Know Your Words

Coward or Dastard?

Dastard!Ever since the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I’ve been mulling how a person could bring himself to do such a thing. How twisted, lost, empty, and or monstrous can a person be? I mean, hate is one thing. Going on a murderous rampage is quite another … isn’t it? Are those two things closer than they used to be?

I’ve also been wondering, albeit to a lesser extent, what word most accurately describes the kind of person who perpetrates such acts of terror. The word that keeps coming to mind is coward and, indeed, those responsible for terrorist acts are commonly labeled as such. In fact, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis referred to the synagogue shooter as a coward the day after the incident. I understand why. The killer gunned down 11 people who ranged in age from 54 to 97 in a house of worship. Clearly, he sought out a target that wouldn’t put up much of a fight. (Even if you agree with this lunatic’s ideology you have to admit there is absolutely nothing courageous about ambushing unarmed seniors.)

Yet, despite knowing why Mattis used it, the word coward, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, “A reproachful designation for one who displays ignoble fear or want of courage in the face of danger, pain, or difficulty,” still seems somewhat lacking in this particular context. Although heavy on shame, there is nothing sinister in the OED’s definition, nothing that speaks to the shooter’s inhumane and unjust acts. Put bluntly, it addresses neither the shooter’s intent to kill nor the defenselessness and vulnerability of his victims.

To see if I could find another, more expansive definition of coward, I checked the other references at my disposal. The American Heritage Dictionary (3rd Ed.) parrots the OED’s definition mentioned above. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary does the same and then adds the senses “lacking courage; timid” and “proceeding from excessive fear or timidity (e.g., a coward cry).” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Ed.) offers “One who shows disgraceful fear or timidity” and Webster’s Third International Dictionary defines coward as, “one who shows ignoble fear: a basely timid, easily frightened, and easily daunted person.”

Strike one.

To see if the word somehow lost a sense of inhumanity or maleficence I hit up the etymology texts on the SDCL’s shelves. All are generally in agreement that, as the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology puts it:

Coward, which before 1250 was couard, [is] borrowed from Old French coart, from coe “tail,” which comes from Latin coda, dialectical variant of cauda “tail.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, perhaps [it is] a reference to the tail in its allusion to an animal “turning tail” in fright or to the habit of a frightened animal of drawing the tail between the hind legs.

Strike two.

As interesting as that is, it wasn’t much help, so I  tried another approach and began investigating the synonyms of coward to see if there was a related term that captured the sense of evil and malignancy. It turns out there is. The word I was looking for is dastard and, according to Webster’s Third International Dictionary, it is defined as “one who carries out malicious or sneaky acts without exposing himself to danger.” Webster’s Third also includes dastardly under it’s list of synonyms for coward and notes, “dastardly is used in references to situations and personalities blending utter cowardice with the treacherous or outrageous.”

Nailed it.

Curious to see what other dictionaries had to say about dastard, I consulted the (exasperated-sounding) Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language. The former offers, “One who meanly shrinks from danger, especially one who does malicious acts in a skulking way,” whereas the latter gives the curt (but nonetheless charming) description, “a mean, sulking coward.”

Really nailed it.

_________________________________________

Postscript:

1) If you’d like to donate to Tree of Life synagogue or support the survivors & victims’ families, see the information here.

2) Interested in what other synonyms for coward (or cowardice) might have escaped me, I looked between the covers of the Dictionary of Uncommon Words (DCW) and The Thinker’s Thesaurus (TT), both of which contained some real gems. Among them are:

Invertebracy: The state or quality of being without a backbone, hence, metaphorically spineless; lack of strength or character. (DCW)

Poltroonery: Cowardice, cowardly behavior (DCW/TT)

Pusillanimity: A cowardly, irresolute, or fainthearted condition (DCW/TT)

Recreancy: Cowardice, treason, or disloyalty (DCW)

Retromingent: Urinating backwards. According to the TT, “it has taken on a slang meaning — cowardly — in addition to being used as kind of a general, all-purpose insulting way to describe a person.

