Category Archives: peeving and usage

A Lexicographer’s Guide to Real Words

One of the occupational hazards of being a lexicographer on social media is that you are often subjected to arguments about whether something is a word or not. Lexicographers see these complaints and swiftly scroll right on by them, though we do sometimes indulge in a judicious (and perfectly justified) subtweet. We’ve learned that arguing with people about whether something (usually “irregardless“) is a “real word” is a Sisyphean exercise in futility, and lexicographers get enough of that at work.

But that doesn’t help you, the person being hollered at on Twitter that “mines” isn’t a real word. Who better to tell you what a word actually is? So in the interest of settling all those arguments, forever (amen and amen), here is a short (senses 1 and 2) lexicographer’s guide to “real words.”

 

I think [insert reviled word here] isn’t a real word.

Let’s back up. Why do you think it’s not a real word? Because by a linguist’s definition, if it communicates meaning to an audience, then it’s “a real word.”

That’s ridiculously broad. 

Oh gurl:

How do you communicate thoughts to an audience? You might communicate by uttering a string of phonetic sounds, making signs in a manual language, or writing a series of characters. Meaningful units of these sounds, signs, or written characters are often what we would consider to be words.

In short: if it’s part of a language system and communicates meaning, linguists consider it to be “a real word.”

But it’s illogical/ugly/stupid.

Just because you don’t like it doesn’t make it somehow “not real.” This is one of the more absurd notions that people have about language: that the mere dislike of a word invalidates its very existence. You’d never see that logic deployed effectively anywhere else in the real world. [Ed. note: The White House is not the real world.] I hate heat, for instance, and think temperatures above a very dry 80F can just nope right on out of here–but summer arrives every year, like clockwork, just to piss me off. Should my personal feelings about the power of the sun ruin everyone else’s beach vacation?

Besides, “illogical” and “stupid” rely on your knowledge base, and lemme tell ya, that’s smaller than you think. You may think that “inflammable” to mean “flammable” is illogical, because “in-” means “not,” but you would be wrong. “Inflammable” comes from the Latin inflammare, which means “to inflame” or “to burst into flame.” The “not” “in-” has nothing to do with it. “Inflammable” meant “flammable” before “flammable” meant “flammable”!

And even if a word is illogical or stupid, so what? You know how many completely unremarkable words arose from a stupid misreading? You use “cherry” and “apron” just fine, even though “cherry” came about because some 14th-century doofus thought the Anglo-French “cherise” was plural (it wasn’t), and “apron” came about because court clerk read “a napron” as “an apron” and rendered it as such, and then future readers thought, “Oh, man, the clerk to Edward III says it’s ‘apron,’ I better get in line,” even though that same clerk used “napron” later in the Household Ordinances, and here we are.

Language is not math. Language is people, and people are a mess. Yes, you too.

But this word is jargon, and jargon is meaningless, so it’s not a real word. Use words that actually mean something!

Jargon is, properly, the technical language of a particular group or activity. It can also refer to obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions–a definition that is pretty damned jargony. But not all jargon (sense 1) is jargon (sense 2). Hell–not all jargon (sense 1) is even all that technical! If you like a sport, have a job, go to school, have a hobby, or watch TV, then you know and use jargon. You can stream the Royal Wedding online while cabling an Aran sweater, checking the box scores for last night’s game and helping your kid figure out their math homework using manipulatives when the commercial breaks are on. Your whole life is marked by jargon of one sort or another, so stop getting your knickers in a knot over it.

But this supposedly real word isn’t in your/a/any dictionary!

It’s a common misconception that dictionaries enter every word in a language. This is a misconception started by dictionary companies who were desperate to outdo one another in sales and so made some dubious claims about how their dictionaries were “the sum of all human knowledge” and how, in dropping some bucks on one, you could “hold the English language in your two hands.”

There are many, many, many more words that do not make it into dictionaries than do, and this is the nature of the dictionary. If English is a swift moving river, then a dictionary is a cup of water scooped from that river: static, small, hopefully a good representative sample of that river, but not the river.

