the dialect is actually a rich and complex (albeit controversial) one, and that if the listener doesn’t like listening to AAVE, then they can stop eavesdropping on a conversation that doesn’t involve them.

Languages are made up of dialects. They fit together like jigsaw puzzles: remove one or two pieces and you’ll still be able to see the whole image, but the picture is incomplete nonetheless and you’re definitely not getting more than $0.50 for it at a garage sale. Oh, of course, you nod, dialects GOOD–and yet there are likely dialects you’d be happy to lose between the couch cushions or down the heating vent. It’s easy to decry the banning of a dialect you don’t encounter in a far-away school district; it’s much harder to live with the dialects that ride the bus with you. I get het up about dialect not just because I want dialects to flourish, but because, like most of us, I learned at one point that the dialects I spoke were regarded as uneducated or wrong.

I’ve lived the code-switching life. My parents spoke a combination of Western American English and Inland Northern American English; I went to school in a primarily Mexican and African-American neighborhood, where Chicano and AAVE were the primary dialects. But this is knowledge gained in hindsight: back then, I was a kid, dumb and free and trying to fit in. On the playground, I learned double-dutch and dozens; I’d use the quick, clipped up-talk of my Latin friends, then switch to the swingy, low-voweled cadence of my black friends. I called people “chica” and “homes”; I “-g”-dropped and /z/-swapped and had not a linguistic care in the world.

One day I was telling my mother about the school day when she cut me off. “Can you queet talkin’ like deese, because we don’t talk like deese? Drives me crazy.”

I was flummoxed. “I’m just talking,” I said.

“You sound Mexican,” she said, “and you’re not. If you’re not careful, your friends are going to think that you’re making fun of them.” It was my first introduction to sociolinguistics and the politics of dialect.

My classmates and I came of age before the Great Ebonics Controversy, but what boiled over in Oakland was simmering everywhere else. I watched my African-American friends split over sounding “white” and sounding “black.” One particularly nasty middle-school teacher told students that if he called on them and they spoke “improper English,” they’d receive a failing grade in class participation; more than once he told students to “learn the language we speak here in the U.S.” My friend Stephanie was incensed. We lay on our stomachs in her living room, doing our current events homework and talking about this teacher. She sneered, “I don’t need no old white man tellin’ me to learn English, ‘cuz I already speak it.” Her mother hollered from the kitchen, “I don’t need some, Stephanie. Some old white man.” 

Even my less-reviled dialect of birth proved problematic. When I moved east for college, I had to learn to code-switch again. I said “howdy” so many times that someone worked up the courage to ask if I lived on a ranch (no) and rode a horse to school (are you fucking kidding me?). If I let “well” slip into a polysyllabic smear, I could expect to hear someone respond with a “yeehaw.” I switched from “pop” to “soda,” from “sub” to “grinder.” It was in vain. “Wow,” my college roommate said to me the first time I met her, “you have an accent.”

“So do you,” I responded, and she riposted with exactly what I was thinking. “Nuh-uh,” she said. “No, I talk normal.”

Everyone, from the guy with the poshest British accent on record to me in full-on hick mode, thinks that they talk normally. And so they do: everyone learns language within a culture, a context, an era that is peculiar to them, and within that culture, context, and era, their speech is normal. That’s why, when we want to lampoon uncool parents in comedies, we have them either use the slang of their generation (“Groovy, man”) or butcher the slang of their children’s generation (“That plan sounds radical, my home bro.”) The language of their youth is outdated, and they haven’t mastered the language of today’s youth. They are linguistically out of joint, which leads to copious lulz.

People like to belong; the corollary is that we like to set up boundaries between us and them.  And so most of us struggle to accept that different ways of speaking are just that: different, not wrong. We’ve had a lot of correspondents write in recently to complain about Ebonics and how it’s ruining the purity of English &c. Ignoring the fact that “Ebonics” is a skunked and outdated term, used more to disparage than anything else, the complaints have touched on American-English spellings, the pronunciation of “nuclear,” and the existence of “irregardless”–none of which are unique to or markers of AAVE. Furthermore, lots of the constructions used in AAVE are also used in Southern American English. Are you sure it’s all AAVE’s fault?

The impulse to set up divisive boundaries runs deep: even though I’m a dialect lover (so much so that the first time I met a new colleague who grew up in Pittsburgh, I immediately pestered him to do the dialect, do it, do it, and wouldn’t leave him alone until he had), I’m not above sneering myself.

My youngest daughter is a crazy smart, crazy chatty girl who happens to have spent her formative linguistic years outside of Philadelphia. This means she has a terminal case of hoagiemouth: the odd diphthonged Philly O; the pronunciation /wooder/ for “water”; the way that she says the personal pronoun “I” as if she is reciting, in reverse alphabetical order and all at once, all the vowels we have in English.

One day I came home from work to find her playing videogames on the couch. “Have you done your homework?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she responded, “I’m done my homework.”

The cliché record scratch, the loud fart in church. “You’re what?”

“I’m done my homework.”

It’s a common construction in these parts: you hear every local with every level of education say, “I’m done my/the X.” And yet hearing it in the mouth of my daughter drove me–champion of dialect!–out of my goddamned mind, because so Labov help me, someday you are going to be in a job interview and you’re going to tell someone ‘you’re done your college education,’ and they are going to think you are a moron and you will never get a job, and then you will live with me forever.

That I code-switched as a kid–and was called out for not code-switching at home–was lost on me as I pictured this bright young woman, my baby, being called “stupid” because of that dialectal missing preposition. I tried to gently impress this on her.

She was unfazed. “Whatever,” she said, “you say ‘howdy’ and you got a job.”

“You just need to realize,” I fretted, “that people will judge you based on how you talk.”

“Mom,” she said, “I know.” Of course she knows: I’m judging her already.

Standard English (a dialect in and of itself, hey oh!) is the form of English used by the people with power and prestige, but it is a minority dialect. Most English speakers natively speak something besides Standard English. It’s also mutable as different groups with different speech patterns gain power and prestige. “Sunk” for “sank” was once derided as wrong, hickish, and uneducated in the U.S. Now it’s Standard English. “Aks” for “ask” isn’t illiterate: it was the original pronunciation of “ask” and appears in a number of American-English dialects. It’s ludicrous to think that the vast majority of people who use the “aks” pronunciation–people who, unlike lexicographers, go outside on a regular basis and have human interaction with a wide variety of people–don’t know that it’s not the currently accepted pronunciation.

So when you encounter dialect in the wild, instead of getting angry that another English speaker is ruining English, perhaps see it as a sign of acceptance. The speaker feels comfortable enough with you to let down their guard and speak in the most natural way possible. You might consider reciprocating. After all, we all sound funny and uneducated to someone out there. 