Know Your Words

Toxic: Poison Is Just the Beginning

Beelzebub_and_them_with_himYesterday, CNN reported that Oxford Dictionaries selected toxic as its word of the year.

Strictly defined as “poisonous,” Oxford Dictionaries says that its research shows that “this year more than ever, people have been using ‘toxic’ to describe a vast array of things, situations, concerns and events.”

I agree, the word has been getting a lot of use lately, but I wondered: Is it really “strictly defined” as “poisonous”?

Kind of. The Oxford English Dictionary does indeed define the word as “of the nature of a poison; poisonous.” However, it also defines toxic as “caused or produced by a poison; due to poisoning.” The American Heritage Dictionary offers much the same, but rephrases things a tad differently: “Capable of causing injury or death, especially by chemical means.”

Not to be outdone, Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) echoes these definitions by associating toxin with “exhibiting symptoms of infection or toxicosis (aka: a pathological condition caused by the action of a poison or toxin),” and then adds a more modern, and dare I say contemporary, take on the word: “extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful.”

That’s zeitgeist-y, for sure, but it still falls a little short, which is why I took a minute to see what a medical dictionary had to say about the term. As suspected, I came across the following in Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary (27th edition):

Toxin a poison; frequently used to refer specifically to a protein produced by some higher plants, certain animals, and pathogenic bacteria, which is highly toxic for other organisms. Such substances are differentiated from the simple chemical poisons and the vegetable alkaloids by their high molecular weight and antigenicity.

If that wasn’t enough, the entry then goes on to list a variety of conditions (e.g., anthrax toxicosis) caused by those aforementioned plants, animals, and bacteria. How’s that for thorough?

Okay, so that’s what toxic means, but where does the word come from? To answer that question, I turned to my etymological dictionaries, all of which tell pretty much the same tale about the word’s origin. Here’s how the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins puts it:

The etymological meaning underlying toxic is of “poisoned arrows.” It’s ultimate source is Greek toxon “bow,” which also gave English toxophily “archery.” From it was derived toxikos “of bows and arrows,” which formed the basis of a noun toxikon “poison for putting on arrows.” Latin took this over as toxicum “poison,” and the medieval Latin derivative toxicus gave English toxic.

Yet, while several books spoke of toxic’s etymology only one, Campbell’s Psychiatric Dictionary (6th Ed.), gives the 4-1-1 on some cool, toxic terms. Among them are:

Toxicomania, a craving for poison (aka: drug dependency)
Toxicophobia, a fear of poison
Toxiphrenia, or schizophrenia  associated with toxic, delirious reaction.

Know Your Words

Of Enemies and Intertextuality

T2C,_Fred_Barnard,_Darnay_leaving_the_courtroom_to_be_executed_the_following_day_(III,11)

You know Trump’s penchant for referring to the media as the “enemy of the people” is reckless (at best). [For more on why it’s reckless, see our previous post about rhetoric.] You know that adherents of ideologues throughout history have used that phrase to ignite ire in the hearts of their followers (Nazis, Marxists/Leninists, etc). But did you know there’s a word (from the discipline known as Cultural Studies) that refers to the phenomenon wherein a commonly used phrase dredges up the cultural baggage of those people and/or movements who used it in the past?

That word is intertextuality and, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory, it is defined as:

… a theory of meaning and meaning production. It holds that all texts (in the widest sense of the term – e.g., written works, films, art, etc) are composed of other, pre-existing texts held together in a state of constant interaction. It means that there are no original texts, no complete texts, and no singular texts: all texts exist within a state of partiality and inter-dependency with other texts. This is not simply a fact of language, but a necessary precondition.

The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory credits Julia Kristeva with coining the term in 1966 as a way of “denoting the interdependence of literary texts, the interdependence of any one literary text with all those that have gone before it.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: all this talk of literary terms, and texts is kind of high-brow and smacks of intellectualism. This isn’t exactly Trump’s forte. I mean, he doesn’t even read.

