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?”


“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.




Filed under correspondence, general, lexicography

68 responses to “The Voice of Authority: Morality and Dictionaries

  1. nori geary

    dear kory,

    good essay. i would have worked ‘question authority’ into it, but i guess you’re too young.

    you might read an obituary of stan musial as a tonic for the venality of lance armstrong. a spectacular ballplayer and admirable man, despite that it seems about 1/3 of what he said consisted of “whaddya say!”

    nori geary

    • korystamper

      Ha–“too young.” You are too kind.

    • Yes, Stan the Man was, as far as everything I’ve read and heard, simply a decent guy. In his recent biography of him, author George Vecsey mentioned that he hoped it didn’t seem like he was writing a hagiography, but he just never came across any bad stories about Musial – except one when some kid remembered getting shrugged off and not getting an autograph from him after a bad game.

      And nice writing here at Harmless Drudgery. Thanks!

  2. The following observation is independent of the content of this post (which I found to be, as always, insightful and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny), but I would like to thank you for using a readable serif typeface for your blog. In an Internet world which is crowded with inappropriate uses of sans serif, this is a breath of fresh air.

  3. Clearly your parenting has been far from feeble. You intended to instill a mode of behavior in your daughter, and your efforts were so successful that violations even by others cause her distress. I think there’s a strong connection to what we observe in language. Even the dictionary causes pain, for some people, when it seems to provide evidence that a strongly held belief is not a universal truth.

  4. I don’t think Mackey and Armstrong really view the dictionary as a moral authority; they just use it to perpetrate a brand of sophistry in a feeble attempt to justify the actions that they’ve been called out on. Much as Clinton did, when he tried to say that what he did with Ms Lewinsky was “not sexual relations”.

  5. Fantastic post, Kory. The fundamental problem is that people have a hard time separating ought from is, which is at the heart of the prescriptive/descriptive debate. Mere facts about what people do can’t tell you whether those actions are right or wrong. But coming up with justifications for our feelings about what is right or wrong is hard, so we seek shortcuts by appealing to one authority or another.

  6. When I discovered a dictionary from early nineteen-something on the bookshelf as a pre-teen and began looking up bizarre and unused words from the first half of the century, unable to comprehend many of the definitions themselves, I became curious about language. I questioned it. It dawned on me slowly that…definitions…change…mind blowing!

    Your blog is such a treat. Please keep writing. Lots and lots.

  7. Ø

    Thanks for the superbly executed joke about battery acid and workplace coffee. It was a high point of my day.

    I wanted to make a serious point about right and wrong, too, but the more I try to put it in words the more it slips away from me. Damn.

  8. Are we no longer in bed with Big Deli? Does this mean no more free macaroni salad? (Great post, as per usual.)

    • korystamper

      Shhh. Now everyone’s going to want to be a lexicographer! Why else would we do this but for the free macaroni salad?

  9. marc leavitt

    I couldn’t agree with you more; so much so that, unlike a dictionary, I’m wordless (or nearly so).

  10. Well, you may or may not be pleased to know that is an Authority at my workplace, where we build ontologies. But only in matters of spelling and compounding, not definition: we define our terms ourselves, as many of them have highly technical senses. I argued for its use: it’s easy to check, costs us nothing, and is continually updated.

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  12. Wonderful, thoughtful post. Of course Mackey was right about the definition of fascism … as an economic classification. At least that’s what I learned in introductory macroeconomics long ago. I think the economic definition predates Hitler’s horrific additions. Sounds like Mackey was trying to draft the dictionary to cover up what he really meant …

  13. Pingback: The Voice of Authority: Morality and Dictionaries | Metaglossia: The Translation World |

  14. This prescriptive/descriptive non-war amuses me no end, and I had to write a little about it myself. Shameless plug:

  15. davidly

    I just looked up “headcheese” and hafta say: How dare you!!

    One should like to’ve asked Mackey why he’d limit his aspersion to government-mandated private health insurance, as opposed to including any number of other examples of corporate welfare. I imagine his portfolio won’t be deficient of health insurance industry stock too much longer, but then again, not knowing much about him, I can’t say for sure that his criticism isn’t coming from the left, his choice of terminology notwithstanding.