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Filed under general, grammar, peeving and usage, the decline of English, Uncategorized

A Compromise: How To Be A Reasonable Prescriptivist

Dear Language Peever:

Welcome to harm•less drudg•ery! You are here because you googled something like “literally killed English” or “different than is wrong” or “irregardless not a word.” Allow me to introduce myself: I’m that lady from the dictionary that made that stupid video about “irregardless.” Behold: I am a dread descriptivist.

Before you stomp off in a fit of pique, hear me out (if only because I used the right “pique”). Many people assume you and I are on different sides of the Great Grammar Debate–in fact, you probably assume this–but we have much in common. We are both carbon-based life forms with an Internet connection, and we both care deeply about language. And I know that you, a would-be prescriptivist, are sick of defending proper English to the hoi polloi and us hippie-dippy no-rulez descriptivists. I know this because this hippie-dippy descriptivist is pretty damn tired of having this conversation with you, too.

So in a spirit of bonhomie, I’m reaching across the aisle: I’m going to give you tools to be an informed prescriptivist and then let you go on your merry, doomsaying way, never to tell you to lighten the hell up again. Here, for your erudition, are the Six Steps to Becoming a Reasonable Prescriptivist.

Step 1: Learn what prescriptivism and descriptivism really are.

Last year, Joan Acocella at the New Yorker ostensibly reviewed a book by Henry Hitchings and used it as an opportunity to trot out that delightful old canard that descriptivists are “anything goes” hypocrites, while prescriptivists are the only ones who care about good writing and proper English. She was subsequently lambasted by just about everyone, which compelled the New Yorker to publish a follow-up article that was not only equally wrongheaded, but was updated with a ludicrous caveat in an attempt to defuse the situation, then un-updated to un-defuse a non-situation.

Here is why we were all in a lather over those articles: “descriptivist” is not a slur, and neither is “prescriptivist” a title of honor (or vice versa). They are merely terms that describe two approaches to analyzing language use. They are not linguistic matter and anti-matter, and when brought together, they will not destroy the universe in a cataclysm of bombast and “ain’t”s.  Good descriptivism involves a measure of prescriptivism, and good prescriptivism involves a measure of descriptivism. What good is a dictionary that enters “irregardless” but neglects to tell you that it’s not accepted as standard English? And how good is a usage and style guide that merely parrots rules with no careful consideration for the historical record of edited prose, or whether this rule does indeed produce clearer, cleaner writing?

In fact, do everyone a favor and just stop talking about “descriptivists vs. prescriptivists.” It’s a false dichotomy that only works if you construct a nonexistent descriptivist straw man as a foil to your upstanding-citizen prescriptivist (or vice versa. Prescriptivists don’t have the corner on language nastiness). For an excellent and well-reasoned take on descriptivism and prescriptivism, go read Jonathon Owen’s essay. I’d also recommend this very interesting discussion between Lane Greene (D) and Bryan Garner (P). If you want to see nerds break chairs over people’s heads, take your bloodlust elsewhere and go heckle a Scrabble tournament (wear a helmet).

Step 2: Learn what dictionaries actually do.

Something that really burns my proverbial biscuits is the musty insistence that dictionaries are the guardians and gatekeepers of the language, and when we enter a word into the Most Sacred Tomes of Webster, we lend it legitimacy. We’re putting our Seal of Approval on its unchecked use, which will eventually kill English.

If you don’t know what dictionaries really do, you can go read this blather, and please consider that people have literally (sense 1) been whining about the demise of English since the 15th century, long before English dictionaries showed up to ruin everything.

Step 3: Educate yourself.

One of the things I find fascinating about some self-proclaimed prescriptivists is that they hold to usage advice that professional prescriptivists have essentially given up on. “Stop using ‘hopefully’ as a sentence adverb! Sentence adverbs are the devil!” some folks say. But Bryan Garner, professional prescriptivist, judges that the sentence adverb “hopefully” is common in use and probably not worth the effort, even if some people still oppose its use.

The problem here is one merely of education, and is easy to remedy: buy some usage dictionaries. At least two, preferably four, written by both descriptivists and prescriptivists. Arrange them near your desk in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. There. Aren’t they nice? They are nice. NOW READ THEM.

Most modern usage dictionaries will give you a little historical overview of a contested use, and then will offer advice on how (or whether) to use it.  You will be surprised to discover that many thinking prescriptivists disagree in their advice, or pass judgment on uses that are so common, no one knows they are not supposed to be using that word that way (e.g., “above” as a noun, as in “all of the above”).  A reasonable prescriptivist critically reads all the evidence and advice they can, and then makes their own judgment.

Step 4: Remember that opinions and facts are two different things.   

My mother, bless her, claims that when I complete a task and holler “I’m done,” I am announcing to the room that I have reached a safe internal minimum temperature and hence will not give you trichinosis. “You’re done, are you? Should I stick a fork in you to make sure?”, she will tut. “You’re finished, not done.”

Alas were it so, but the historical record shows that “done” has been used to mean “completed” or “finished” since the 14th century. The “be done” construction in particular dates back to the 18th century.

Nonetheless, my mother  is of the opinion that this use of “done” is wrong, and she is welcome to that opinion. I am of the opinion that if I say “I’m done” and you really think I’m referring to cooking myself, then you have other issues we need to discuss–and I am entitled to my opinion as well. Both of our positions are equally correct insofar as any preference or opinion is “correct.” A usage preference is not a usage fact, and it should not be held as such. I prefer cake over pie and vanilla over chocolate; but cake is not empirically better than pie, nor is vanilla more correct than chocolate.  Even if science proved that vanilla is more correct, as I am sure it one day will, my preference for vanilla will still be just that: a preference.

Your personal language preference is yours, and it is unassailable. I can hurl citation after citation at it with my standard-issue Lexicographer’s Trebuchet, but a personal decision you make with and keep for yourself is inviolable. “I prefer to use ‘finished’ instead of ‘done’” is a statement that no thinking descriptivist will argue with, because you are not claiming it is a universal fact everyone should subscribe to. But saying “‘I’m done’ is wrong” makes what is an opinion into a fact, and baby, my trebuchet was built for nonsense like that.

Step 5: Realize that you are not the center of the linguistic (or actual) universe.

I have a friend–well, a “friend”–who feels  it is his life’s mission to let me know when I’ve used a word incorrectly. He will stop a conversation dead in its tracks to share with me that I didn’t pronounce “towards” right, or that I should stop saying “howdy” out here on the East Coast because it’s hickish. It’s not just that our conversations are stilted because I can’t finish a sentence without being grammarsplained to; it’s that he makes these judgments based on his own dialectal language patterns. His experience becomes the standard for what is right and proper and good.  In other words, what he speaks is Standard English, and what everyone else speaks is Really Wrong.