I agree. It seems somewhat outside his grasp. He does, however, have advisors and maybe even a speech writer on his staff (although I wouldn’t want to cop to having that job), and one or two of them are likely aware of it. If that’s the case, the President’s use of “enemy of the people” would be an example of what’s known as “obligatory intertextuality,” which occurs when “the writer deliberately invokes a comparison or association between two (or more) texts.”

And what about the audience (those hearing the president’s words)? What if they don’t understand or catch the reference to the earlier uses of the term?

In this regard, intertextuality is like the Washington Post in that, if you don’t get it, you don’t get it.* In other words, for those that understand the phrase’s cultural significance, they get the full force of it, with all its cultural baggage. If they don’t, then they take it at face value.

This brings us to another intriguing term that’s been getting a lot of play lately: dog whistle.

Know Your Words

Of Noise and Seasickness

Are_Enchanted_with_the_Delightful_Prospect_Off_the_BarAt the beginning of his essay “On Noise,” the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer writes:

The super abundant display of vitality, which takes the form of knocking, hammering, and rumbling things about, has proved a daily torment to me all my life long. There are people, it is true — a great many people — who smile at such things, because they are not sensitive to noise; but they are just the very people who are also not sensitive to argument, or thought, or poetry, or art, in a word, to any kind of intellectual influence. The reason of it is that the tissue of their brains is of a very rough and course quality.

Wow. Dumb people aren’t bothered by noise because their brain tissue is rough and course. Just wow. How is this dude a renowned philosopher? And while we’re asking questions, what is noise anyway? It seems to be one of those words that is difficult to define, yet something we “know” when we hear it.

This hasn’t stopped lexicographers from trying, though. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, defines noise as:

1) Loud outcry, clamor, or shouting; din or disturbance made by one or more persons
2) Common talk, rumor, report; evil report, slander, scandal, etc. (Obsolete)
3) A loud or harsh sound of any kind; a din
4) A sound which is not remarkably loud
5) An agreeable or melodious sound. (Now rare)
6) To make an outcry, to talk much or loudly about a particular thing.

Clearly, not all of these definitions1 (e.g., 2, 4, 5, and 6) apply to the way Schopenhauer uses the word noise in the excerpt above. This makes sense, however, as there is more than one kind of noise. It’s also not surprising (and perhaps a good example of how dictionary makers “borrow” from one another), that many of the other dictionaries on the SDCL’s shelves offer the exact same definitions of noise, save for the addition of  engineering’s use of noise to refer to any interference that reduces the clarity or quality of a signal.

That said, as if to reduce the “noise” and/or enhance the clarity of the word’s definition between its covers,  the first definition for noise in the American Heritage Dictionary (1969) reads, “A sound of any kind, especially when loud, confused, indistinct, or disagreeable.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) takes a similar approach and bolsters its entry for noise with a sense that reads, “sound: especially one that lacks agreeable musical quality or is noticeably unpleasant.”

I get the feeling that ol’ Schopenhauer would approve.

And speaking of music, I thought it’d be worthwhile to see what my music dictionaries would have to say about noise, so I  hastily opened their covers, some of which uttered an audible crack.  Much to my dismay, of the five on the shelf only two — the Lectionary2 of Music (Slonimsky) and the Music Theory Dictionary (Lee) — had anything to say on the matter. The former defines noise as:

A collection of tonally unrelated simultaneous sounds of different frequencies and intensities, meaningless to musical or even unmusical ears…. White noise is an integral assembly of sounds of various frequencies.

