Lexicographers and the damned

You know about bibliomancy, right? Divination by books? You take the Bible, for example, allow it to fall open at random, close your eyes, and stab your finger at a passage. Opening your eyes, you read it for guidance about the future.

It's a very old technique, exemplifying a superstitious reverence for books, and it reminds one that people use books for purposes not originally intended.


On Twitter today, @jessesheidlower pointed to an article by Michelle Atagana at Memeburn, "Kill me now! 'Lolz', 'Ridic' & 'Mwhahaha' now in the Oxford Dictionaries Online." It opens, "It's official, we are all going to hell and lexicographers are leading the way. The geniuses at Oxford Dictionary decided a while ago that it needed to keep up with the times by adding popular social media words to its dictionary."

Well, as Mark Twain observed, "Heaven for climate, Hell for society."

Ms. Atagana's subsequent rant, which does not require further quotation, follows a familiar pattern. It recurs every time a publisher announces that neologisms have been added to a dictionary. It has recurred regularly ever since the spectacular brouhaha attendant on the publication of Webster's Third half a century ago. It is an annual reminder that there are more or less literate adults who do not understand what dictionaries are for, or rather put them to uses for which they are not designed.

People imagine that dictionaries somehow legislate language, as in the schoolmarmish lament that Webster's Third included ain't and therefore legitimized it. They imagine that inclusion of a word endorses it. They imagine that dictionaries have some power to retard changes in meaning. Or they imagine that lexicographers are wild-eyed radicals eager to subvert all that is virtuous and holy.*

There's really not much to be done about such people. Their ideas are fixed and impervious to reason. The best we can probably accomplish is to instruct the young in what dictionaries are for. Thus, if you have children or are in some position to instruct the young, tell them this:

Item: Dictionaries are for looking up things you don't know: meanings of words and their spellings and pronunciations and origins.

Item: Dictionaries record what words people use and how they use them. A dictionary may advise you that a word is widely considered slang or casual or offensive, but it doesn't tell you whether or not to use them. You have to make your own choices.

Item: Dictionaries collect new words and new meanings because when they are new, not everyone knows them and some people will have to look them up. And if they fade out of current use, someone in the future is going to have to look up what they meant back in the day.

Item: Carrying on about the inclusion of words you don't like in the dictionary makes you look like a fool.

*The ones I've met tend to be bookish rather than wild-eyed. Not particularly exotic.