Some months ago, one Clark Elder Morrow published a screed in The Vocabula Review attacking the Oxford English Dictionary for admitting into its sacred precincts vile things that are "not even words." Ill-informed and dogmatic prescriptivism is one of the heaviest crosses those of us who aspire to be reasonable and moderate prescriptivists must bear. I responded to Mr. Morrow's post in a post of my own, "I fear that the gentleman is a coxcomb."
I discover, sadly, that my worst fears have been realized.
Mr. Morrow has responded in a further article in the February 2012 Vocabula Review article, "When Bloggers Attack." This is how it opens:
"I have just come across Mr. John McIntyre's Baltimore Sun article on my April 2011 Vocabula essay, The Self-Mutilation of the OED, in which I bemoan the decline of the Oxford English Dictionary — the same essay Robert Hartwell Fiske was kind enough to include as a Second Preface in his Dictionary of Unendurable English. Mr. McIntyre read my essay and discovered that I am a prescriptivist. Apparently he is something of a robust descriptivist. The very first thing Mr McIntyre does, upon determining that he and I disagree on the purpose of a dictionary, is to call me names.
"He called me a 'coxcomb.' Needless to say, I stagger, I gasp, I reel, clutching my wounded bosom. Yes, that was the very first swipe of his rapier. And mind you, this blinding supernova of wit is from a successor of the Sun's H. L. Mencken, for God's sake. O tempora o mores."
I trust you get the flavor if it.
One problem with Mr. Morrow's approach is his employment of the bankrupt argument that a word he does not like is "not even a word." But any combination of letters attached to a meaning that is comprehensible to other speakers of the same language is manifestly a word, and the only question remaining is whether and in what circumstances one chooses to employ it.
But the other problem, the main problem, is that Mr. Morrow evidently does not understand what the Oxford English Dictionary is for. He evidently expects to to be a tribunal. New words are to be hauled before the beak under the presumption that they are guilty until they can demonstrate their innocence and be granted admission into the language.
But lexicographers are not the membership committee of a country club.Neither is English, with its raffish history, a country club.
The Oxford English Dictionary is, and has been since its beginnings with James A.H. Murray a century and a half ago, a dictionary on historical principles. It records the English language. You will find it full of lumber and old rope, words that fell into disuse generations and even centuries ago. And it will record new words as they come along because new words and new usages are also part of the history and development of English. It will, of course, label words as archaic or colloquial or whatever, because a thoroughgoing history requires classification.(Unless you want history to stop at whatever point Mr. Morrow thinks appropriate.)
But it does not legislate. That is not its purpose. Mr. Morrow attacks it for not doing something that it does not attempt to do. It is as if he labored to produce an essay denouncing a carrot for not being a cucumber.
Some of you may wish to explore Mr. Morrow's counter-argument beyond the opening fusillade I've quoted here. It will require subscription to the journal. My own subscription has been allowed to lapse, and I confess that what I have seen of Mr. Morrow's arguments to date has not persuaded me to pay to see more.