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Yes, it's in the dictionary. Now pipe down

The lexicographers I have met personally or encountered on the Internet have been, mainly, low-key, decorous individuals. They may not be, as Samuel Johnson famously defined the tribe, harmless drudges, but one does not visualize them trashing hotel rooms or crashing stolen police cruisers into buildings.

That is a good thing. If they were more easily inflamed by uninformed comments on their craft, very few ignoramuses would ’scape whipping.

I share the disdain of my colleague Brian White expressed in his post at Talk Wordy to Me, “Please stop whining about the OED’s new words.” He is referring to the commotion over the recent addition to the Oxford English Dictionary of LOL, OMG, and other neologisms that have become widely current, and he is particularly exercised by a Washington Post op-ed piece accusing the Oxford lexicographers of a ludicrous attempt to be hip.

You may be astonished that a newspaper would publish a humorous essay that is not funny, expressing opinion that is not informed, but I’m concerned with something broader than that feeble effort. Why is it that people do not understand what dictionaries are for?

The OED in particular describes itself as a dictionary on historical principles. It attempts to establish the pedigree and descent through generations of every word it lists. And so it is full of words that had their day but are no longer written and uttered. You can find brabble there, a word meaning to quarrel noisily about trifles. It lost out to squabble a long time back. Because it is such an enormous word-hoard, it will be consulted for decades, perhaps centuries, by scholars and by readers who are puzzled by obscure words. Someday, someone reading texts from the early twenty-first century will not know what OMG means, and the OED will be there.

Beyond that, it has been fifty years since the descriptivist Webster’s Third New International came out, giving schoolteachers the fantods because it included ain’t and sending Dwight Macdonald and other worthies to the ramparts to fume. We have now had five decades of the publication of dictionaries that earnestly attempt to show how people actually speak and write English rather than instruct them how they ought to, and people who write op-ed pieces still want lexicographers to legislate for the language.

I suppose such people are demanding certainty. And when they die and are in Hell they can demand fresh-squeezed lemonade, with as much consequence.

If you want to know the ways people use the language, consult a dictionary. If you want advice on how to use the language effectively, you can consult [cough] You Don’t Say.



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