In a similar vein, I can’t tell you the number of emails I’ve received over the years that explain that “phat” or \NOO-kyu-lur\  or “irregardless” is wrong and shouldn’t be legitimized in our dictionaries because no one with a modicum of common sense, class, or education would dare use them. I also can’t tell you what my unedited response to this oft-repeated drivel is because I believe it breaks obscenity laws in 33 states.

It’s human nature to make our own experiences and beliefs the standard by which we judge other people and things. But it is, to be blunt, stupid to pretend that English is a monolithic structure that does not have enough room for accent, dialect, or register variations. “Phat” is slang and you shouldn’t use it in formal speech or writing: this is not disputed advice. Are you so presumptuous as to think that a conversation you’re having with the office supplies clerk about “American Idol” is considered formal speech, and therefore the clerk shouldn’t use “phat”? Are you so provincial and backwards that you honestly believe that someone with a southern US accent who may say \NOO-kyu-lur\ instead of \NOO-klee-ur\ is uneducated or stupid? Because y’all, where I come from, we reckon that’s elitist horseshit.

No thinking descriptivist is going to disagree with you when you say that certain words should not be used in certain contexts. But a reasonable prescriptivist understands that different contexts and times often require different types of use, and they tailor their advice to the context and the era.  The best practices of written English have changed dramatically over the last two centuries. Language is flexible; advice regarding its best use should be as well.

Step 6: Lighten up, Francis

Let’s say that you feel, despite the evidence I may put in front of you, that “decimate” should not be used to refer to utterly destroying something. That’s fine, assuming you’ve gone through Steps 1-5 above. But before you move in to correct the next guy who uses “decimate” to mean “to utterly destroy,” consider: is this the hill you want to die on? Do you want your legacy in life to be “That One Person Who Bitched Endlessly About ‘Decimate’”? Are you happy with a life that will be beset by smart-asses like me asking why, if you are so interested in so-called etymological purity, you aren’t also tackling “nice” and “frankfurter” and holy hell half the month names of the Gregorian calendar?

The core question here is an existential, not a grammatical, one: why are you a prescriptivist? Perhaps you’re a professional editor and you need to uphold a style sheet that demands you subscribe to dusty old shibboleths (some of which you may adore). Perhaps you’re a writer and you don’t want to drive your editors crazy. Perhaps you feel that championing best practices makes for better reading and writing. Hell: maybe you just like following rules. Those are fine reasons for being a reasonable prescriptivist. But if you are a prescriptivist because it gives you a sense of superiority and inflated self-worth, a little pillar from which you can spit on the idiot masses below, then you are the sort of prescriptivist that is giving prescriptivism a bad name. Maybe take up yoga?

Don’t get me wrong: descriptivists dislike bad writing, too, but try to put things in perspective. Yes, misused apostrophes irritate me, a descriptivist. Do I feel that people who misuse apostrophes “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave“? No, of course not: I’m not a sociopath. Do I cringe when people use “impactful”? Oh yeah. If I were editing a piece of writing that used “impactful,” I would very likely revise it out of the text. Does “impactful” make me want to blow up the world? No, not even on a bad day when I have to goddamned write the entry for “impactful.” It is possible to love the sinner yet hate the sin, even if that sin is “impactful.”

The English language is not under attack by barbarians, and you are not her only hope. She’s taken pretty good care of herself, all things considered. Her best practices have always prevailed.  In short: be cordial, humble, and hopeful. It’s so much better than being miserable  and insufferable.

168 Comments

Filed under peeving and usage, the decline of English

Editorial Correspondence: More Answers I Cannot Send

Dear Sir:

Thank you for your comments on the etymology of “Lego.” Sadly, we cannot say whether “Lego” stems from the Latin legere, nor whether, in naming their plastic blocks, the makers of Lego intended to call to mind Augustine of Hippo’s conversion to Christianity, in which he hears a child’s voice calling “tolle, lege.” We are merely dictionary publishers–the very antithesis of beloved toymakers. I would, however, wager that Lego is not intended to call to mind St. Augustine, particularly since Lego is a Danish company, and you no doubt think Europeans are all godless nihilists (though you can’t beat their godless, nihilistic public transportation).

——————

Dear Ma’am:

We are sorry that you are having trouble accessing the Internet, but I doubt it is because our website killed the Internet. The Internet, as you may know, is a series of tubes that are cats all the way down. Cats are remarkably sturdy creatures with nine lives each. Though math is not my strong suit, a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that, assuming each tube is stuffed with a thousand cats and there are a zillion Internet tubes, the Internet will never die. It is more likely that the Internet took offense at your desktop background of a cat hanging from a tree branch by its claws and has banned you. To regain Internet access, please forward this email to your ISP and make a donation to your local SPCA in honor of the tube cats.

——————

Dear Sir:

There are states in the US I’m not particularly fond of either, but that does not mean we will remove their names from the dictionary or, indeed, blot those states out of existence. I am sorry to disappoint.

——————

Dear Madam:

Thanks for your email about “sofa,” “davenport,” “couch,” “loveseat,” and “recliner.” We do not order these words according to the “understood hierarchy” of living-room furniture because we are more den people, if you know what I mean.

——————

Dear Sir:

Your response to Beleaguered Colleague was forwarded to me. I must confess I am quite overwhelmed at the sheer volume and variety of words your response contains. You must imagine that your response (touching on civil rights, the song “Happy Birthday,” the use of language specifically by humans, and legitimate rape) is so impressive that we will immediately acquiesce to your wishes to write a custom dictionary made entirely of your opinions about words. And you are right: we’re giving up lexicography. Merriam-Webster is yours to do with as you please! Thank you for taking over. Please note that my salary, in spite of what the HR records say, is $400,000 a year and I get six months of vacation. Also, who can I complain to about a hostile work environment? My new boss keeps going on and on about “legitimate rape” and it concerns me.

——————

Dear Ma’am:

We are sorry that the state motto of Maryland offends you. We’ll get right on that. What do you think of “Condita est a piratis”?

——————

Dear Sir:

Thank you for writing to ask why “litre” and “fibre” are “misspelt.”  Truly, this is the question of our age. Why is “misspelled” misspelt? Is spelling merely a fascist construct, designed to breed jingoism and linguistic isolationism? Or perhaps it’s a remnant of the bourgeois “education” of the oppressed proletariat classes–after all, only the bourgeois can properly spell “bourgeois.”

I propose this: spell words however you would like to spell them, and when people complain that they are misspelt, engineer a coup and overthrow them.