There are lots of reasons why a word might not be entered into a dictionary. First, what do we consider discrete words? Is the noun “compact” a different word than the verb “compact”? Are the different meanings of the noun “compact” different words? What if the different “compacts” come from different etymological sources? Is every inflection of a word a different word than the root? What about compound words like “slingshot”? Is that a different word from “sling” and “shot”? What about potential compound words, or potential inflections that we might not have now but we could at some point in the future (“mouses”), or potential affixal uses (“unfriend”)? What about words that no longer exist? What about initialisms and abbreviations? Are these all discrete words?

Incidentally, this goat rodeo is also why people who tell you that English has however many hundred-thousands words in it are full of bullshit (which can be one word or two words, depending on how you reckon).

Every professionally edited dictionary has criteria for entry–generally speaking, widespread use in printed prose for a sustained period of time–and many words never meet that criteria. Even good words! “Prepone,” a brilliant verb which means “to reschedule to an earlier time than originally scheduled” and is based on “postpone,” doesn’t yet meet the criteria for entry at Merriam-Webster, and it’s not only a clever coinage, but so frickin’ handy! Does away with the dumb confusion caused by “move back” and “move up” (“We’re moving the 10am meeting back to noon.” “So you’re moving it up to noon?” “No, we’re moving it back to noon.” “Was it originally at noon?” and then everyone sounds like a pathetic mashup of The Confederacy of the Dunces and “Who’s On First”). Everyone should use “prepone” in print, but not enough people do, and so it languishes in the database, noticed but not defined.

And there’s another sticking point. For a word to get into a dictionary, it needs to be found and tracked by lexicographers–and, to be frank, lexicographers are experiencing job creep as the industry shrinks. Gone are the halcyon days when a lexicographer had an hour or two daily to read and look for new words: now we’re busy writing and copyediting articles for the website, answering correspondence, running social media feeds, moderating comments on those feeds, brainstorming new products, doing media, writing editorial reports, proofing sales reports, coding for the database, troubleshooting the outdated data in the database…oh, and defining. Your sparkling, wonderful coinage, which you use constantly on Twitter and have, as I told you to do, used in letters to the editor or in editorials your town paper has printed…sorry I missed it. I was busy justifying my corporate existence with a click-positive article on the phrase “three sheets to the wind” in conjunction with an ad campaign we’re running with Budweiser.

The whole dictionary racket ignores the flashpoint where language is actually made: speech (or signing). Words are rarely born in print, but that’s all the lexicographers track. That means that all those words you use only in family conversations, or new words that are coined for one in-person interaction and never used again–those very real words–are lost to us. Until we hack Alexa to record everything you say and send it to our offices, that is. (j/k, lol)

Steve Kleinedler puts it best: “the English language changes too quickly and is too vast to be completely catalogued.”

Okay, let’s try this: how do I know when a word isn’t real?

Not to get all ontological and shit, but if it is a signifier of meaning used in the course of communication between people, it’s real. Even if it’s unintelligible to you! I don’t speak Polish, but I’m not going to say that Polish words aren’t real just because I don’t understand them.

You’re making me sound like a massive prick.

What’s the point, really, of declaring that a word isn’t real? It’s ultimately a show of power or superiority over someone else, and so, in that sense, it is the marker of an absolute unit of shittiness. I’ve made my feelings about correcting people’s speech known before, and this is just another variant of it. It centers someone else’s language in your own experience, and it’s ridiculous to think that yours is the default experience for everyone. Language is bigger than just one person! That’s a feature, not a bug!

So what am I supposed to do when I see a word that I think isn’t a real word but which you, a so-called professional, tells me is?

Ask about it! And if you can’t ask the person who uses it, ask a linguist, because they love it when people ask questions about things that they can actually research, instead of dumb questions like, “Oh, you’re a linguist, how many languages do you speak?”

Why do people use “mines”? There is a dictionary that will explain why–and it will also tell you about “hern” and “theirn” while it’s at it. Has someone used a jargony word, like “logomark,” that you think is redundant? Do a quick search online for how a logomark differs from a logo, and consider that perhaps, though jargon, it is a word that serves a purpose that neither “logo” nor “trademark” completely serves. Did someone utter “irregardless” in your hearing? Buy fifteen copies of this book and read the fourth chapter repeatedly. Revel in a language that is always growing and lives well beyond your grasp!

And stop tagging lexicographers on Twitter. We’re really only there for the dog pictures, man.

