Verbal Energy

We are the dictionary, and dictionaries 'R' us

The speakers of a language have the final say on what goes into 'the dictionary.'

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    Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster Inc., thumbs through the index card files at the dictionary publisher's headquarters in Springfield, Mass., Aug. 24, 2011.
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Among the underreported news stories that you may have missed over the summer was "the death of English."

I mean that literally. No, figuratively, but it has a literal connection with literally.

The figurative use of literally (as in, "When I gave him the news, he literally exploded") is a pet peeve of many. Sometime in August, someone found that if you enter the words "define literally" into a Google search box, the figurative definition pops up after the more literal-minded definition.

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

That someone was reportedly a Swede living in Texas, evidently browsing the Web while stuck in traffic. He tweeted a link to a screen grab of the offending Google page with the message "We did it guys! We killed English!" The tweet was retweeted and then picked up by a number of news organizations. Inclusion of this usage in "the dictionary" was a sign of the decline, if not actual demise, of "English."

This tweet itself could be flagged as an assault on a number of usage rules: setting off nouns of address ("guys") with commas, avoiding slang and unnecessarily gender-specific language ("guys" again on both counts), and using verb tenses correctly. The Guardian got this last one right, though, by framing the question thus: "Have we literally broken the English language?"

But I digress. A few days after this brouhaha, Erin Brenner at Copyediting weighed in with a helpful observation: "A dictionary gets its authority from language users." She continued: "Dictionaries describe language. They observe the words and rules we create and follow. We create the words and meanings." And "we" means all of us, ultimately, not just the editorial gatekeepers.

This "literal" flap recalled David Skinner's book of last fall, "The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published." This book aspires to do what Simon Winchester did in his book "The Professor and the Madman" – write a biography of a great dictionary. Mr. Winchester told the story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Mr. Skinner's subject is Webster's Third International.

As P.J. O'Rourke so aptly blurbed: "With one small contraction David Skinner tells the tale of a great battle in the 1960s War Between the Real and the Ideal."

Webster's Second was what is known as a "prescriptive" dictionary; it defined words as the experts said they should be used. Webster's Third was "descriptive." It defined words according to how people actually used them, and one of the words that at least some people used, some of the time, was ain't. It wasn't the first time ain't had appeared in a dictionary. But that it appeared in Webster's Third gave many people – 1960s counterparts to our tweeting Swedish Texan – the feeling that civilization was in trouble.

Some people's astonished comments that this or that new term or usage has made it into "the dictionary" suggest to me that they're confusing "the dictionary" with "the Bible," or possibly Guinness World Records. There are many dictionaries, and there seems to be a new one whenever I check Onelook.com. Onelook, as its name suggests, lets users see how a given term is defined in many dictionaries at one glance.

And all these dictionaries are based on the "rules" that users have created – and keep creating every day. "Language," Skinner writes in the preface to his book, "is the ultimate committee product."

We have checked the dictionary, and it is us.

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