Front Matter Friday

Friendly Guides and Well-Traveled Roads

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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.

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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.

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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.

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* 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.

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