——————

Dear Ma’am:

Thanks for your comments on the terminal preposition rule. You assert that we cannot know The Truth about it, as we are not John Dryden and cannot possibly know what he was thinking. You are correct: we are absolutely not John Dryden, and are daily grateful for it. You also posit that, if the terminal preposition rule is really a myth, then perhaps English itself is a myth as well. I am afraid you have discovered the truth: English is a myth. We are all actually Germans trying our best to speak Latin. I believe the Internet will confirm this.

——————

Dear Sir:

This may be hard to believe, but the adjective “wily” predates Wile E. Coyote by about 600 years. In related news, roadrunners don’t actually say “meep meep,” and if you fall off a cliff and are crushed by a safe, you get more than a comically tall lump on your head. I hope this information is helpful.

——————

Dear Ma’am:

Thanks for writing and sharing with us what made you want to look up the word “tongue.” I really didn’t need (or want) to know all that, though. I hardly know you.

——————

Dear Sir:

I’m sorry that our correspondence has been so unsatisfying to you. It has personally been the highlight of my lexicographical career. I’m so distraught over the idea that we will no longer be corresponding that I may well quit lexicography altogether and go back to my original plan to be a doctor. Perhaps the rigors of med school will distract me from my broken heart.

I will fondly remember our first correspondence, in which you called me “a machine-generated response.” It cut to the heart of me–I was losing touch with my humanity, it was true. How well you knew me, even from the outset! I resolved to spend more time outside and away from my computer. Your follow-ups were just as personal, just as convicting. “Yes,” I cried upon reading your next, “I am lazy and shiftless!” “Absolutely!” I agreed, “I am an idiot! Thank god someone has finally seen through me!” The truth will set you free, they say, and your emails threw off my chains and let me soar wobblingly (and no doubt with terrible form) into the sun.

I will miss your unfounded indignation, your terrible spelling, and your superior knowledge of everything. I would say I don’t know how I’ll get along without you, but you’ve anticipated me even there: a quick glance at my inbox shows that you’ve sent some of your protégés to keep me company. Bless you, Sir.

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Filed under correspondence, the decline of English

Tainted “Love”: Correspondence from the Heart

One of the top lookups during the second week of February is always the word “love.” People go to the dictionary looking for poetry and romance and a possibly sexy deep insight they can put on a $2.00 greeting card. Alas: they find a very boring and completely unsexy definition instead. In a spirit of generosity, some of them write in to tell us what we’re missing; below you’ll find a few unedited selections from the Merriam-Webster correspondence files on what “love” really means. (For a deeper discussion on the inadequacies of our definitions, I’d encourage you to read the Seen & Heard comments at the bottom of the Online Dictionary’s entry for “love.”)

                         

Love is intelligent, there is more to Love then a Hug and a kiss, love has many acts in life and has many roles. Love is characterful.

                         

you are wrong love is great untill it gets you scared, because you don’t know what to do

                         

The meaning of love in your dictionary is wrong. The meaning of love is the Jonas Brothers.

                         

I disagree with your philosophy and logic. It is Flawed. Love is NOT an Emotion but an action of giving of self for another’s benefit. There are only Two emotions that are within the human existence. I feel Good, I feel Bad. Everything else is an action that is derived from these two feelings.

                         

Love is the Word. The word is not out, the Word is in. Jesus Christ is the Word. The Word is in God’s love. And so am I by the grace of God. I am what I am by the grace of God. You need to put a definition of rimjob on your site.

                         

My wife once told me in the ’90s what love is among human beings. ” The unconditional giving of oneself to another, putting their happiness and fulfillment ahead of oneself” –[name redacted]  I thought, this applied to parents and infants, a soldier in a combat zone, among adults.  I believe this is the simple unified definition of love for all people.

                         

What is love? Devotion? Pleasure? An experience? Passion for an individual?

Some say it just is, as you see Evident! A conclusion! Just like a butterfly! Beautiful, Fragile, Innocent, yet breakable! It’s all upside down! A new beginning to an old end! A sad story for the times to come! Few scenes from my life where moments meant more than mere words! Controlling with moods, just an undeniable feeling you get when you are around someone you take interest in! Just like a burning cigarette with a few moments of misery to go! Affection and tenderness felt by lovers! Intoxicating, Nothing more than a physical and mental attraction based on a strong sense of a sexual desire! Others say it’s just a flaw in our human structure, a mere chemical chain reaction and nothing more! Love comes and love goes, and sometimes can end so abruptly just as the best part starts! A broken heart! That one way dead end road you knew you’d never leave! A passion for every passing second! A gentle kiss! in the calm of a moonlight sky! You see love is many things, but there is only one sure way to describe it! Mysterious! It just is as im sure you’ve seen, emotions, Just as you see anger is loves despair! I’m torn between silence and violent passion! It is nothing more than a fantasy! One wooden stake through the heart! A poinsettia in poison rain! A beautiful world in a nuclear field! Some sort of peace of mind! A beautiful somewhere! A day ill never see! That one thing we all hope to find, And to continue in search of our dreams for a sense of understanding, a sense that we can share! A past reflection! A goodnight kiss! A memory I can’t replace! A common sense betrayed by your eyes! So as it was written in the sands of time, tomorrow who knows where love will be forever more! It was a Warm October night!

P.S.  Will I get paid for this?

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Filed under correspondence, general

The Voice of Authority: Morality and Dictionaries

Last Thursday was a rare treat in our house: one of those nights where the homework was done early, the dinner was cooked by someone else, and snow was in the forecast. The evening stretched out, molasses-lazy. My eldest daughter sauntered into the kitchen where I was spending some meditative time with the pots and a scrub brush.

“So,” she began lightly, “I wanted to talk to you about your pottymouth.”

I hummed. She does not approve of my penchant for cussing.

“When I came into your office today, you said the s-word. Cursing is evidence of a lack of creativity.” It is always a delight to hear your feeble parenting parroted back at you.

“A guy said something stupid on the radio this morning and then defended it by misquoting the dictionary. I was just frustrated, that’s all.”

She whisked a dishtowel off the shelf and began drying pots. “Lance Armstrong?”

“What?”

“Are you talking about Lance Armstrong?”

“No. What are you talking about?”

She put the pot lid away before answering. “So,” she breezed, “maybe don’t watch the Lance Armstrong interview until after I’m in bed, okay?”

————————————

That morning, John Mackey, CEO of grocery chain Whole Foods, told NPR that he had been wrong to call Obama’s new health care plan “socialist,” as he had been doing for years. “It’s more like fascism,” he said, conjuring images of jackbooted Brownshirts roughing up old ladies and forcing flu shots on them. Not surprisingly, lookups of “fascism” spiked.

