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.