It’s Dictionary Day – go split an infinitive!

Posted by on October 16, 2011

It’s ‘Dictionary Day’ in America: October 16th marks the birthday of Noah Webster, father of American lexicography. Webster was born in 1758 – just three years after the publication of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary – and published his own great work, the American Dictionary of the English Language, in 1828. Today’s Merriam-Webster dictionaries are in a direct line of succession from the work of Noah Webster, but the name ‘Webster’s’ has (like aspirin, escalator and hoover) become a generic term applied to dictionaries of all types (some of a quality that would make old Noah turn in his grave).

Like Johnson, Webster uses the Preface of his dictionary to explain his motivation and outline the principles underpinning his work. He wanted to produce ‘a dictionary suited to the people of the United States’. The US had ‘different forms of government, different laws, institutions and customs’, and this meant that many terms found in English dictionaries like Johnson’s would need new definitions, ‘accommodated to the condition and institutions of the people in these States’. At a more philosophical level, Webster’s approach reflected the republican ideals of the newly-formed USA, and he saw his dictionary as part of the grander project to escape the cultural dominance of the ‘mother country’.

Before becoming a lexicographer, he had written books on spelling and grammar, and believed that both could and should be simplified. In a country made up mainly of immigrants, Webster wanted the language to be ‘improved in regularity, so as to be more easily acquired by our own citizens and by foreigners’. His dictionary institutionalized simpler spellings such as plow, center, color, and program, and spelling remains the most obvious difference between American and British English.

In his own Preface, Samuel Johnson had acknowledged the inevitability of language change (and the futility of trying to prevent it), since ‘language is the work of man, of a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be derived’. Noah Webster was equally clear that language came from the people and was not ‘an abstract construction of the learned’, and his approach was essentially descriptive rather than prescriptive. All serious lexicographers subscribe to this view. But one of the ironies of our profession is that large sections of the public see ‘the dictionary’ as being the arbiter of what is ‘correct’, and look to lexicographers to put them right.

This paradox led to a cause célèbre in 1961 when Merriam-Webster brought out Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. In the latest edition of their flagship dictionary, Merriam’s editors went to great lengths to describe the language as it was, rather than telling people what they ‘ought’ to be saying. A number of style labels from earlier editions were swept away, including incorrect, improper, and colloquial. Famously the word ain’t was included without any style label, but with a usage note to the effect that – though disapproved of – it was used by many ‘cultivated speakers’. The dictionary was condemned for its ‘permissiveness’ (there is a whole book on the subject), and one reviewer wrote that ‘Having descended from God’s throne of supreme authority, the Merriam folks are now seated around the city desk, recording like mad’.

The mistake here was not this account of the editors’ methodology, but the notion that by engaging in descriptive lexicography they had abandoned the principles of their founding father. On the contrary, they were following his lead. So if you want to celebrate Noah Webster and Dictionary Day, do something to upset a pedant!

Comments (2)
  • Michael Rundell seems to pose the standard false dichotomy of English ‘as it is spoken’ (by the full range of intellect and literacy) versus ‘correct’ English (implying impractical academics and their like), but there is a real problem when the cost is ineffective communication based on the lowest common denominator of pronunciation and meaning. Like a broken rudder and sail, any tendency for pronunciation guides to express unstressed vowels as a schwa, and definitions to encourage misuse just because it is use of some kind does society & culture & industry a disservice. That said, and given the limitations of even careful language to transfer the subtlety of crude or ephemeral thought from one human to another, dictionaries are one of the most powerful tools we have as a literate species for sharing meaning, intent, and understanding with the universal tokens of speech and writing, across distance and time.

    Posted by jb on 16th October, 2011
  • Thanks JB. This brings us back to the question of what the role of the dictionary is or ought to be. If I understand you rightly, you’re suggesting there is a danger that if dictionaries merely report usage, they risk encouraging ‘misuse’ (e.g. by including definitions of meanings which some people consider wrong, such as the ‘irritate’ sense of aggravate). As a dictionary naimed mainly at learners of English, we feel a duty to warn users that certain usages are disapproved of, as in this note at the entry for less: ‘In informal English, less is often found with plural nouns, but many people consider this to be incorrect’. And we label some usages (like innit) as ‘very informal’, as an indication that they wouldn’t be appropriate in many (or even most) situations. So we avoid being judgemental but flag up potential pitfalls. What lexicographers dislike most, however, are ‘made-up’ rules with no rational basis, like the injunction against splitting infinitives or using ‘hopefully’ in its most usual meaning.

    Posted by Michael on 19th October, 2011
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