So did the outcry from the people who generally shop at Whole Foods–people my father would call “crunchy-nuts-and-berries types,” people who talk about sustainably harvested herring and know how to pronounce “quinoa.” John Mackey backpedaled, and twelve hours later was telling another radio host that he made a boo-boo as regards his choice of words:

I was trying to distinguish it between socialism so I took the dictionary definition of fascism, which is when the means of production are still owned privately but the government controls it — that’s a type of fascism.

I was finishing up my shift in the syntax mines with one more lookup tweet. Lookups of “fascism” were off the charts, and as I read the transcript of Mackey’s apology, both my mouth and the door to my office flew open. In popped my eldest daughter, and out popped “Oh, you have got to be shitting me.”

“Mom!” she scolded. Then, “Never mind, I’ll come back when you’re civilized.”

Later, while I washed dishes and waited for snow, Lance Armstrong appeared on everyone’s TV and told Oprah that he didn’t think that doping was cheating, and guess who absolved him of it?

He insisted that given the widespread culture of doping in the sport during those years, it was not possible to win the Tour without doping.

“Did you feel you were cheating?” Winfrey asked.

“At the time, no,” Armstrong said, explaining it with moral relativism. “I looked up cheat in the dictionary and the definition was to gain an advantage on a rival. I viewed it as a level playing field.”

Armstrong’s justification is laughable, of course, as is the reporter’s modifying clause in the final paragraph. We hear it and holler, “C’mon!” We may even check the dictionary, whereupon we leave a Seen & Heard comment at the entry for “cheat” that reads, “Lance Armstrong! C’mon!” But the fact is that appealing to an external authority to justify your position is, like the McRib sandwich and idiocy, an ontological constant: “the scriptures tell us…”; “the Constitution states…”; “my dad says…”. The dictionary is an authority, and so gets dragged into all manner of arguments.

“How come,” countless editorial emails begin, “you say that ‘biannual’ can mean ‘once every two years’ or ‘twice a year’? Stupidest, most useless definition ever! C’mon! Make up your mind! I have a bet riding on this.” When I write and say no one has won the bet, that “biannual” really can–and does–mean “once every two years” and “twice a year,” I often get the reply, “Whatever, tl;dr. Which meaning is right? I have a bet riding on this.” You can hear them grouse at their monitors: “Just pick one, Dictionary, because authorities do not contradict themselves. Once they do, they cease being authoritative, and you’re not doing so hot right now.”

Sometimes the stakes are higher. Ten years ago, we added a second subsense to the noun “marriage” that covered uses of “marriage” that refer to same-sex unions. Someone eventually noticed.

Outrage! screamed about 4,000 emails, all flooding my inbox in the space of a week. How dare you tell us that gay marriage is okay now?

I was not surprised, honestly: I drafted a long, thoughtful reply about how words get into the dictionary, noting that this sense of “marriage” had been used by both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage since at least 1921, and finishing with the caution that the dictionary merely serves to record our language as it is used. I spent the next two weeks doing nothing but sending this reply out to everyone and their mother.

The problem–because when it comes to correspondence on this scale, there’s always a problem–was that I was making assumptions about what sort of authority people took the dictionary for. I realize that I’m sort of biased since I’m on the inside, but I assume we all know the dictionary is only an authority on the meanings and uses of words. These particular correspondents, however, believe that the dictionary is the publishing arm of the New World Order as run by a liberal, elitist cabal who is out to destroy everything a rational person and the annals of history hold dear. To them, the dictionary is a political tool and therefore a back-door authority on life itself, and this entry in particular was evidence of a conspiracy to force us all into SCOTUS-mandated gay marriages with Ellen DeGeneres or Anderson Cooper. They responded accordingly: Noah Webster is turning in his grave knowing that his dictionary, our moral barometer, can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong. Some people were not so sentimental: “Drink a cup of battery acid and eat broken glass, whore of Babylon,” answered one correspondent.

I closed my eyes and pressed my fingertips into my orbital sockets until I saw explosions, then forwarded the email to our President. “Do I qualify for hazard pay now? And the battery acid comment reminds me that we’re out of coffee upstairs.”

What proof do people have that the dictionary is not merely a record of language? Plenty, my correspondents sputter: everywhere you look, people are citing dictionary definitions as justifications for all sorts of wrong things. “The Supreme Court uses the dictionary in making their decisions!” one of my correspondents warned. “The dictionary is an authority on how we live life, and our morals, and it’s a pretty piss-poor one in my opinion.”

This is true: courts will sometimes use dictionary definitions in their deliberations. But though I am not a lawyer, something tells me they are not basing their judgments solely on the dictionary. As for the dictionary being a moral guide, it never was and it never should be. We enter the words “murder” and “headcheese” into the dictionary, but that shouldn’t be read as advocacy for trying either one of them. 

One of Merriam-Webster’s marketing taglines used to be “The Voice of Authority.” In truth, it’s a tagline that makes me uneasy: it makes the dictionary sound like the fatuously beaming spokesperson for capital-A Authority, and all that a sneaky or powerful person needs to do to validate whatever shenanigans they are up to is align themselves with that mouthpiece, possibly appropriate it and use to their advantage. I’m not pointing fingers at John Mackey or Lance Armstrong: I, too, have gone to the dictionary in the past to defend my own personal and totally non-lexical beefs with someone (pray for us now and in the hour of our peeving). But the people who tend to point to a dictionary definition and defend their moral high-ground based on it remind me of the kids I knew growing up who would close their eyes, open their Bibles, and declare that whatever verse their finger touched was going to be God speaking directly to them. Sometimes they landed on “Be not afraid, for I am with you,” and they’d trot to the playground and tell Angela to “shut up, God told me he was with me and I am going to ask him to make you barf all over your dress because you are stuck-up and dumb.” Other days, those kids were quiet and refused to play double-dutch or Chinese jumprope; that morning, their finger landed on “Now Esau was a hairy man.” For them, the Bible’s primary use was for sticking it to that big idiotface Angela.

So it is with the dictionary: if some people treat the Bible like a holy slot machine that occasionally pays out big, then others treat the dictionary like the defense’s case-clinching surprise witness. People escort the dictionary to the stand and use it to destroy the prosecution: “The Voice of Authority says that government oversight of health care is fascism”; “The Voice of Authority gives/does not give gay marriage validity”; “The Voice of Authority says I didn’t cheat.” We go with this line of reasoning, but only up to a certain point: no one ever says, “The Voice of Authority compels you to eat headcheese.” In that case, we recognize that the dictionary is just a book that tells you what people mean when they use the word “headcheese.” No one in their right mind would think that the dictionary is in bed with Big Deli.

