What's `in' in Webster's

Good morning, class. Today, as you know, we're talking about dictionaries. All of you use them. Most of you own one. Pound for pound, they're among the nation's best sellers. Despite that, they're a puzzle. Just what, exactly, is a dictionary? Good: You've found a definition. ``A book of alphabetically arranged words in a language, with definitions, etymologies, pronunciations, and other information.'' Fine.

But which words? Well, of course, all those stout, august words that don't live anywhere else - words like eleemosynary and ramulose and pleonasm. And words for ordinary folks - properly spelled, too, like receive and recommend.

But what else? What about proper names like Nero, the Roman emperor? What about place-names like Spoleto, Italy? What about popular new words - nerd, greenmail, psychobabble - and phrases like junk mail or couch potato?

As you may have guessed, all these examples come from the book you've brought to class - Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, just published by a branch of Simon & Schuster. Is this the real Webster's, you ask? Well, yes and no. Merriam-Webster in Springfield, Mass., is the largest dictionary-maker. Simon & Schuster ranks second. Back in 1843, Merriam bought the rights to Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language. Along the way, though, it lost the rights to the name. So now lots of companies publish ``Webster's'' dictionaries. In fact, the word Webster's has really come to mean dictionary (as in ``You'll find it in Webster's''). You'll find, however, that dictionary companies don't like to admit that fact: You can find dictionary in Webster's, but you can't find Webster's defined in the dictionary.

Now, this leads to a real question. If there is no such thing as the Webster's - a single respected authority on linguistic integrity - then how can we tell what's right? The fact is, we can't. They used to say that ain't ain't in the dictionary. That's baloney (also spelled bologna), meaning nonsense. Ain't is in there, all right, along with lots of other four-letter words that don't belong in this classroom. Then why are they in the dictionary? Because people say them. And these days, that's the test dictionary-makers like to use.

It all began, they say, back in 1961, when the Springfield crowd published Webster's Third (unabridged). Before that, dictionaries were thought to be ``normative'' rather than ``descriptive'': They told you what ought to be, rather than just what is. But the Third, fleeing the drawing room, unashamedly roamed the streets in search of common usage. That's what most dictionaries do these days.

So your new Webster's doesn't necessarily tell you how to speak properly. It works more like a vast opinion poll of the language: If enough people say glamorize, or use career as a verb meaning careen, it turns up in the dictionary.

And sometimes that's helpful. Notice, in your latest Webster's, the word glasnost - Russian for ``openness,'' a word made popular by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But what about that other frequently used Gorbachevism, perestroika (meaning ``restructuring'')? It isn't in this dictionary.

Which makes you wonder what standards the editors were using. Why, after all, couch potato but not mall rats (teen-age girls who frequent shopping malls)? Why Spoleto (pop., 37,000) but not Chico, Calif., almost four times as big? Why Philip Glass (US composer born in 1937, whom some people know about), but not Hoagy Carmichael, the American songwriter who wrote ``Stardust,'' which nearly everyone has heard? Why Gladys (defined as ``a feminine name'') but not Melba (except as the last name of an Australian soprano or the first name of toast)? And if Tammy and Bernadette, why not Helga or Frankie? Do modern readers, who apparently need to know that one-armed bandits are slot machines, not need to be told that a gladstone is not only a kind of suitcase but a four-wheeled pleasure carriage?

Of course, maybe you no longer read 19th-century novels where, when people ride in gladstones, it helps to know they're not in suitcases. If so, this is the dictionary for you - as it is, in fact, for many of the nation's newspapers. But don't wait too long to get it. Like flapper in the 1920s (and yuppie in the 1980s), it could be out of date almost before you start using it. Such, alas, is this fad we call language.

A Monday column

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