Putting aside the phrase “unmusical ears,” the Music Theory Dictionary cranks it up to 11 and, in addition to offering an (acoustical) definition of noise, “A sound with partials of irregular proportion,” [What? – Ed.] provides a nice definition of what’s commonly known as “experimental” or “noise” music:

The attempt to increase the material of music by including noises to reflect the complexity of modern life. Accomplished through the use of six families of noises to be reproduced mechanically, i.e. (1) booms, thunderclaps, explosions, etc. (2) whistles, hisses, etc. (3) whispers, murmurs, etc. (4) screams, screeches, etc. (5) noises obtained by percussion on metals, wood, etc. and (6) voices of animals and men, shouts, shrieks, groans, etc.

Given his displeasure at hearing “hammering” in his vicinity, it’s safe to say Schopenhauer wouldn’t care for the noise music and its sounds “obtained by percussion on metals, wood, etc.” I’m also willing to bet that our esteemed philosopher wouldn’t care much for the sounds at the root of the word’s etymology. I know I wouldn’t. I can’t take hearing them now.

If what I just wrote isn’t clear, just listen …

According to Eric Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, the word noise was adopted by Middle English speakers from Old French noise, meaning noisy, strife, din, which is derived from Latin nausea and the noise “made by a ship full of [seasick] passengers groaning and vomiting during bad weather.”2

Eww. Etymology is gross.

_________________________________________________

Notes:

  1. Some of these definitions (2 and 6) pertain to gossiping or “raising a stink” about a particular issue in the news that “sticks in your craw.” One (4) pertains to seemingly any noise at all that isn’t music, as in “My Rice Krispies make noise when I pour milk over them,” and the last (5) seems to reference the idea of “making a joyful noise.”
  2. Is “Lectionary” a word? I can tell you the spell check in the old Word Press ain’t too keen on it. Thus, I looked it up. The short answer is yes, it is. A lectionary is “a book or a list of lections for reading in a divine service.” That seems like a rather haughty title to give your book, but … you know … to each his own I guess. So what’s a lection then? Lection refers to “a version of a passage in a particular copy or edition of a text; a variant reading” or, in other words, a selection from a larger passage. Now we know.

 

Know Your Words · Word Wednesday

Rhetoric: From Truth to Persuasiveness

Spiegel_Const_van_Rhetoriken_1555In the wake of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, reporters, commentators, and talking heads of every sort have argued that the perpetrator was spurred on by President Trump’s demeaning and divisive rhetoric against immigrants, the media, Democrats, and pretty much anyone who refuses to bow down and kiss his ring. The President, of course, denies any culpability and has struggled to deflect such accusations on to the media for its insistence on reporting1 the hateful things he says in public.

Sigh ….

All of this makes me wonder if the President knows what rhetoric is. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), rhetoric is defines as:

1) The art of using language so as to persuade or influence others
2) Speech or writing expressed in terms calculated to persuade; hence language characterized by artificial or ostentatious expression
3) Skill in or faculty of using eloquent and persuasive language

On one hand, I’d say he is aware of it. Even though it’d be a stretch to call the man eloquent, there is no doubt that he knows how to speak to the folks that make up his base and keep them on his side. Yet, if that’s true — if he’s deliberately using language to influence the behavior of his supporters — then it presents something of a problem, for he should then understand how the rhetorical devices that pepper his “speeches” (e.g., the references to immigrants as “invaders” and all the rest of his demeaning language) might spur some of those supporters to shoot up a synagogue.

Etymology: Say What?

Rhetoric2, says the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, is a Middle English word that comes from Old French rethorique, via Latin and Greek rhetorike (tekhne “art” + rhetor “rhetor”). In ancient Greece, a rhetor, says the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, was a “public speaker” or an “orator.” Partridge’s Origins: A Short  Etymological Dictionary of Modern English offers a more detailed account:

Greek rhematikos, adjective of rhema, a word … rhema is akin to Greek rhetor, a “teacher of oratory,” whence via Late Latin, “the learned,” English “rhetor“. Both rhema and rhetor, for wherma and whretor, derive from eiro (werio), “I say.”

Persuasiveness over Truthfulness

So in the end, rhetoric boils down to the words that you or I “say,” but what if, when all is said and done, you haven’t said much of anything? This, sadly, is what rhetoric has come to mean today, and not just because of our current president.