 

 

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“It’s,” Complicated: National Grammar Day and Apostrophe Abuse

Yesterday was National (U.S.) Grammar Day, which is the high holy day for us word nerds. Everyone celebrates in their own way–I celebrate by using the singular “they” and ritually burning seven copies of Strunk & White–but one thing that is constant across all of nerddom is the worship of Almighty Grammar. Adherence to Grammar will save us: it will make us happy. It will get us the best job. It will increase our sexiness by 400%.

It’s a shame then that Grammar is so damned mercurial. A cursory look at the history of most usage issues tagged as “grammar” shows that “correct” hasn’t always been–and I’m not just referring to those fine-grain shibboleths of usage that no one can quite get right, like whether you should use “different from” or “different than.” Let’s keep things simple. Let’s talk about the apostrophe.

That hanging tittle is the source of much grammatical spleen, plenty of it vented in the dictionary’s general direction around National Grammar Day (though punctuation is officially outside our wheelhouse). My inbox is chock full of variations on “I hate people who can’t use apostrophes because it’s so simple,” and as proof of its simplicity, sometimes my correspondents even use the proper “it’s” in their complaint. (Sometimes.) But if it’s so simple, as they claim, then how do so many smart people get it so wrong?

The apostrophe first appeared in English sometime in the 16th century, possibly ganked into English printing from Italian or French conventions. Not much is written on the development of the apostrophe, but we know that when it first showed up in English print, it was used to signal that a letter (or several letters) had been omitted in a construction. “She’ll” is a contraction of “she will” or “she shall”; “’tis” is a contraction of “it is”; “‘zbud” and “‘sbodkins” are contractions of “God’s blood” and “God’s bodkins” and truly magnificent in the way that only 17th-century euphemisms can be.

This habit continued well into the 17th and 18th centuries, growing beyond its little garden plot. Apostrophes were sometimes used to clarify pronunciation for the reader, especially in poetry: “banish’d” was clearly meant to be spoken as two syllables to keep scansion tidy and look very Byronic, whereas “banished” could be three, particularly in some florid Drydenesque constructions. Daniel Defoe took this further: he used “cou’d” and “wou’d” in his writings to show that the “l” in “could” and “would” was silent, though I’d wager that most people who were reading Defoe likely knew about “could” and “would.”

That damn’d apostrophe was so handy that sometime around the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries, people began to use it to signal possession. It makes a great deal of sense: does “Drydens harrumphing” refer to the harrumphing of one John Dryden, or to a whole army of John Drydens making their displeasure known? We can make that clear with just one blob of well-placed ink! And so the apostrophe was liberally sprinkled among all our nouns and pronouns to mark possession.

Nouns and pronouns, mind. So while we have the now-familiar “Dryden’s harrumphing” and “dog’s breakfast,” we also ended up with “her’s,” “their’s,” “our’s,”  “your’s,” and–yes, gird thy loins–“it’s,” which were in use as possessive pronouns through the 17th and 18th centuries. Boo, you cry, stupid, but not at all. It’s very logical: if that apostrophe was going to mark possession, then it was going to mark possession goddamned everywhere.

As a possessive marker, the apostrophe is fairly straightforward unless the base word ends in “-s,” and then everything falls all to hell. Is it “Davy Jones’s locker,” or “Davy Jones’ locker?” Yes. Is it “Jesus’s wounds?” Good lord no, of course it is not, why would you even think that? It is “Odysseus’ journey” but “Zeus’s shenanigans.” Why? Heed my words, O nerd: where were you when I laid the foundations of the possessive?

We had punctuation mania: by the 19th century, we were using apostrophes to make single letters plural, as in “p’s and q’s.” There is no logical explanation for this, apart from the fact that “ps and qs” looks odd and might result in some hapless chump spitting all over himself trying to pronounce “qs” as if it were Arabic and not \KEWS\. The pluralizing apostrophe also shows up by the 20th century in numbers (“alternative banjo music of the 1890’s”) and when referring to a word as a word  (“too many ‘apostrophe’s’ in this blog post”), and then later in abbreviations (“RSVP’s”) and with symbols (“&’s”), because why the hell not? Never mind that the apostrophe initially was just intended as a stand-in for elision: we wrested it away from those Europeans with all their diacritic corsetry and let it breathe.

