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Why say pundigrion when you could say pun?

About 20 years ago, I was interviewed by the Education Editor of the London Observer about a new dictionary I’d been involved in. We had a wide-ranging conversation about the distinctive features of the new edition, and much of this focussed on the use of language corpora – at that time still a novelty. The following Sunday I scanned the paper’s Education section to see what they had said. No luck. I eventually found a piece in the News section, with the headline “Dictionary says ‘bonking’ is all right”. The article bore no relationship to anything we had discussed, and talked exclusively about the new words we had included in the dictionary – one of which was bonking (an informal word for having sex).

So it came as no surprise to see a similar piece in last Sunday’s Observer by Robert McCrum, this time about a new dictionary from Chambers. It was largely devoted to two themes: first, the inevitable ‘new’ words (most of them far from new in fact), and second an enthusiastic survey of the various obscure and obsolete words Chambers had ‘rescued’ from oblivion. One of these was pundigrion. Heard of it? No, I thought not. It is extremely rare and doesn’t occur even once in our corpus of 1.7 billion words. Rare words are rare for a reason: they have not been found to be useful, and have quietly died out. Pundigrion, for example, means the same as pun, so it’s no mystery that it failed to make much impact on the lexicon of English. (The OED gives it the label ‘Obs. rare’, which means it is not only obsolete – its last recorded use was almost 200 years ago – but it was never in common use even when still ‘alive’.)

There have been so many amazing developments in linguistics and lexicography in the last 30 years. Aided by large corpora and intelligent software, we have made extraordinary advances in understanding how languages work and how people learn them: about the role of phraseology and collocation, about the importance of frequency and ‘recurrence‘, about pragmatics, metaphor, and much much more. Against this exciting background, it exasperates lexicographers that newspapers seem incapable of focussing on anything but trivia. (I’ve blogged before about the chasm that exists between what lexicographers actually do, and the ridiculous public image of them perpetuated by the media.) We’re told, for example, that the Chambers dictionary includes tweet, and so it should. But why is this interesting, when tens of millions of people have been tweeting for the last four years, and everyone knows what the word means (unless they have been living in a cave since 2007)?

I don’t want to come across as a killjoy: there is a place for words like pundigrion. Chambers says it’s a ‘dictionary for word lovers’ and – just like stamp collectors or birdwatchers – word lovers are fascinated by what is rare or unusual. Our own blog and BuzzWords have discussed many of the ‘new’ words mentioned by McCrum, including bromance, defriend, and locavore – which was recently analysed in the blog and was one of our BuzzWords almost four years ago. And the great thing about the online medium (despite complaints like this one) is that it allows us the space to actually talk about these words and their social and cultural significance – which is much better than just telling people what they mean (they probably already know that). With our blog, BuzzWords and Open Dictionary, we can monitor the way English is changing, and explore its wonderful diversity as a global language.

But we need to keep in mind what dictionaries are really for. A dictionary’s main function is as a communicative tool – a resource for helping its users understand what they read or hear, and for enabling them to communicate more effectively. Its role as a storehouse of curiosities is secondary. For those interested in pundigrions and such like, English has one of the world’s best historical dictionaries. But anyone who thinks the function of a mainstream dictionary is to preserve words that have been (rightly) obsolete for centuries should try talking to a lexicographer.

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Michael Rundell


  • Great article, Michael. I had never heard of pundigrion, and I don’t expect I’ll ever use it (except possibly for its own sake, as a trivial fact). Newspapers’ focus on new entries and obsolete words is understandable, given that it makes for an easy read that can be filed and framed as a popular, ‘quirky’ story.
    I wonder too whether it has something to do with the rate of language change. Languages are dying out at a great rate, and dialects are shifting (as they do, except maybe faster now), so the fixation on newish and archaic terms can tap superficially into uncertainty about what that all means, nostalgia for what once was, and anxiety about where it’s going. (Cue comments about the state of the language today, with its LOLs and Twitterings.)
    Regardless, it is a shame that there’s comparatively little interest in the remarkable advances that have taken place in linguistics and lexicography in our lifetime.

  • Why do newspaper copy editors do this? Because it’s their job when dealing with a story about the release of a lot of uninteresting-to-outsiders facts (which is what a dictionary is, for people who aren’t wordniks). They are trained to look for the quirky fact embedded in the huge pile of bumf and make it the story lead. There’s a good discussion of this style in Headlines and Deadlines by Garst and Bernstein (1940), the classic work about copy editing, under the discussion of elephant (“shoot it in the heart”) vs. locust (“blanket the ground”) stories. Picking out bonking or pundigrion treats the story as an elephant.

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