linguistics and lexicography Love English

Dictionary labels part III: literary, humorous, and the rest

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© Photodisc / Getty ImagesThis is the third and final post in a mini-series on the style labels used in Macmillan Dictionary. Previous posts looked at the ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ and ‘offensive’ labels; this one addresses the others.

Aside from labels marking (in)formality, the most common are ‘literary’, ‘spoken’, ‘humorous’, ‘old-fashioned’, and ‘journalism’. These are not absolute categories, of course; you’ll often find them qualified with an adverb, for example ‘(mainly) literary’, or ‘(often) humorous’. And sometimes they’re combined, such as ‘informal old-fashioned’ (e.g., cadge, dilly-dally) or ‘spoken humorous’ (e.g., get a room!, clever [sense 4]).

‘Showing approval’ and ‘showing disapproval’ are a useful pair that convey pragmatic information about the speaker’s attitude to the subject. Words with the positive label include childlike, fearless, focused (sense 1), refreshing (sense 2), tireless, and unassuming. Words with the negative label include bourgeois, condescending, gloat, micromanage, miser, oily (sense 3), pander, servile, and show off (sense 1). In fact, for every usage labelled ‘showing approval’, there are about 15 labelled ‘showing disapproval’ – read into that what you will.

Style labels help us become more familiar with the many varieties of English, especially if we’re learning the language. They enable us to use English more effectively and to interpret it more accurately when we hear or see it. Imagine you’re writing a story and want to refer to a baby in a picturesque way. So you look up synonyms and find babe in arms labelled ‘literary’ and lamb labelled ‘spoken’. This helps you decide which, if either, suits your story. If a word you thought was a neutral synonym is labelled ‘humorous’ or ‘old-fashioned’, you may rethink it – or it could be just what you want.

Different dictionaries use different labels, though there is overlap. Unlike some, Macmillan does not use ‘obsolete’. This is because it’s primarily a learner’s dictionary – if a word is obsolete, learners are unlikely to need it. Instead there is the option to say that a word or phrase was used ‘in the past’ or ‘mainly in the past’ (fax, floppy disk), and this is integrated in the definition. As Liz Potter told me, ‘labels don’t tell the whole story – often there is a combination of label and information in the definition’.

People sometimes think that a word’s inclusion in a dictionary elevates its social status. Not so – good dictionaries include many words that are nonstandard, impolite, slang, and even offensive. This is why labels are applied, to clarify the nature and status of these words and indicate the ways and contexts in which they’re used.

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Stan Carey

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