John McIntyre

Lexicographers, bless their hearts

The other day I cooed here in Wordville over the publication of the final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English, and yesterday Mary Beth Marklein quoted those sentiments in an article published in USA Today. I stand by those statements.
DARE is a project underwritten by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the oldest project of the endowment, representing half a century of work. The next time you hear someone railing against government expenditure, keep in mind that your tax dollars could, and do, go for worse things than preserving the marks of our distinctive national voice.
I have been thinking of the scores of scholars who have labored over this work, and the hundreds and thousands of contributors who made it possible, and the heroic efforts over the past century and a half to assemble the great word hoard of the Oxford English Dictionary, cataloguing the richness and diversity of English.
There are people who disparage this work. I wrote recently about Clark Elder Morrow's bluster at The Vocabula Review about the OED. He is representative of the class of writers about language and usage who write mainly to disparage. Not that we lack example of slack and unskillful writing to criticize, but the stickler attitude Morrow expresses carries a narrow, self-righteous, sour tone that repels. He writes to exclude.
Contrast Ben Zimmer's recent column in The Boston Globe on meh, the expressive monosyllable lifted from Yiddish (which has so gloriously enriched the American idiom) and popularized by that great engine of cultural dissemination, The Simpsons. How can you not enjoy the tracing-out of the growth of this usage, or the zest with which Mr. Zimmer pursues it? Who would not delight to discover that American regional English has the expression turd floater for a heavy rain?A correspondent used the verb piece ("snack") this week, and I instantly recalled the narrator of Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." finding her family in China Grove, Mississippi, "piecing on the ham." Who would want to limit the range?
English has vast resources, both formal and demotic, which lexicographers and linguists, laboring in their dusty trades, assemble and explain for us. Be grateful for their work, and don't be stingy with the wealth.
NOTE: Lest the reader misunderstand, I should point out that my dusty trade is that of the editor, and editors are thoroughgoing, though informed, prescriptivists. Keep in mind that when I read your text, if a word seems out of place, misused, inappropriate for audience or occasion or publication, the red pencil is always poised to strike. Share the wealth, but don't be a drunken sailor.
NOTE 2: One of our boffins at The Sun has attached a widget to this blog that will display on the main page the number of comments on a post. It is no longer necessary for you to spend a page view to determine whether anyone has commented. But you will have to use a page view to see what the comments are.