As noted in the Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory, rhetorical skills were revered in antiquity. Nowadays, not so much.

[Rhetoric] has been the subject of scholarly study since at least the 4th century BC. It was a central component of Classical learning alongside logic and grammar in both Athens and Rome,3 where it was divided into three categories: judicial, deliberative, and epideictic. While Classical scholars considered rhetorical skill essential to the good conduct of both politics and philosophy, and as a consequence eminent scholars of the time like Aristotle wrote treatises on the subject, over time, but especially in the Romantic period, rhetoric has come under suspicion for emphasizing persuasiveness over truthfulness. Rhetoric in some contexts, particularly in the political arena, has become a code word for empty or insubstantial discourse.

The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy offers a similar, albeit more succinct, take on the subject. Its entry for rhetoric reads, “Speech or writing that lacks substance but is aimed at persuading an audience is often called ‘mere rhetoric.'”

Even the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology piles on. It defines rhetoric as “The art of persuasive, influential, or entertaining speech or oratory” and “bombastic or mannered speech or writing, or language that seems impressive but lacks true meaning.”

Lacks substance? Bombastic? Emphasizing persuasiveness over truthfulness? This is beginning to sound familiar. It’s almost as if these books were written with a particular person in mind.

___________________________________________

Notes:

1) I thought it might be useful to point out that the Oxford Dictionary of Journalism defines reporter as “A journalist who finds things out rather than one who merely processes, polishes, and presents the work of others…. Their role is, essentially, to discover and/or verify fresh information about topical and newsworthy events, to turn such information into stories appropriate to their news organization’s outlets, and — just as important — to discard information that does not stand up to scrutiny.”

2) According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the spelling of rhetoric (with rh-) is first recorded about 1475, in imitation of the Latin spelling. The extended sense of “mastery of literary eloquence, elegance in writing or speech,” appeared in Middle English in 1395, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The depreciatory meaning of “language characterized by artificial, ostentatious, or exaggerated expression,” is first recorded in the 1500s.

3) For an amazingly in-depth account of how the ancient Greeks (and to a lesser extent, the Romans) thought about rhetoric, along with some insight as to how it evolved over time in Greek society, check out the entry for rhetoric in The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art (Seyffert). Here’s a taste:

Among the Greeks, rhetorike comprised the practical as well as the theoretical art of speaking, and rhetor denoted an orator no less than a teacher of oratory. Among the Romans, it denoted only the latter, the actual speaker being called orator. The first men, who reduced oratory to a system capable of being taught, appeared among the Sicilian Greeks, who, according to testimony of the ancients, were distinguished for the keenness of their understanding and their love of disputation.

Front Matter Friday

Friendly Guides and Well-Traveled Roads

41HUYYz9+aL._SL500_
The WNWDAL

I missed “Scripture Sunday.” I missed “Text Tuesday.” I even missed “Word Wednesday.” I’m a bad person. I have a good excuse, though: I got a job! I will not, however, let gainful employment stand in the way of Front Matter Friday (FMF). In fact, I’ll even give it to you a day early because the workplace gods have smiled upon me and I have the day off.

This week’s installment of FMF comes from my favorite general dictionary: Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition (World Publishing Co. 1966). I’m not really sure why I prefer this dictionary to the others at my disposal. I suppose it’s a lot of little things, such as the layout, the typeface, the fact that it never let’s me down, etc. However, now that I’ve read the dictionary’s “Foreward,” I know why it’s editors think it’s the bees knees. Here’s what they have to say*. As usual, my comments on the text follow.

_____________________________________________

Foreward
Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition

As this edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary is being prepared to go to press, the editors are systematically including in the plate proofs the death dates of recently deceased notables, new terms and senses resulting from the latest technological advancements, and such other challenges and additions as last-minute developments make necessary.