The result is that we have a handful of ways to use the apostrophe, none of which were ever consistently “correctly” used. “‘Til,” a contraction of “until,” has lost ground and the peeververein’s favor to “till” and “til.” At end of the 19th century, you still saw possessives used without the apostrophe–“a stones throw” still shows up in edited prose today. By the time that Robert Lowth was writing his grammar in the mid-1700s, he felt that “its” (no apostrophe) was the correct possessive of “it,” though he hewed to “her’s,” “their’s,” and “our’s.” And the apostrophized plural of letters has been inconsistent from the year dot: “bs” and “b’s” and “beez” and “bees” have all been used in print.

What this means for the modern apostrophizer, of course, is that instead of having one or two simple rules to govern apostrophe use, we now have a jam jar full of smudgy guidelines that don’t have any consistent historical application. Even the most consistent rule–the elision rule–gets fubar’d in real life. How long, O Lord, til you end our “ya’ll” sorrow? And that, remember, is the easy rule. What do you do if you are referring to the house that belongs to the married couple with the last name “Jones”? You practically need a fold-out flow chart to figure out whether “the Joneses house” gets an apostrophe and where.

And here’s the rub: the rules are continuing to change. We’re slowly losing those plural apostrophes in “the 1890s” and “RSVPs.” In Britain especially, the possessive apostrophe in some business names like “Harrod’s” and “Waterstone’s” has scarpered. These changes are themselves inconsistent. “RSVPs” but “OD’d”; “the 1890s” but “the ’90s.” But “RSVP’s” just looks right to me, even though I know that “RSVPs” is more common now and I am ostensibly in the know vis-a-vis apostrophes. The heart wants what it wants.

Considering all this, it’s not too surprising that the grocer’s apostrophe flourishes, that people still send out holidays cards signed “The Jones’s,” that even smart people confuse “it’s” and “its.” None of us–not a single one of us–has gotten the apostrophe right in every circumstance because “right” is a moving target, and that’s the thing that we lose sight of during National Grammar Day. I like grammar in all her forms (both linguistic and populist), but I will not hold her up as the eternal unchanging ideal to which all people’s intelligence and fitness must be compared.

I once dated a man who was smart, kind, witty, and incredibly good-looking, and we occasionally exchanged handwritten letters. A few months ago while cleaning out the basement, I came across his letters to me and read a few of them. They were intelligent, funny, throat-baringly honest–and dotted with a couple misused apostrophes. I received these letters during a time when I was an insufferable asshole-pedant, when I freely corrected wrong “who”s and offered unsolicited advice about the terminal preposition because it was proof I was smart. And yet I evidently never corrected this guy, though it would have been just like me to correct the punctuation of someone to whom I was pitching woo (cf. “asshole,” above). It’s almost as though all his other excellent qualities eclipsed his occasional issues with apostrophes.

Reader: I married him, bad apostrophes and all. Our letters are in storage together; I read a few of mine to him. Wrong “who”s and terminal prepositions all over the goddamned page. He doesn’t hold it against me.

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Stop Fighting the “Good” Fight

Today is National (US) Grammar Day, one of the high holy days for language lovers (along with free ice-cream day at Ben & Jerry’s). Dorks like me paint it as a fun time to celebrate English, but let’s be honest: it’s a slyly divisive holiday that’s generally observed entirely by pointing out how other people are Englishing all wrong. (Never you, dear reader. You English perfectly). On National Grammar Day, pedants crow and everyone else cowers. There will be countless articles on everyone’s pet peeves and slideshows of apostrophe abuse. People will proudly declare themselves to be grammar nazis, as if it’s okay to just this once obliquely compare yourself to the most infamous genocidal nutjob in Western history. At least one writer will trot out the favorite metaphor among those who care about grammar: “fight the good fight.”

That will be the article which will cause me to roll my eyes and close the laptop, the article that will drive me to pick up one of the usage dictionaries I have on hand and chuck it as hard as I can against the couch. (No, not the wall! That’ll ruin the book, are you mad?) That will be the article that sets me sputtering and hissing like a teakettle boiling over. Most modern grammarians who are “fighting the good fight” have no idea what their own history is, and are doomed to repeat it. Continue reading

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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: Continue reading

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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.” Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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