Tag Archives: underwear

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:





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.


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

“God,” Guns, and Group Defining

When people want to make small talk with me—before they realize that I am terrible at it and not worth the time and effort—they will ask what I do, and then sometimes respond with, “So, you pretty much know everything, right?”

I have just taken to smiling wearily and saying, “Yes, I know everything.” I have teenagers, and often enough they are happy to disabuse those people of this asinine notion.

No one knows everything, and lexicographers are just like the rest of humanity (only slightly quieter and perhaps a little more openly deranged). There you are as a lexicographer, minding your own business with “harpy,” when you scan downscreen to your next word and encounter “harquebus” in all its Francophonic glory. You flip through your mental card catalog of Words I Have Seen, find the one labeled “harquebus,” and find your memory has only written, “from a novel, maybe Count of Monte Cristo? Is that a novel? SEE ALSO: sandwiches I have loved.”

Fortunately, the lexicographer doesn’t have to rely on this mental catalog. The lexicographer relies on citations. But what do you do when the citations are less than helpful? Here, for instance, the citations are all variants on “She pulled a harquebus from her corset/stomacher/stocking and shot him dead,” which gives you nothing besides a genus term for your definition (“a gun”) and a ten-minute respite as you ponder whether a gun would even fit inside a corset—or good Lord, a stocking, wouldn’t stockings fall down or even tear under the weight of a what’s-a-hoozy—harquebus? And why are heroines in these novels always pulling weapons from their underwear, anyway?

You return to the citations with a sigh and a determination to carefully study the cover of the next trashy novel you see, just to observe whether the buxom, swooning lass’s dress has pockets in it or not.

The problem with “harquebus” is not just that the citations are maddeningly vague and all pulled from Harlequin novels. The fact is that the word “harquebus” refers to a very specific thing, and you need to know a bit about the thing “harquebus” in order to define the word “harquebus.” Or, at the very least, you need to know enough about the thing to know whether these particular uses for the thing are valid.

You do not know that. But fortunately, there’s a guy on the editorial floor with a thing for Renaissance-era weaponry, and he will know.

You know he knows because of a précis of wonder and beauty: the Specialized Subjects list. This is a document that tells you everything that every editor on the floor knows. It is full of surprises and is one of the best ways to get to know your co-workers without having to actually talk to them. Of course the senior etymologist “has at least superficial familiarity with most European languages, best within Slavic, Celtic, and Germanic,” but did you know that he also is  a mushroom-picking philatelist? Likewise, our French editor is a weapons enthusiast. The quiet health nut, it turns out, loves cigars. I know about the 9th-century Latin Mass, knitting, and muscle cars.

The list is handy for general definers who are stuck with “hot rod,” but it’s also handy for the Director of Defining, who uses it when a group of words (say, music theory terms) should be defined by someone with superior knowledge of the subject. Welcome to “group defining,” the ever-deepening hole into which you daily and hourly dig yourself by proclaiming that you have any knowledge of any subject whatsoever. For the new Unabridged Dictionary, I have been given, as a group definer, all the religion terms. This is what an interdisciplinary degree and a penchant for reading and marking books like “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” will get you: a batch for revision that is about 10,000 entries long. (I’m one-sixth of the way through and am currently stuck on the entry for “god.” See you in whichever afterlife destination you feel like condemning me to.)

There is something very tricky about group defining, because that is where you find yourself balancing the thing-ness and the word-ness of a definition. A harquebus, as I have learned from the guy with a thing for Renaissance-era weaponry, is a matchlock gun that is heavy enough that it was usually fired from a support. Those characteristics are what distinguish a harquebus from a blunderbuss, which was “probably a better choice for stuffing into a corset,” says my colleague. The distinguishing characteristics of a harquebus therefore belong in the definition for “harquebus,” even if the batch of citations I have at hand don’t mention any of them. The group definer has specialized knowledge, as well as a whole raft of odd books they can plunder for citations so our formal evidence matches up with reality.

But even a good raft of odd books can’t catch everything. I spent about two weeks revising three related theology entries because each of those words was used, for quite a long time, very deliberately incorrectly. They were employed by one side of a theological argument as rhetoric and epithets to discredit the legitimacy of the other side. It’s as if the whole early Christian church was at a hockey game together and someone started a “Monophysites suck” chant that went on for roughly 1,000 years. But if you aren’t someone who knows about the initial theological brouhaha and the way it resonated through the Middle Ages–perhaps because you never had to write a paper on the Nestorian and Eutychean controversies, because you chose a better degree than I did–you wouldn’t know that was the case.

Lexicographers talk with a sort of heavy-breathing fetishism about the corpus, the citations, the data. It will give us all the answers. But every corpus in the world has holes in it, limitations. That’s part of why a good dictionary is compiled by people–living, breathing, awkward people who can look through that corpus, give advice, and do some citational spackling based on the knowledge and experience they gleaned from outside the office. Lexicographers may throw around the size of their corpus, but it’s the people sifting painstakingly through that corpus, like archaeologists weighing potsherds, that make all the difference.