I lampoon “The Voice of Authority” at home– “Hey, the Epiglottis of Authority is telling you to quit farting around and do your homework now.”–but I cringe when I see intelligent people imbue The Voice of Authority with moral weight. In the preface to his very first dictionary, the 1806 Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster spends time highlighting the wrongs of lexicographers before him. In the midst of his genteel rant, he notes:

This fact is a remarkable proof of the indolence of authors, of their confidence in the opinions of a great man, and their willingness to live upon the labors of others. It shows us also the extensive mischiefs resulting from the mistakes of an eminent author, and the danger of taking his opinions upon trust.

It’s a passage I reflect on frequently when trying to explain that the dictionary really isn’t an unchanging and infallible dispensary of moral wisdom, nor is it a prop for your personal convictions. It’s a book that tells you how people use words. Noah Webster treated it that way; the Supreme Court treats it that way; we should all treat it that way. The Epiglottis of Authority means it.

_______________

UPDATE: Via this Washington Post article, I find that James Brudley (Fordham U) and Lawrence Baum (Ohio State) recently published a study on how SCOTUS has used the dictionary. The whole paper is available for free download, but the last few sentences of their abstract tell you everything you need to know:

Yet our findings demonstrate that the image of dictionary usage as heuristic and authoritative is a mirage. This contrast between the exalted status ascribed to dictionary definitions and the highly subjective way the Court uses them in practice reflects insufficient attention to the inherent limitations of dictionaries, limitations that have been identified by other scholars and by some appellate judges. Further, the justices’ subjective dictionary culture is likely to mislead lawyers faced with the responsibility to construct arguments for the justices to review. The Article concludes by offering a three-step plan for the Court to develop a healthier approach to its dictionary habit.

Both the article and the paper are worth the read, if only to find that in 2008, one member of the Court decided to cite the definition of “promote” from Webster’s Second New International Dictionary in writing a majority opinion. Webster’s Second, I hasten to remind you, has been arguably out of date since 1935 and inarguably out of print since 1961.

 

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Filed under correspondence, general, lexicography

No Logic in “Etymological”: A Response I Actually Sent

Today I got an email from someone who watched the “irregardless” video and was appalled (though in the gentlest and kindest manner possible) that I said “irregardless” was a word. It’s not logical! Just look at that sloppy coinage: “ir-” and “regardless.” Why, it should mean “WITH regard to,” not “without regard to”! Who in their right mind is going to use “irrespective” and “regardless”–both perfectly serviceable words–to create a synonym of each word that looks like it should mean the opposite of what it does?

I drafted the reply I wanted to send and saved it to my Nobody Knows The Trouble I Seen folder. Midway through my real response, though, I changed my mind: this guy needed to see the NKTTIS response. Something about the tone of his letter was bothering me. It was not, as these letters usually are, arrogant. It was sad.

English is a little bit like a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned light sockets. We put it in nice clothes and tell it to make friends, and it comes home covered in mud, with its underwear on its head and someone else’s socks on its feet. We ask it to clean up or to take out the garbage, and instead it hollers at us that we don’t run its life, man. Then it stomps off to its room to listen to The Smiths in the dark.

Everything we’ve done to and for English is for its own good, we tell it (angrily, as it slouches in its chair and writes “irregardless” all over itself in ballpoint pen). This is to help you grow into a language people will respect! Are you listening to me? Why aren’t you listening to me??

Like  well-adjusted children eventually do, English lives its own life. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like one of the Classical languages (I bet Latin doesn’t sneak German in through its bedroom window, does it?). We can threaten, cajole, wheedle, beg, yell, throw tantrums, and start learning French instead. But no matter what we do, we will never really be the boss of it. And that, frankly, is what makes it so beautiful.

Here’s the response for your erudition. (That is a fancy way of saying “for to make you smart”!)

Dear XXXXX:

I’m glad you enjoyed the video, which did indeed generate a lot of email. You raise a number of points, so I hope you’ll forgive the lengthy reply.

You’re right that “irregardless” is an odd blend of “irrespective” and “regardless,” but to jettison it sheerly because people “foolishly and incorrectly” created a blend without any regard to the etymological logic of the word is–to be blunt and etymologically logical–ridiculous. We’d have to get rid of thousands of words if we could only use the etymologically pure ones. I’m not just talking about the “to utterly destroy” sense of “decimate” here: “hangnail,” “apron,” and “pea” would have to go, as they were coined through sloppy misreadings of “angnail,” “napron,” and “pease”; “derring-do” gets the axe (or is it “ax”?) for being a slightly deaf phonetic rendering of Middle English’s dorring don; “airplane” is banned as a needless alteration of the earlier “aeroplane”; and so on.

Further, what do we do about those words like “decimate” that have dared to stray from their etymological moorings? Should we dump them, and if so, where is our chronological line of demarcation? Pedants argue that the “utterly destroy” sense of “decimate” is a modern invention, a festering boil upon the shining face of Proper English, but that particular use is 400 years old. In fact, most uses that people rail against are: shortenings and abbreviations go back to the 12th century, Chaucer created some highly illogical compound words, and Shakespeare verbed nouns.

As someone who spends her workday determining whether “however” is an adverbial conjunction or a conjunctive adverb and quietly cussing to herself, I appreciate that you want English to be a logical and tidy language. You’re not the first person to wish this, and you won’t be the last. Unfortunately, English stopped being logical and tidy about 1500 years ago, give or take, and no amount of correction will fix–or has fixed–this. And if I may go one further, all these horrifying and “wrong” words still have not managed to destroy (or even decimate, in the etymologically correct sense) the English language. It barrels on.

Language expansion, much like a good party, tends to be a bit messy. Happily, the English language is big enough for all of us. And if you take that sentence less as an expression of hope and more as a death knell for a much beloved language, well, there’s always Esperanto.

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Filed under correspondence, general, lexicography, the decline of English

We’re All Mad Here

Lexicography, as I may have mentioned, is a very solitary job, and as such, it generally draws the type of person who is delighted to work in near isolation for years on end and in silence so deep it makes monks fidgety. The lexicographer requires only the corpora, the pinks, the project. The only triumphant score that accompanies their work is the mouth-breathing drone of the HVAC system punctuated occasionally by a borborygmus rumble from the water cooler. From this quiet, white egg of industriousness hatches a rara avis in pasteboard plumage: a dictionary.

This is a conveniently trumped-up mythology. True, there is an overwhelming amount of isolation and quiet on the second floor of our office. But look closely at the egg: it is riddled with hairline cracks, its sticky insides only held intact by the taut, thin membrane under the shell. It has been slowly, softly battered, beaten with a million question marks: your egg has been done in by answering editorial correspondence.

