Answers I Wish I Could Send: Descriptivism Edition

But first, a quick housekeeping note:

My little electronic chickadees of joy, I have been overwhelmed by all your great comments and questions and accolades for Word by Word! Literally (sense 1) overwhelmed: you have sent so many emails and letters, so, so many, that I am practically drowning in email and letters. I will do my level best to answer them, but it is going to take me months to catch up, and in the meantime I have this pesky delightful full-time job defining words like “chorizo.” I appreciate your patience.

(Additionally, you can stop telling me why manhole covers are really round. I’ve already been told by no fewer than 47 of you. I am reproved.)

And now, back to our show blog!



 

If the editorial email is to be believed, many people have figured out that lexicographers are descriptivists, but they have not yet figured out what, exactly, we are describing. We attempt to untangle this existential crisis in the latest in this ridiculously long series on dictionary correspondence.


I saw that you said on Twitter that “news” did not stand for “north, east, west, south.” But you’re descriptivists! If enough of us say that “news” really stands for “north, east, west, south,” then aren’t you guys supposed to change it to that? You’re descriptivists!

We are descriptivists! Thank you for noticing; we are tired of climbing to the roof of the building in shifts to toll the great Merriam-Webster bell and yell “DESCRIPTIVISM! DESCRIPTIVISM!” to the uncaring neighborhood. We don’t even get paid overtime for it, can you imagine?

Descriptivism, however, has its limits. It’s a very good way of describing what words mean based on their contextual use. It’s also a very helpful approach when you want to know why you can’t end a sentence with a preposition (you can) or whether you should use “by accident” or “on accident” (“by accident”–and yes, we know that it doesn’t make sense because of “on purpose,” but c’est l’Anglais).  It is, however, pretty ill-suited to etymology, which is what you’re talking about here.

I know that this idea goes against the zeitgeist, but etymology, to put it in Lebowskian terms, is not just, like, your opinion, man. It doesn’t matter how many people write in or @ us on Twitter to say that they believe that the real etymology of “news” is “north, east, west, south”: that doesn’t make it any more real. Believe me, if all it took to will something into being was the electronic tsunami of  Twitter consensus, then @dog_rates / this llama would have won the 2016 presidential election and Starbucks would never have run out of unicorn frappuccinos.

We’ve gone over this before, but etymology is the tedious and soul-crushing work of tracking down the origins of words, no matter how boring they are. Also, most acronymic etymologies are bogus. No matter how many people believe that “news” really comes from “north, east, west, south,” we will never be able to go back in time and rewrite history such that their opinion turns into fact. No, not even Doctor Who would do that for you. Don’t ask me how I know; I just know. (I am the 14th and final Doctor).

Besides, if “news” really were from the cardinal compass points, it’d totally be “nsew.” Who on God’s green earth says “north, east, west, and south”? No one, that’s who. Don’t ask me how I know; I just know.

aVOIR DU POIDS.. HOW LOVELY TO STATE THAT HUMANS.. HAVE THIS ABILITY TO WEIGHT..
ACTUALLY  ANIMALS.. HAVE THE UNIQUE CAPABILITY TO STANDARDIZE,, ACCORDING TO SPECIES.. THEIR OWN, MANNER OF WEIGHTS. AND MEASURES..
LETS. TALK,, A BLUE JAY,, PICKS ONLY THE BEST OF PEANUTS.. AND BIRDS. ALL SELECT BY WEIGHT THE BEST NESTING MATERIALS. BY WEIGHT.. AND IF YOU NEED FURTHER REFS..
LOOK AT A BEAVER, IN ALL TASKS,, ONLY SELECTING,, THE BEST WEIGHTS  OF MATERIALS.. ACCORDING TO NEED,.. PERHAPS.. THE COGNITIVE ABILITY OF A SPECIES. SELECTING THE BEST MATERIALS.. BY SELECTION BY WEIGHT.. MUST ENTER IN A NEW.. AVOIR-DU- POIDS..DEFINITION.. OR AVOIRPOIS.. THE  REFLECTION IS YOURS.. BUT, THE REALITY. IS A FACT..

Yes, LETS. TALK,, but I’m going to do it like this because I cannot quite master whatever convention you’re using that dictates the doubled comma versus the doubled period. And what does the single period and single comma mean, then? Truly, the editorial email never ceases to serve up a unique capability to standardize. The world is abundant in wonder.

As I am not a zoologist and have only the dimmest memories of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” I will have to take your word for it regarding the specialized weighing and construction techniques of the blue jay and the beaver. But your claim that the entry for “avoirdupois” is lacking this information is a canard, an albatross. I am adept with words for both birds and failure.