When my children were little, they learned that the word “wedgie” referred to “the condition of having one’s clothing wedged between the buttocks,” as the Collegiate so toffishly puts it. They were absolutely ecstatic: here was a word for this thing that happened to them pretty much constantly! And it was a good word, too, a word that had great screechability and ended in a long-e for maximum sustain. Best of all, it had to do with butts. For about three days, both the six-year-old and the two-year-old hollered the word “wedgie” constantly.

Now, like most parents with young children, my husband and I were desperate for some little veil of ivoried respectability to drape over this big, nekkid waller of parenthood that was so often punctuated (primarily in public spaces, usually with a finger or two up a nostril) with “MAMA! I HAVE A WEDGIE!” So I told my kids not to call it a “wedgie”—I told them to call it “an issue.”

They did, for many years. And while people may have cocked their heads to hear a worried-looking preschooler say, “Mama, I have an issue,” the veil of respectability slid artfully into place. For a while.

The day soon came when both my children learned that when other people use the word “issue,” they are not referring to wedgies. They are referring to vital and unsettled matters that generally require discussion.

“Yes,” I answered, as my eldest explained this to me in tones of deep-purple mistrust, “but isn’t a wedgie basically the same thing in our house? Besides, no one else knew what we were talking about. They thought that you were just deeply interested in the election.”

She frowned so deeply that the tip of her nose met her eyebrows. “But you write dictionaries: you knew it wasn’t like that in the real world.”

It’s a refrain I call to mind every time I read endless citations for “god” that use the word vaguely at best, and it is my mumbled offering of thanks for a team of editors who have wide, varied experiences and specialties I can draw on when the citations leave me hanging. When people come to the dictionary and look up a word like “harquebus” they expect you to give them the definition from the real world: the world where women don’t stuff a gun the size of a musket into their corsets, no matter what the citations tell you; the world where “Monophysite” is not a politicized slur; the world where a wedgie is a wedgie.


Filed under lexicography, making word sausage

The Impossible Task: Cross-Referencing the Unabridged

As I mentioned on the Twit Machine recently, I have been working on a very exciting project: a new edition of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.

“About frickin’ time!” fans of the Third hollered in one thunderous voice, and with good reason: the Third was released in 1961. It has been updated by means of an Addenda Section once every seven or so years, but an A-Z revision has been long overdue. We will be the first people to tell you that, longingly, as we peer out from underneath the production schedule.

And so we’ve begun the long, slow work of revising and updating. There is a stately surrealism to stripping down and refurbishing of one of America’s most celebrated and controversial dictionaries, kind of like taking the Pope underwear-shopping. When you get right down to it, you are left there in your small mortality, looking at the boxer-briefs of something that has been revered and hallowed for longer than you’ve been on this earth, and that is unsettling.

Nonetheless, here I am, staring intently at the varicosities of the Third and doing my best to patch them up.

Over the years, I’ve been asked why we don’t just slap some new words into the Third while we’re mucking about with new Collegiate editions. Hell, it’s just data, my dictionary-loving friends would say. It’s just an entry. It’ll only take you two extra minutes.

I have discovered that it’s not just an entry, and it’s not just two extra minutes, because of something called “cross-reference.”

Every dictionary you use has rules about the words entered therein, and one of the basic rules of any decent dictionary is that you cannot use a word in the definitions, usage notes, or example sentences that is not defined somewhere, somehow in that very dictionary. That sounds sensible, but you’d be surprised how many discount dictionaries don’t follow this rule–and what a difficult rule it is to follow, even in this digital age. In order to make sure that this rule is followed, we have a whole group of editors whose job is to beat the track of the alphabet, hoovering up all the information they can about the words in this book, and making everything tidy.

I was recently pulled from doing some subject-specific defining and put on the ever expanding task of making sure new entries are entered properly into the data. Part of this involves some cross-reference work, but “not a lot,” as the Director of Editorial Operations put it. “Just a bit.”

Silly me, I took “just a bit” at face value. In fact, “just a bit” means “there’s quite a lot and you will only find and correct a little bit of it.”

My very first entry gave me trouble. There was a word in a quotation that looked odd. I don’t think that’s supposed to be hyphenated, I thought, and so I went to the Third. No, indeed, it was entered in the Third as a closed compound, and I patted myself on the back for being so observant. Mid-pat, I realized I then had to do something about that.

There are options available to the editor doing cross-reference, but none of them is easy. The simplest choice is to alter the quotation to omit the troublesome word. Of course, as luck would have it, this wasn’t possible in this case, as the word to be omitted was the verb of the sentence, and a verbless example sentence was certainly going to raise a few eyebrows when this new dictionary came out. Well, then, I’d just have to find another quotation to sub in. Off to the citation files, where I found the absolute perfect substitute. Oh, it was gorgeous: short, idiomatic, completely covering the contextual meaning and connotation of the word in question, and the author’s name made me giggle (last name: Butters). This was it. After running it through the cross-reference gauntlet, I discovered it used two words not entered in this dictionary.