You sign up for a job in the Scriptorium, and you rejoice: no more dealing with people, praise Samuel Johnson! Then once you are lulled into a sense of security by the HVAC and given your own customized date-stamp, we spring it on you: people will write in with questions, and you, our expert, will spend a little time each day answering them. Upon hearing this, some new hires slump like deflating balloons; some widen their eyes in surprise until you can see nothing but animal-fear sclera; and some blink furiously, as if holding back tears and recriminations.

I was a fool and just nodded. I was doomed.

With correspondence, as in all other parts of dictionary life, we specialize: science queries are handled by our science editors, the pronunciation editor handles pron queries (and by “pron,” I really do just mean “pronunciation”),  and so on. But there is a whole class of correspondence that is not doled out by subject area yet still requires special handling, and very few editors have the training, skill, and experience to handle this type of correspondence. I speak, naturally, of the nutbars.

Every profession has its crazy fringe, but the crazy fringe of lexicography is a blazing corona that overwhelms its dull core of fusion. They shine bright and write often. And sometimes they even have questions about the English language that require response.

The first time I was asked to answer one of these emails, I was so taken aback that I actually got up from my cubicle and bothered my boss. “I just got the email you forwarded,” I murmured. He spun around in his chair and looked at me flatly. I continued, “Do…do you really want me to answer this?” It was a mess of rainbows, numerology, political conspiracies, and religion, all wound tightly around one question: why the alphabet is in the order it’s in.

“Well, answer the alphabet question.” He paused. “You don’t need to address the correspondent’s obvious issues with reality.”

So I did. I wrote a little lecture on the development of the Latin alphabet and sent it off. The reply was immediate. “I was 5 years old.  My family gave me the encyclopedia about Infinity to become immortal.  I call upon Infinity from the book.  I lost the books and seeking info or someone that help me locate information on infinity and call upon it again to become immortal.  Please call me at number below!!”

I rubbed my face and gave silent thanks that I don’t have a phone at my desk. While I was trying to set my brain to right with deep tissue massage, another email came in. It was from my boss, and all it said was, “That was handled very well, Kory.”

I know my doom when I see it.

My own nutbar flavor has turned out to be the angry conspiracy theorists, people who think that the word “left” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word with negative connotations and is therefore offensive to people who are left-handed, or who read the entry for “door” and feel that it is Communist. I am tasked with sending courteous replies:

Dear XXXXX:

Thank you for your e-mail. We are sorry to hear you are offended by the travel ad on our page, but I can assure you that its appearance was truly coincidental. We do not keep track of your IP address, nor do we track your movements on the Internet and force our ad servers (and ad servers on other sites) to show you ads for international travel. We appreciate that you wish to stay without the boundaries of the continental United States for the rest of your “natural-born life,” as you say, but our ads should not be taken as part of a conspiracy to lure you away from our country. They are merely ads, nothing more.

Dear XXXX:

Thanks for your e-mail. I must admit I am confused by your assertion that our definition of the noun “camp” is a lengthy denigration of Elvis Presley. His name does not appear in–or even near–the entry. If you’d be so kind as to give me the full title of the dictionary you are using, I would be grateful.

Dear XXXX:

Thanks for your response. The title of your dictionary will appear on the front cover of the book, or along the spine. If you are not sure what words are part of the title and what words aren’t, it is safest to send me all the words on the front cover of the book or on the spine.

Dear XXXX:

Thanks for your e-mail. The pronunciation we give at the word “croissant” is correct. Though the word is a borrowing from French, the English word “croissant” has its own meaning and pronunciation, as do all words borrowed into English from another language, and the anglicized pronunciation has been in use since the late 1800s. I am not sure where you got the idea that George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress ordered us to change the pronunciation of “croissant,” but it is false.

Dear XXXX:

We do understand that you dislike the word “floor,” but we will not be removing it from our dictionaries as it has widespread, sustained use in current and historical English. I also regret to say that, even if the White House gets involved in the matter, we will still not be removing the word “floor” from our dictionaries.

Dear XXXX:

The dictionary search engine is a small computer program whose sole job is to analyze an input into a field (in this case, the word you are attempting to find an entry for) and search our database for an exact or near match to the inputted word. “Democratic” is given in the suggested entries list when you entered “democrasy” because it is orthographically similar to the word you entered. We can assure you that the dictionary search engine was not written by Bolsheviks, nor is it programmed only to return Socialist or “unAmerican” words, as you suggest.

My boss says I am unflappable–in fact, this adjective has appeared in every one of my annual reviews since I took up my citations and followed Webster. I have my own ways for maintaining the integrity of the mythic egg: I type out the responses that I dearly want to send and save them to a folder on my computer called “Nobody Knows The Trouble I Seen.” I craft marketing taglines out of some of the most offensive or ridiculous emails I receive (my favorite: “Merriam-Webster: ruining Steve Martin’s Christmas since 1843″). I also spend a lot of time silently mouthing “OMG” and “WTF” at my monitor.

If I am unflappable, it is because these emails are a reminder of my own idiocy: my memento morons, if you will. I am an expert on this hot mess of a language, a rara avis in my own right, but even I make dumb mistakes. And even further, I understand the impulse to rage against perceived authoritarianism and injustice. But it’s hard to picket the English language: it doesn’t have an office, it doesn’t have a phone number, and it will not respond to your petitions. Combine those factors, and it’s not that big a leap from “this word describes something I find horrible” to “the dictionary that enters this horrible word is horrible” to “this ivory-tower elitist is defending something horrible and NEEDS TO BE STOPPED.” Who doesn’t want to stick it to The Man, even if he’s made of straw?

We all tend towards our very own kind of crazy. Just a few days ago, my daughter was browsing the Internet and found a store that makes custom wedding-cake toppers. “Some of these are great,” she said, and I peered over her shoulder. One caught my eye: a horse in a tux standing side-by-side with a chimp in a wedding dress. “Oh, nice,” I harumphed. “Make the bride a chimp. Yes, just another fabulous portrayal of women.”

My daughter looked up at me with a face I recognized: the same “WTF?” face I make at my nutbar emails. “Mom,” she said carefully, “neither the bride nor groom is human. The artist is just having fun. She is not saying that men are horses or that women are monkeys. You just need to calm. Down. GEEZ.”

Lexicography is solitary, but humans are social creatures, and sometimes we need a good, hard “WTF is wrong with you” to bring us back to humanity. I blinked at my daughter and mentally tore up the angry letter I was composing. Memento moron, Kory: remember you’re an ass, too.

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Facts and Truth, Irregardless

It was such a lovely day. I was finishing up my work for the day and, about ten minutes before logging off, decided to post the most looked-up words of the day on Twitter. Those who follow me there know I try to have fun with the words when I can, because you should have fun with this crazy language. But there was one word that had been at the top of the list for several days and that I had been ignoring because I knew that simply mentioning it would cause a firestorm of controversy. But it was such a lovely day! It was sunny and warm, and as I weighed whether or not to post this word– this is not an exaggeration–two birds lit on the telephone wire outside my office and began to sing. I thought, “Oh, c’mon, Kory. Quit being such a moron. Just post the damn word. No one cares, everyone’s on their way home right now anyway.”