    And Armstrong’s use (of “cheat” not banned-substance) just might make it into M-W one day if he can get a “strong” enough movement going.

  16. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: 30 Rock, gaslighting, dictionary news | Wordnik

  17. In order to avoid the contradictory definitions of “biannual”, i sprefer to use “biennial” for every two years and “semiannual” for twice a year.

  18. I do hate biannual… and English spelling. However, as a Christian, I loved your tales about Angela and finger pointing (should that be hyphenated?). I may have peed a little I laughed so hard. Lovely post. Bravo and all that.

  19. Great post, and also amusing in that anecdote about the definition of marriage and how people seem to be always just looking for something to be outraged about. I mean, being mad at a dictionary, that’s just something you might find in the dictionary under “silly”.

  20. Oh my goodness the nerd in me just had a field day on this piece!

  21. This is a really sensible (but funny) discussion. Thanks!

  22. Incisive writing, great humour (forgive me the “u”, I am South African) and plenty to mull over.

  23. My criteria for good writing: Does it make me reach for a dictionary (not to often), and does it move me? Resounding yes to both! (Had to look up “headcheese”, we call it “brawn” here.)

    • Had to look up “headcheese” myself, alas in fear of coming across something nastier (was it possible, I wonder?). “Brawn” somehow sounds to me like, well, what the dictionary says 😉
      Do not take me too seriously, though: I’m just an outsider to English!

  24. Great post, and awesome wisdom. I will be checking your blog often. keep it up 🙂

  25. There’s a lot to love about this post. Sometimes FP nails it, and you did too! Well done. I’ll be back.

  26. This was a fascinating read. Very informative AND entertaining, so bonus points to you for that. 🙂 I’ve always browsed the dictionary just for fun and even worn out a couple of copies (paperbacks, of course), but never realized until now how I, too, buy into that whole “voice of authority” thing. Thanks for an eye-opening, mind-opening post.

  27. Your daughter would have quite the moral high ground on me. I have an infatuation with the f-word, one that finds me stretching it’s grammatical possibilities as far as I can.

    Anywho, I loved the post. I feel your anguish.

    Julien Haller

  28. “Noah Webster is turning in his grave knowing that his dictionary, our moral barometer, can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong.”

    They’d be interested (in other words, horrified) to know that Noah Webster deliberately changed the spellings of a whole bunch of words in the American lexicon because he deliberately wanted to break with tradition. We have him to thank for stuff like “honor,” “center,” and “curb” instead of “honour,” “centre,” and “kerb.”

    Using Noah Webster to defend mindless adherence to tradition is untrammeled idiocy. Then again, most of the idiots who use appeals to authority to defend their positions are the sort of people who you just know, had they even EXISTED when Webster was alive, would have been dyed-in-the-wool Tories.

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  30. Mrs. Webmaster

    If a dictionary should not be used as a moral barometer, does that mean I need to stop making my naughty students copy pages from it when they serve detention in my English classroom? Bummer!

    I’ve always thought they learn so much about the dictionary when they are forced to do that, but… oh well.

    And Mr. McCormick, no typefaces make me angry. That’s because all typefaces are better than some of my middle schoolers’ scribbly handwriting. (Even Vladimir Script in neon yellow beats Jimmy Hathaway’s gobbledygook.) However my eye twitches funny like Chief Inspector Dryfus in the Pink Panther movies whenever I see a misused apostrophe on a menu at a restaurant. I really need to get over that! ;S

    • “…making my naughty students copy pages from it when they serve detention in my English classroom” <– are you serious? If I'd done any of the sort in my school-teaching day, I'd have been simply crucified by a horde of school staff and parents.

  31. Good one–looks like the dictionary is adapted for specific purposes just like the Constitution!

  32. I enjoyed reading this chatty and convivial article with its inside information, counsel, humour and satire. Given the informed statements and the timeworn tone in the author’s explanations I am happy to believe that I have been addressed by an expert and will be the better writer for it. Thank you and well done.

    Agreeing with Gary McCormick above I believe that the more literal ‘semi-annual’ should be promoted at the expense of the ambiguous ‘biannual’. The Oxford lists ‘biennial’ as the word to denote ‘once every two years’. My Authority is that we Irish have long been associated with the propensity to speak better English than the English themselves.