The next option is to see if the compounding style of this word is going to change at all in the new edition. We base this on citational information, so a quick search of the database showed be that the hyphenated and closed compounds had roughly the same amount of use. I shoot an e-mail to the Director of Defining and ask him if he has any advice. His response is, “Look through the revision files. Quickly.” Because like all dictionaries, this one has a deadline and we will make many, many people (not least of whom, the Publisher) sad if we push it back.

The revision files yield many surprises, chief of which is that some of the entries in it are from editors who came and went 20 years ago–the Third has, let’s remember, been in need of revision for a long time–and their notes have been appended by successive generations of editors who are correcting or reiterating their point. (“Style was once open; now determinedly hyphenated. A. Editor, 1982.” “Style now closed; ignore previous note. B. Editor, 1986.” “Word is open compound. Ignore A. & B., they are morons. C. Editor, 1992.”) I open one notes file. It is several hundred pages long.

After some searching, I find a note for this entry that leads me to believe that the hyphenated compound will not be entered. I make an assortment of irritated editorial noises and, after opening the cit files again, start looking for a third replacement sentence. An hour has gone by and I have spent it on one quotation at one entry. The word I am agonizing over is not even the word I’m entering: it is peripheral, incidental. But when you are doing cross-reference, nothing is peripheral or incidental.

Some variation of this continues for the rest of the letter, then progressive batches, and the number of annoying e-mails I send to my colleagues skyrockets. I can almost hear the server groan when I hit “New Message” and begin my fourteenth e-mail of the day to one of the science editors. “Me again. What are you going to do with ‘thumb drive’? I’m sure you haven’t even given it a thought, but can you give it one for me in, say, the next ten minutes?” I send more e-mails to the Director of Defining. “Howdy. Do you have any thoughts on how to handle the expansion of ‘HIPAA’?” And again, later: “One more: can I edit ‘douche-canoe’ down to ‘douche …’ in this quotation for ‘bromantic,’ or will I have to enter a new sense of ‘canoe’? If I’m doing that, should I just enter ‘douche-canoe’?”

It’s not just a matter of hunting down compounding styles. There are the new entries that require other new entries, each of those requiring two new entries, one of which will require substantial revision to another four entries, two of which will require new etymologies. One medical entry requires that I re-open 9 letters for revision and ask our Pronunciation Editor for six new prons in letters he’d already done. It takes me four hours to enter all this into the file.

At one point, I spend time trying to find a better quotation for a word to avoid the dread hyphenated-but-not-entered-as-such compound, only to discover 30 minutes into my search that the hyphen in question is actually an end-of-line break, and so not a real hyphen at all. The only upside to this is that the quotation I can now retain was written by someone with another chortle-inducing name. We take joy where we can find it.

Every inquiry leads me down a garden path of more inquiry, until I am lost in the weeds and just want to lie down in the grass and sleep for many years. I’m in so many different letters at once, I can’t tell you where I am in the project. (Here the Publisher frowns.) And here is the most perverse thing of all: even with all the time I’m putting in making sure that all these entries are tidy, there is no way I will catch every cross-reference error. Words that I assume are entered are not; styles that I assume are fine will be changed; words will be dropped or modified during copyediting, setting off another string of cross-reference changes. When I try to explain what the cross-reference work is like to another general definer, I sum it up by saying, “Google ‘ping-pong balls, mousetraps, and nuclear chain reaction.'” The ping-pong balls are the entries. All those sprung, upended mousetraps are me.

That is why we have Cross-Reference, the stalwart department who does this for every damn book we publish. Cross-Reference consists of the sweetest people on the editorial floor, but make no mistake: they are brilliant in ways that blabbering dilettantes like me cannot possibly comprehend. Consider: I have only done cross-reference work digitally, but there are people in our Cross-Ref department who remember the days when they did this by hand–when checking on the proposed styling of a new entry involved a silent plod across the editorial floor, a short aerobics routine that involved carefully lifting and stacking galleys, and tens of thousands of index cards. At one point, I asked one of the Cross-Ref editors how they knew that a styling change would be made later in the alphabet. “Oh,” she said, “you just keep track. Most of it just sticks in there, in all those nooks and crannies in your mind.”

I considered, not for the first time, that I must I have a very smooth brain.

They not only catch mistakes, but are lightning fast. They have to be: by the time they get a finished dictionary, they usually only have a few weeks to do their work before the book is due at the printer’s, and the printer gets very cranky if we are late. When the defining work is done, everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief and we celebrate with doughnuts, but no one gives a thought to the tireless drudges who are still–quietly, cheerfully–making sure that we haven’t used “douche-canoe” in an entry without defining it. There is very little glory in lexicography, and where there is glory, definers and etymologists get it all. But Cross-Ref are the ones who actually deserve it.

So when you read a dictionary entry in the new unabridged and have to look up another word in said book, raise a glass to the masterful editors of Cross-Reference, and be very glad that I am not one of them.


Filed under lexicography, making word sausage