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When Dictionaries Ruled the World

It’s 2018 and we live in an era where the Oxford English Dictionary adds words to its lexicon willy-nilly. If a word is used somewhere in the word by an English speaking person, it will be accepted into that hallowed tome.

We live in a time when descriptivists, lexicographers who define a language based on common usage, have won out over prescriptivists, lexicographers who define a language based on their perceived rules of right and wrong.

But that wasn’t always the case. The Atlantic has an article about the first time that descriptivists gained the upper hand on the prescriptivists.

During the uproar over Webster’s Third, this history of dictionaries as a form of self-help literature collided head-on with the societal upheaval of the 1960s. In the quarter-century that had elapsed since the previous edition, new editors at the Merriam-Webster company had set to work assembling a dictionary informed by the study of linguistics, a discipline that took a neutral stance on grammar and usage. Unfortunately, they didn’t reckon with their customers’ emotional attachment to the older, more judgy style of dictionary making.

At the time, the press responded with knee-jerk revulsion to descriptivism. The New York Times, for example, dubbed Webster’s Third “a disaster.” The New Yorker devoted 24 pages to Dwight Macdonald’s dyspeptic evaluation of the book, which seems excessively long even by then-editor William Shawn’s standards. The Atlantic critic Wilson Follett was also not a fan. His review in the January 1962 issue called the book “a very great calamity.” (The magazine ran a kinder evaluation by Bergen Evans four months later.)

These vitriolic responses came as a shock to the Merriam staff, who were accustomed to thinking of themselves as essentially harmless, like Johnson had. Many American readers, though, didn’t want a nonhierarchical assessment of their language. They wanted to know which usages were “correct,” because being able to rely on a dictionary to tell you how to sound educated and upper class made becoming upper class seem as if it might be possible. That’s why the public responded badly to Webster’s latest: They craved guidance and rules.

Here’s an easy way to tell the difference between a prescriptivist and a descriptivist.

A prescriptivist would insist that you cannot use a singular they and that you can’t use "literally" as a synonym for "figuratively". A descriptivist would point out that famous novelists have been breaking those rules for longer than prescriptivists have been trying to enforce them, and invite the prescriptivists to go hold a seance and take the issue up with Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

While on the one hand it is good that descriptivists are in charge; living languages are all about communicating rather than following the rules (anyone who value rules this much should go devote their energies to Latin and stop bugging the rest of us).

On the other hand, the descriptivists have gotten to the point that they will accept any word as valid – even if it’s not even a word. In fact, the OED even named an emoji as its word of the year in 2015.

Surely that is a step too far?

image by teclasorg  via Flickr

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Bruce August 7, 2018 um 6:21 pm

You might want to edit this Nate — little to much duplication 😉

Nate Hoffelder August 7, 2018 um 7:03 pm

wow – that was weird

Richard Hershberger August 9, 2018 um 11:09 am

The disjunct between Webster’s Second and Third is routinely greatly exaggerated, and has been since the Third was first published. The kerfluffle was partly about the Second being a bit dated by the time. Most of the additions to the Third were simply in the ordinary course of things, but were caught up in the broader controversy. Then there were things like the Third designating the register of some words using more polite vocabulary than had the Second. The information was still there, but some people were outraged by the non-judgmental "non-standard" when they felt it should be "wrongety-wrong-wrong!" The frequent claim that such information was omitted is a lie. Mostly, however, this became a proxy for the culture wars of the 1960s. For those who looked back at the ’30s as a golden age (and how screwed up is that!) the Third represented all that had gone wrong with society. What in fact was or was not in either the Second or the Third was largely beside the point.

As for emoji, any linguist will tell you that defining what constitutes a "word" is surprisingly difficult. It is one of those problems that seem easy until to get serious about solving it. I suspect that naming an emoji the Word of the Year was Oxford’s sly commentary on the issue.

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