Did you know dictionaries are democratic? The real story behind “twerk”

DictionaryI’m guessing many of you don’t understand how a dictionary is created.  It’s true of the vast majority of people — even highly literate ones.  So here’s your chance to get educated about lexicography. That means dictionary-making.

The misconception that dictionaries are authorities on language is pandemic. John McIntyre’s piece”You Could Look It Up” appeared in today’s Baltimore Sun as a response to some poor journalism about the addition of “twerk” to the Oxford Dictionaries Online (not to the Oxford English Dictionary).  McIntyre ends with the following comments:

Language is a rich subject, and linguists and lexicographers have much to tell us about it. But journalism has instead for the past half-century, since the publication of Webster’s Third, made the dictionary a whipping boy for cultural trends that the writer dislikes. This approach has gone stale.

It may surprise many of you to learn that dictionaries are simply a collection of words (or phrases) used by speakers and writers of a language. You know, as opposed to a collection of words officially sanctioned by some expert or experts.

Ben Zimmer, executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times on the same topic as McIntyre last December, which included the following:

This view of The Dictionary as the ultimate arbiter of our shared language is one that dictionary editors themselves are quick to disown. “Lexicographers do not sit in sleek conference rooms and make your language,” Ms. Stamper wrote on her blog. “That’s what you — the reading, writing, speaking public — do. Language is democratic, not oligarchic. That’s where the real glamour is.” [emphasis is mine]

Ben’s referring to Harmless Drudgery, a blog written by Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster.

I think the best way to understand what a dictionary is and what lexicographers do is by watching this wonderful TEDTalk by Erin McKean, CEO of the online dictionary Wordnik.

Just before I pressed the publish button on this post, Gabe over at Motivated Grammar published a piece on this topic. He offers informed opinions about language.  Dictionaries reflect usage. They don’t legislate it. Educate yourself, folks!

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  1. But this is only falsely reassuring, isn’t it? The idea that dictionaries are authoritative is rampant within the translation and editing circles, isn’t it — even though every day we swear by the fact that our knowledge is more than what you can find in dictionaries.

    I’ve always known that certain terms in computer science that are very, very old (e.g., “deque”) have never made it in any dictionary. But a few months ago I read an article mentioning that pottery/cermatic art terms are often not in any dictionaries either. If computer science is too new an art for dictionary editors to record its lingo, then it must be an embarrassment if they still haven’t caught up with the ancient art of pottery, which uses terms so old their original meanins are often already lost in the everyday language (e.g., “throw” and “slip”).

    I’ve watched Erin’s talk before. But, rightly or wrongly, I feel she’s a rarity.

    1. Well . . . I wasn’t trying to be reassuring with this post. I was trying to make clear that dictionaries reflect usage of speakers/writers. And I admit I was thinking about the use of dictionaries by native speakers.

      I have next-to-zero knowledge about translation. Your examples, whether about pottery or computers, show your frustration with the exclusion of technical terms or jargon in dictionaries. Dictionaries reflect the usage of language users. (Because usage is somewhat different, different dictionaries are popular in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and the US — despite the fact that they are all English language dictionaries.) A word enters into a dictionary when there is evidence of its usage among more than one subgroup. Oxford Dictionaries provides a nice graphic explaining the process: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/02/how-new-word-enters-dictionary/. While some computer terms are now used by more than the subgroup of computer experts, many more remain jargon to most English speakers. That means those words aren’t going to appear in a general dictionary.

      Technical dictionaries (medical, legal, sailing, etc.) exist to fill this gap. See this NYT’s piece for a comparison of a handful of technical dictionaries for computer terms: http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/20/a-technical-dictionary-that-fits-the-definition-of-user-friendly/?_r=0.

      I haven’t said anything at all about style guides, the primary tool for editing. Could be a future post . . .

      1. I don’t know, but what’s the difference between the language learner’s dictionary usage and the native speaker’s? Unless we’re talking about the absolute beginner, there isn’t really much difference is there? When I learned English I was told to use English-only dictionaries very early.

        And who’s a native speaker anyway? Age as a criteria obviously doesn’t work, and there are these annoying people who insist that even everyday exposure in an English-speaking country doesn’t count. People in my city of origin often start to learn English as young as two or three; I started learning English when I was two. Does that make me a native speaker? Clearly not, but how about my high school classmate who came to Canada when he was eight and by the time he graduated he didn’t know how to speak except in English? He obviously was one.

        I once read jargon is only technical terminology left unexplained, and once it’s explained it is no longer jargon. I buy this, and if we all buy this then the existence of jargon is only saying dictionaries are not really doing a good job.

        (I learnt “deque” in my first year, or maybe second, and first- or second-year students are hardly computer experts. Given that computer science is so big these days, a word that’s learnt in first or second year must be somewhat of a common word, mustn’t it?)

  2. Maybe I am just odd, but I have no idea what “deque” means despite the fact that I have many years of formal schooling and was editor of the IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication for 10 years. My anecdotal evidence is that most speakers of English don’t know that word, which explains why it isn’t in a general dictionary but might appear in a technical one related to computing.

    Here are six defining features of a “native” speaker copied from Lee (2005) The Native Speaker: An Achievable Model? Asian EFL Journal, vol. 7, issue 2, p. 4.

    1. the individual acquired the language in early childhood (Davies, 1991;
    McArthur, 1992; Phillipson, 1992) and maintains the use of the language (Kubota,
    2004; McArthur, 1992),
    2. the individual has intuitive knowledge of the language (Davies, 1991; Stern,
    3. the individual is able to produce fluent, spontaneous discourse (Davies, 1991;
    Maum, 2002; Medgyes, 1992),
    4. the individual is communicatively competent (Davies, 1991; Liu, 1999; Medgyes,
    1992), able to communicate within different social settings (Stern, 1983),
    5. the individual identifies with or is identified by a language community (Davies,
    1991; Johnson & Johnson, 1998; Nayar, 1998)
    6. the individual does not have a foreign accent (Coulmas, 1981; Medgyes, 1992;
    Scovel, 1969, 1988).

    Linguists differ on how many of these features an individual must possess to be “native.” Some would say one. Others several. I think many would consider you a native speaker of English.

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