This final gesture in the interest of up-to-dateness is a rather symbolic one, a logical extension of the lexicographic principles that have guided the editors in the preparation of this work. For just as historical and scientific concepts refuse to remain fixed, unyielding entities, so too a living language will not permit itself to be immutably pinned down1. The excellent dictionaries of Dr. [Samuel] Johnson and Nathaniel Bailey, remarkable thought they were in their days2, have little more pertinence for the present-day reader of the New York Times that the alchemical writings of Roger Bacon have for a nuclear physicist.

EMWardDrJohnson
Johnson in some knucklehead’s anteroom.

Not only could the earlier dictionaries have no knowledge of dilantin, snorkel, betatron, cortisone, ACTH, cybernetics, and vibraphone, but they would be of no help uncovering the meanings of extrapolate, parking meter, iron curtain, cold war, simulcast, and hot-foot. Moreover, even those senses of words that have continued currency from the time of Dr. Johnson to the present are in the earlier dictionaries defined in a language that falls strangely on 20th century ears3.

Recognizing that modern lexicography is a disciplined science, [the scholars and editorial workers who compiled this dictionary] were nevertheless determined to avoid the dogmatism that led Devil’s Dictionary author Ambrose Bierce to define dictionary as “a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.4” This dictionary was not create the impression that it was authoritarian, laying down the law about usage; it was to play, rather, the role of a friendly guide, pointing out the safe, well-traveled roads.5

Abierce
Bierce

Webster’s New World Dictionary … is neither an abridgement nor a revision of some earlier work. It is a new dictionary in which every definition has been written afresh in the simplest language consistent with accuracy and fullness.6

In choosing the words to be entered and defined, the editors used as their criterion the frequency of occurrence in contemporary American usage and in readings generally required of college and university students insofar as it could be determined. As a result, the dictionary contains over 142,000 vocabulary entries, more than any other comparable American desk dictionary. All entries are arranged in a single alphabetical list, so that there is no need to leaf through numerous supplements and prefatory lists, as well as the dictionary proper, to find such entries as Isaiah, Charlemagne, Atlantic, John Bull, viz., F.O.B., OHG., a priori, and coup de grace.

_____________________________________________

Commentary:

1) It’s true, living languages keep growing. New words are added all the time and some even end up in a dictionary.

2) Legend has it that, in 1746, a group of publishers approached Johnson with an idea about creating an authoritative dictionary of the English language. A contract with William Strahan (Scottish printer and publisher) and associates was signed on June 18, 1746. Johnson’s dictionary was not the first, but it was the most commonly used and imitated for the 150 years between its first publication and the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928.

Bailey was the author of several dictionaries, including his Universal Etymological Dictionary, which appeared in 1721. His Dictionarium Britannicum (1730 and 1736) is said to be the primary resource mined by Johnson his dictionary.

3) It’s true. To get an idea of what the writer is speaking about here, check out this definition of “raccoon” from Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, which I included in a previous post about the name of the animal.

4) I looked but I couldn’t find any other snarky snaps about dictionaries from commentators like Bierce. I did however, find a few comments that shed some light on why Bierce wou have such a toxic take on these tomes. As Jonathon Green writes in Chasing the Sun,

The task of lexicography might, when viewed with the jaundiced eye, entail a good deal of drudgery, but like even the lowliest of parish priests, its practitioner remained the guardian of the sacred truths, the conduit that delivered them to the unversed masses.

Green also includes the thoughts of British poet and writer Rod Mengham, who notes that, in the 17th and 18th centuries:

The compiling of a dictionary … entailed an exercising of authority on an unprecedented scale. The lexicographer would determine what be included in, and what should be excluded from, a body of knowledge that the pragmatic user of his work would learn to regard as the foundation of the national language and culture…. The dictionary could become an instrument of social control, dispensed indirectly and fostering assumptions that need not be insisted on too forcibly.

Clearly, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump these ideas about lexicographers to prescriptivism.