  33. If the dictionary records our use of words and language, and words and language are shaped by culture, then the upset over words in the dictionary comes from an upset over culture that people only notice down the line. It is as if the dictionary is saying, “This cultural phenomenon is real.”

  34. I think this article was brilliant, although I don’t mean shining brightly and sparkling literally, I mean it more metaphorically, or like the other definition of the word.

  35. Great post. “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.” I’m a journalist and have heard the same criticism of “the media.” People do love (to create) a scapegoat!

  36. Wow, very loaded post. Thanks for sharing, it was a good read for sure. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  37. What a fascinating job you have. I’m following now.

    In Junior High, I used to get accused of reading the dictionary (as if that was a negative thing). The accusation was not unjustified 😉

  38. You have a brilliant insight and I enjoyed reading it. This is a very well written post!

  39. An interesting post.
    The English language dictionaries seem to find themselves in an interesting situation. Are dictionaries defenders of a language? Or are they guide to help people understand common usage?

    One word that illustrates this idea is “irregardless”, a thoughtless instance of prefixes and suffixes redundantly piled atop one another. Nonetheless, it is a word that has worked its way into our lexicon. Thus, dictionaries seem to include this bastard word to provide a greater understanding to those who seek it, rather than upholding a more correct usage of the word regardless. I was at least amused to find that my dictionary offered “See ‘Regardless'” as a definition.

  40. Reblogged this on The Splendid Siren and commented:
    I read this article today It was interesting read. Definitely something that everyone should read and think about.

  41. I feel like people shouldn’t worry about other people unless it directly affects themselves. That is the cause of many problems in the world. However, when it is necessary for people are involved in the matters of other people, it should be done by themselves on a private scale. Things shouldn’t be settled by other people, and bets shouldn’t be made about dumb things like if “‘biannual’ really can–and does–mean ‘once every two years’ and ‘twice a year,'”. Who cares? Life is too short to worry about other people and silly things.

    • Totally agree! I just can’t help wondering at how evil the process of disambiguation can actually be when it comes to serving an (obscure?) political interest: having “preventive” as the standard and clear/wide enough term, to create “preemptive” seems to me like nothing but a perverse move to guarantee and justify… well, you know what sort of stuff.

  42. Pingback: The Voice of Authority: Morality and Dictionaries « The Ladyboy Mirror

  43. OyiaBrown

    Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  44. Riveting essay!!! I am in sheer awe. If you could kindly take a look on what Pablo Wallas has to say in my last blog. I don’t understand it. I need input.

  45. Damien

    Reblogged this on Encore du vin and commented:
    Un article génial !

  46. theardentoceanic

    Well thought out post. Reminds me of a scene from Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony when Tayo is trying to understand the fragility of language: “It took a long time to explain the fragility and intricacy because no word exists alone, and the reason for choosing each word had to be explained with a story about why it must be said this certain way. That was the responsibility that went with being human…” (35).

  47. Pingback: Link love: language (51) « Sentence first

  48. ASG

    Your daughter would not enjoy the animated series Archer, which is extremely vulgar but IMO the funniest show on TV right now. I thought you might enjoy this clip, which is apropos to this superb post.

    Please keep writing! Yours is my favourite blog right now, no lie.

  49. Pingback: An essay for the language police « Why Evolution Is True

  50. Susan

    I am as immensely impressed by your daughter’s perspicacious comment as I am guilty of violating such a sensible “rule” myself, lol.

    This was a wonderful essay. I have only one criticism to offer, which is that my curses at Mackey and Armstrong come from the Orwellian nature of their selective uses of dictionary definitions.

    Now we might disagree over whether or not one can use “Orwellian” as a criticism of an individual when Orwell himself wrote about such abuses by collectives, but I would argue that all it takes is one wrong-headed individual with a wide following to popularize a usage that will eventually be taken up by like-minded collectives.

  51. Pingback: A prescriptivism with moral and political ends: The linguistic shalt‘s and shalt not‘s I can get behind | linguistic pulse

  52. Pingback: Should dictionaries be prescriptive or descriptive? | François Joseph de Kermadec

  53. Well I have not swallowed the dictionary, and English is not my first language, however it is my language of choice. I find your blog amusing and informative and will most definitely be reading more of it.

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