Descriptivism in dictionaries really only extends to lexical and near-lexical information about a word. That is, if you want us to describe what the word “avoirdupois” means in the sentence “The coach limited his recruiting to linebackers of a certain avoirdupois,” we can do that. That is lexical information, and that’s the sort of information that nerds like me ferret out of the English language. We’ll even go so far as to give you near-lexical information: we might tell you that the word “avoirdupois” refers to the weight of general goods, or it appears in Shakespeare to generally refer to heaviness. But using the entry for “avoirdupois” as a jumping-off point for information about how animals weigh things is sort of like getting Peter Mark Roget high and then making him watch 24 consecutive hours of Animal Planet. You might learn some things in a very meandering, tangential way, and it might be entertaining in parts, but mostly you’re going to leave with a contact-high headache and a strong desire to never watch Animal Planet again.

Simply because lexicographers are descriptivists doesn’t mean that our task is to describe everything remotely connected to a word. Believe me, I’d love nothing more than to talk about the Vǫluspá and the place of female seers in medieval poetic texts when I am revising the entry for “poetry,” but it’s better for everyone if I don’t. There are lots of books that describe things: systems, love, death, the way that animals weigh nesting materials, why manhole covers are round. They are just waiting on your local library’s shelves for you. They’re good books, Brent!

Okay so hear me out, I think we as a society have been spelling the word ‘vampire’ wrong. When the old time traditional vampires speak, their speech impediment does not allow them to correctly pronounce words beginning with the letter ‘b’ and instead pronounce them with the sound from the letter ‘v’. For example, this can be seen in the well known quote from Dracula “I want to suck your ‘vlood'”. We as a society have known the word ‘blood’ to know he pronounced it wrong, but when he introduces himself as a vampire it is the first time we have heard this word so we assumed that ‘vampire’ was the correct terminology. However, I believe that due to the speech impediment, the correct word he was trying to say was ‘bampires’.

Never let it be said that I didn’t hear you out.

The spellings of words as presented in the dictionary are completely descriptivist–they’re based on how the word is spelled in the vast majority of modern prose–so this is whoa if true. As I am no expert on old-time traditional vampires and their speech patterns, I had to go back to the authoritative source: Mel Brooks’ 1995 hit, “Dracula: Dead and Loving It.”

Though the quality of this documentary footage has degraded over the decades, the preserved audio provides us with an excellent test case: it features Dracula saying the word “blood” twice in quick succession (“I cannot be up during the daylight. It must be the young blood of Miss Lucy! Her blood is still in my system!”). If you listen closely, you will clearly hear the bilabial stop /b/. It is not a voiced labiodental fricative (/v/). But Dracula doesn’t use standard American-English phonetics: he does show an occasional tendency to swap the voiced labio-velar approximant /w/ for the labiodental fricative. We perhaps need to take into account the fact that Dracula has lived in England, however, which would account for his widely wandering phonology which at any moment places him in Italy by way of Poland by way of New York. Truly, Dracula is, linguistically speaking, all things to all men. What he is not, however, is a “bampire.” We are sorry to disappoint; thanks for writing.

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9 Comments

Filed under correspondence, general

9 responses to “Answers I Wish I Could Send: Descriptivism Edition

  1. Adam Field

    I would say, descriptivism allows for a certain amount of backronyming – that is, if everyone “knows” that something “came” from something it didn’t actually come from, that doesn’t change history, but it still could, potentially, change the nuance of the word *itself*. Like, if everyone truly “knew” the f word came from “under consent of the king”, that doesn’t mean it actually *did* come from that, but at the same time, it could absolutely make people use it as if it *did*, at least a little bit. Pretty interesting stuff.

  2. susan klee

    I’m surprised that after your many fascinating words on etymology, you didn’t give the etymology of /avoir du poids/, “to have [some] weight” (French).

  3. I would have to re-read it twice or thrice to actually understand what it was all about. Not to comment on the writing (it is actually brilliant and as it would demand ‘descriptive’) but it’s just so complex for the person just giving a glance to get the context 😛

  4. Hi Kory… I can’t find a good origin story (etymology) for “level best.” (“I will do my level best to answer them.”) Can you?

  5. Kevin C Stevens

    Personally, I prefer the spelling Neil Gaiman used in “Fortunately, the Milk”, where the blood-diners were called “Wampires”. Please deploy your own horrible accent when using this word.

  6. The actual etymology, per the OED, is French avoir de pois, the du being added by “some ignorant ‘improver'” around 1645.

    As for vampires, the word vampir is a late borrowing in Romanian (of course Dracula was Romanian!), where the native term is strigoi (cf. Italian strega ‘witch’). However, the proto-Slavic form was *ǫpyrь (roughly “om-pirr-ih”), which should be easy to say no matter how long your fangs are. It was through Hungarian that the South Slavic form vampir spread to all the European languages, including Russian, where it competed with native upyr’ for a while, but eventually upyr’ lost out despite the fulminations of outraged Russian 19C prescriptivists.

  7. jeff humbug

    I hate/love to be a stickler, but… /v/ is a labiodental fricative, not a plosive.

  8. Kevin C

    Given that “most acronymic etymologies are bogus,” what can be said about those that are legitimate? The ones that come to mind are mostly of recent vintage and come from the fields of science and technology or from the military: scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), radar (radio detecting and ranging), snafu (situation normal: all f****d up). What is the earliest known example?

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