5) This paragraph references, once again, the ongoing debate over prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries; that is, whether dictionaries ought to prescribe how the words in English ought to be used rather than describe how the words that comprise the English language are being used. The former (prescriptivists) are seen by their opponents as stodgy, anal-retentive types who fear the debasement of the language and (by extension) the decay of the social fabric, while the latter (descriptivists) are seen by their opponents as lacking in standards and guilty of shirking their duties as guardians of our remarkable tongue. (For more on this, see the link above and Kory Stamper’s Word by Word).

This is not to say, however, that there isn’t a “third way.” Think of it as a middle-of-the-road approach that allows lexicographers to stay abreast of the new terms making their way into the lexicon, while still calling attention to the more traditional uses or, at the very least, pointing out which words are best suited for particular situations (i.e., maybe don’t use “ain’t” in court or while defending your dissertation), hence the notion of “pointing out the safe, well-traveled roads.”

6) As referenced in the previous installment of Front Matter Friday, dictionary publishers are out to make a buck, which is why their editors go to great lengths to let folks know how their dictionary stands out from the lexicographical herd. Hence the editor of this volume making it known that this is indeed a “new dictionary” and not a previous release dressed in a new jacket, that the words this “college edition” contains will likely be encountered by actual college students, and, of course, that it is simultaneously authoritative and easy to use. More of this commercial speak can be found in these old-timey dictionary advertisements.

_____________________________________________

* Naturally, the Foreward is long and I’m not about to key-in the entire piece. If you’d like to read it in it’s entirety, check it out.

Front Matter Friday

From Bleak Compendium to Agreeable Companion

b494bb4e4c5e06dac49fbe5d63709bd00fab0a77If digging into the definitions and etymologies of words for mere shits and giggles wasn’t enough of an advertisement for my uncoolness, consider this: I like to read dictionary introductions. I know what you’re thinking. “What’s the matter, Joe, can’t find any golf to watch on the TV?”

Point taken. Admittedly, dictionary introductions can be rather dull affairs. Every so often, though, I come across one so full of attitude, opinion, and (dare I say) snark, that it deserves to be the subject of its own post. Hence the following (and first!) installment of “Front Matter Friday,” a new feature on The Butter Lamb offering  excerpts from dictionary introductions … err … on Friday, along with some commentary by yours truly. Yup, Friday just got better!

This week’s installment comes from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969). Not only does this introduction demonstrate the editors’ passion for dictionary authorship and general word nerd-ism, but it also contains some interesting ideas and phrases that reveal the editors’ beliefs about 1) the role dictionaries ought to play in society and 2) their competition in the book-seller’s marketplace.

Enjoy.

_____________________________________________

Introduction:
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969)

… At a time when the language, already a historical melting pot, is under constant challenge1—from the scientist, the bureaucrat, the broadcaster, the innovator of every political stripe, even the voyager in space—the [editors of the American Heritage Publishing Company] undertook to prepare a new dictionary. It would faithfully record our language, the duty of any lexicographer, but it would not, like so many others in these permissive times2, rest there. On the contrary, it would add the essential dimension of guidance, that sensible guidance toward grace and precision which intelligent people seek in a dictionary3. They will find it here, in a dictionary that is in many respects a notable departure from previous British and American lexicographical practice.

To many people, the dictionary is a forbidding volume, a useful but bleak compendium, to be referred to hastily for needed information, such as spelling and pronunciation. Yet, what a dictionary ought to be is a treasury of information about every aspect of words, our most essential tools of communication. It should be an agreeable companion. By knowledgeable use of the dictionary we should learn where a word has come from, precisely what its various shades of meaning are today, and its social status4.