So I posted this:

You'd think I'd know better.

I hit “post,” left my desk to refill my water glass, and less than two minutes later came back to a bunch of responses that essentially all read “WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU, MORON?!?” Sighing, I looked out the window. The birds, sensing trouble, had buggered off. My eyes lingered on the sky; perhaps a satellite would fall out of it and crush me. A slip of paper caught my eye; it was a little inscription I came up with about a year ago and had presciently stuck on the window sash. It reads Aliqua non possunt quin merdam moveare, and it is Latin for “There are those who cannot help but stir the turd.”

“Stamper,” I muttered under my breath, “you turd-stirrer.” Resigning myself to another hour of work, I began answering the hate mail.

What got me sighing was not the response to that tweet, nor the fact that people felt strongly enough to tell me I was a moron. No, what made me long for sweet oblivion was the knowledge that, in a few minutes, I would once again come up against the Facts/Truth Dichotomy.

Lexicography deals entirely in fact–I know, the orgies, glitter, and drunken prescriptivism threw you, but it’s true. You spend much of your time as a lexicographer in pursuit of facts, and you spend the rest of your time as a lexicographer coming to terms with the facts you’ve just found. Recently, I stumbled across an early cit that led me to believe that  Shakespeare had coined the verb “puke.” A few hours later, Ben Zimmer told me that the Oxford English Dictionary had antedated it, so poor ol’ Willy was no longer the coiner (in print) of “puke.”  This saddened me–I really wanted Shakespeare to have coined “puke”–but the facts were in, and they were against me. What can you do in the face of facts?

Evidently, when it comes to words, their use, and their histories, you can just ignore them.

Let’s take “irregardless” as an example. Many people claim is that “irregardless” is not a word–but, see, the facts tell us it is. I have evidence of its use in edited, printed prose, going back to about 1912. It’s probably been in spoken use even longer. Now, the facts also tell us that it’s not generally accepted and that, if you choose to use it, others may think you are a dolt. But none of that matters to a bunch of my correspondents. One of them tells me it cannot be a word because it is a double negative. Another tells me that it is not grammatical. Another simply says “unacceptable.” How can you possibly have a dialogue about usage, substandard terms, the stigmatization of dialect, and whether context matters with people who have, for all intents and purposes, stuck their fingers in their ears and are yelling “UNACCEPTABLE” at you over and over again?

Why do people react so strongly? Because they believe these deeply held grammatical convictions are capital-T True. Remember the metaphor of building blocks I used in an earlier post? If I begin tapping at one of the blocks, what happens to that carefully constructed tower? It falls–and then what? I guess we all start speaking Esperanto or something. But if we glaze that tower in the unassailable veneer of Truth, then the only way to take it down is with an act of violence and aggression. Violence is never nice. Our little worlds are protected. Our existence is justified.

This attitude and response is not restricted to usage issues, of course. Most often I run into this attitude when it comes to etymology. People tell me all the time that they love etymology (and some of them even remember that it’s “etymology” and not “entomology,” which is the study of insects). Then they usually say something like this: “One of my favorites is the story behind ‘sincere’!” I force a smile and start eyeing the room for exits. I know what’s coming next: they are going to tell me that “sincere” comes from the Latin sine cera, “without wax,” supposedly because poorly made statues were rubbed with wax to hide imperfections and well-made statues were stamped with or advertised as “without wax.” They are going to spend several minutes relating this story to me, and I am going to have to tell them that it’s absolutely not true. If I take advantage of the moment when the hearer falls silent in shock and growing indignation, I may launch into a quick lecture on statuary in the Middle Ages, medieval methods of manufacture, or even the availability of wax to the common merchant. (I’m a medievalist, and I will take every opportunity I can to whip out that degree and beat someone about the head and neck with it, metaphorically speaking.) But I do this in vain, because the response will always be a variation on “But my PRIEST/DYING MOTHER/GOD HIMSELF told me this!” Suddenly, etymology has become a matter of loyalty. A trusted source has given me this information. And who are you? You are just some myopic boob in an office somewhere, not caring at all about the rest of us! What do you know about my trusted source? Are you saying my granny was a liar??

The same logic gets applied to contested usage. You say you have evidence that “irregardless” has been used since 1912 (fact). But it’s not a word because my teachers told me it wasn’t (truth)! I trust my teachers, but I don’t trust you, so I will disregard the evidence of its use and merely bleat over and over again that “irregardless” isn’t a word until you shut down your computer and pray for a meteor to smash into your office. Because if I trust you and admit that “irregardless” is a word, then why did I spend so much of my childhood trying to learn all these damn “rules” when I could have spent my afternoons getting to first and possibly second base with Jeannie Sucweki instead?? Therefore, and to make me feel like my youth was not wasted on stupid things that don’t matter, “irregardless” is not a word.

I understand this reaction so well, truth be told, because I struggle with it constantly. I am a displaced Westerner among New Englanders and everything I say is scrutinized for evidence of latent hickishness. I walk into the office and whisper “howdy” to the receptionist, and she looks at me like I have just stripped to my skivvies in the lobby and performed an interpretive dance. I used the positive “anymore” on Twitter once (as in, “People text anymore instead of calling”), and one of my colleagues was floored at my quaint nonstandard usage–which is completely standard outside of New England. Another colleague used to come up to my desk and ask me to say words like “drawers” just to lighten his mood. My vowels are all wrong, I add extra syllables to profanities when I’m tired, and I use “y’all” unironically.

And then, when I visit my ancestral lands west of the Mississippi, I am judged for my quick speech patterns, my new (undoubtedly elitist) vocabulary, my children’s East Coast accents. When I go out to eat with my parents and order a soda and a hoagie instead of pop and a sub, I am mourned over.

The longer I’ve been a lexicographer, the more aware I am of the gray areas of English. Etymologies change as we gain access to more of the written record. The given dates of first written usage should never be set in stone. Start delving into actual historical usage and you’ll discover that lots of the time-honored rules we were taught as children are nothing more than the opinions of a bunch of dead guys who wished we all spoke Latin. What’s a body to do?

A body can do what a body always does: speak and write the way we want to. If you think “irregardless” is a crusty, weeping pustule marring the face of English, then don’t use it. But there’s no need to act like “irregardless” is an untreatable cancer of the language.  We got through John Dryden and his asinine “no terminal preposition” rule okay–we’ll get through “irregardless,” too.

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Filed under correspondence, general