The sad news that Chambers Dictionary is about to lose its lexicographic staff prompted a sympathetic article in the Times. Its author, Allan Brown, contrasted the efforts of Internet dictionaries (“pop-cultural hogwash”) with what he regarded as the work of “proper” lexicographers (“we know that our tongue is safe in their hands”). Very nice of him – except that his notion of what dictionary-makers do, and what we’re like, is wrong in every detail. For Brown, proper lexicographers are “white-haired, cardiganed index-carded old duffers … boffinish, pedantic and obsessed; for them the words disinterested and uninterested are as distinct as lions and tigers”.
Let’s deconstruct this. First, you apparently have to be old in order to be a real lexicographer (not like those young upstarts who create dictionaries in cyberspace). This will come as news to many of my colleagues. And cardigans are de rigueur: I have nothing against cardigans but have never owned one.
On to more serious points. It’s a common misconception that dictionaries exist to tell people what they should and shouldn’t say – to be prescriptive in other words – and the corollary is that lexicographers are hawk-eyed pedants ready to pounce on anyone who steps out of line. I have news for Allan Brown – well, not news exactly, because the notion that the lexicographer should be “an historian, not a critic” was first proposed by the Rev. Chenevix-Trench, one of the OED’s founding fathers, back in 1857. The whole point about a dictionary, Trench said, was that it should be an inventory of observable language use, and it isn’t the lexicographer’s job to select only “good” words.
Lots of people get steamed up about language, and the BBC switchboard gets jammed the minute any broadcaster splits an infinitive. But the interesting thing is that the complainers are invariably amateur linguists. Those of us who analyze language for a living are the very last people to make a fuss about the supposed difference between uninterested and disinterested (more on that subject next week).
Allan Brown may also be surprised to learn that the last time I used a “card index” was about 1983. We analyze massive language databases (“corpora”) using sophisticated software tools similar to those used by Google and other players in the language-engineering business. With these resources, we get an accurate picture of how people use written and spoken language in real communicative situations – and this is the raw material for our dictionaries (not a set of ill-founded prejudices about how words “ought” to be used). At a recent conference on e-Lexicography, the topics we discussed included search-engine optimization and the latest computational tools for mining language databases. The subject of correct usage didn’t come up once – most of us are rather disinterested in such matters. Of course, despite our increasing reliance on technology, lexicographers are passionate about language and want to learn more about the way it works. We make a conscientious effort to provide an evidence-based description of the way people use words, but the notion that the language is “safe in our hands” is misguided. We think it is perfectly capable of looking after itself.