[…]

A major concern of the editors has been the language used in the word definitions themselves. Our aim has been to phrase definitions in concise, lucid prose. Here, too, we have undertaken to eliminate “dictionary shorthand”—the frustrating signs, symbols, and abbreviations that are commonplace in other dictionaries5. Except for a few obvious abbreviations (n. for noun, v. for verb, and the like), we have followed a policy of spelling out all definitions. Where necessary to clarify a meaningful or idiomatic usage, the editors have included an example, either quoted from literature or staff written. We have also eliminated the meaningless lists of undefined compound forms which serve, in many American dictionaries, merely the purpose of inflating the so-called “entry count.” 6

[…]

… A primary aim of our staff has been to make this dictionary as readable as we possibly could. We editors know that dictionaries can be fascinating7. Working closely with them day by day, we see the vast amounts of interesting information that many users are not aware of, usually because it is hard to work one’s way through the thorny underbrush of conventional sign language to find the treasure that lies buried in the entries. It is our earnest hope that, by presenting our dictionary in inviting and readily readable fashion, without any lessening of authority8, we will encourage the reader to explore and enjoy the riches of our remarkable tongue.

_____________________________________________

Webster's_ThirdSome Thoughts:

1) I was struck by this notion that “the language …  is under constant challenge.” For editors of a dictionary, challenge is interesting word choice. Save for the use of euphemistic language, which obfuscates, language isn’t being “challenged” by words from scientific and other fields, it’s expanding.

2) The use of the phrase “these permissive times” is a bit of an elbow in the ribs referral to the Webster’s Third International Dictionary  (1961), which was considered by some in the dictionary world to be too (you guessed it) “permissive” in that it didn’t instruct readers in the use of “proper English.” Chief among Webster’s 3rd’s no-nos was the inclusion of the word “ain’t” (the horror). This gets us to the ongoing debate over prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries; that is, whether dictionaries ought to prescribe how the words in English ought to be used rather than describe how the words that comprise the English language are being used. The former (prescriptivists) are seen by their opponents as stodgy, anal-retentive types who fear the debasement of the language and (by extension) the decay of the social fabric, while the latter (descriptivists) are seen by their opponents as lacking in standards and guilty of shirking their duties as guardians of our remarkable tongue. (For more on this, see the link above and Kory Stamper’s Word by Word).

3) Following up on the preceding note, the gist here is that the dictionary ought to provide “sensible guidance toward grace and precision,” (read definitions that are accurate and socially acceptable), which is what intelligent people (read: discerning people wary of such permissiveness) want.

4) Do words have “social status”? Yes. This is why most dictionaries let you know if a certain use of a word is considered “archaic,” “obsolete,” “informal,” and the like. This is also a reference to the hub-bub over Webster’s third, which critics chastised for “eliminating the labels “colloquial”, “correct”, “incorrect”, “proper,” “improper,” “erroneous,” “humorous,” “jocular,” “poetic,” and “contemptuous,” etc.

5) Is “dictionary shorthand”—the signs, symbols, and abbreviations that are commonplace in other dictionaries—really “frustrating”? I suppose. Of course, most dictionaries that use such abbreviations include a key or guide to these abbreviations in the front. It seems to me that if you took a second to look up a word in a book, you can take another to look up the meaning of an abbreviation. I mean, it’s right there….

6) Do dictionary publishers really try to “inflate” their “entry counts.” In a word, yes. Or at least they have. For proof of this, check out old-timey dictionary advertisements that boast about the number of entries a dictionary contains. Stamper’s Word by Word has more on this too.

7) “We editors know that dictionaries can be fascinating.” This is word nerd-ism pure and simple, and I love it.

8) This sentence, “presenting our dictionary in inviting and readily readable fashion, without any lessening of authority,” demonstrates the dictionary maker’s dilemma. In addition to making a sideways reference to the whole permissiveness thing (see above), dictionary publishers worked hard to balance the commercial considerations of making a text that was both “authoritative” and “inviting.” This is less of a problem nowadays with digital (or online) dictionaries, but for publishers back in the day, it was real concern. Hence the use of images/illustrations and other graphic design techniques to make such large books more inviting. [Note: I didn’t include it here, but other parts of this introduction mentions the editors’ “fresh approach” that incorporates “the most recent advances in typographic design and printing.” – Ed.]