'Star Trek' Aim 'To Boldly Go' Approved by New Dictionary
Recently published Oxford dictionary stirs debate over 'official' English grammar and language usage.
LONDON — James T. Kirk was way ahead of his time in deciding "to boldly go" into far-flung galaxies. The "Star Trek" captain was out there splitting infinitives in his 1960s TV science-fiction series long before the "official" green light was given.
Now, in the New Oxford Dictionary of English (NODE), 30 editors and 60 consultants around the world have sided with Captain Kirk and given their blessing to what some grammatical sticklers still regard as anathema or worse.
Indeed, the compilers not only approve of splitting infinitives but also seem bent on dividing the English-speaking world - or at least the part of it that cares about language and grammar.
Among the volume's more than 2,000 new words and phrases, split infinitives rub shoulders with "shock jocks," "Blairite," "alcopops," "tamagotchi," and "zero tolerance" as acceptable present-day usage.
Even "dumbing down" wins approval from NODE chief editor Judy Pearsall, whose publisher - the highly regarded Oxford University Press (OUP) - claims the volume is the most important new English dictionary to appear in more than 100 years.
Among dissenters is the London-based Queen's English Society. Joyce Morris, the society's patron, says English needs to be protected from "error and pollution." By that measure, she insists, the OUP has done violence to the language of Shakespeare. "Approving of split infinitives is like abolishing history," Dr. Morris declares. "The OUP is very powerful. If we go on doing this, we shall create a ghetto class who can't write application letters and won't get jobs."
Morris is calling for the creation of an English Academy similar to the Acadmie Franaise in Paris, which attempts to safeguard the French language from corruption by foreigners.
In producing the NODE, the OUP used a computer database of more than 200 million words. The compilers redefined every word in the English language using its contemporary meaning. The completed volume contains 350,000 words and took six years to complete.
Faced with sharp reactions to her lexicographical judgments, editor Pearsall is unrepentant. She says dislike of split infinitives is "not well-founded" and is based on a false analogy with Latin.
"In Latin, infinitives consist of only one word (e.g., amare - to love), which makes them impossible to split; therefore, so the argument goes, they should not be split in English either. But English is not the same as Latin," Pearsall writes in her introduction to the dictionary. "In standard English the allowing of split infinitives is broadly accepted as both normal and useful."
That judgment is not the only time the NODE thumbs its nose at "traditional" English usage.
Striding into the world of political correctness, its compilers give their nod to the use of the plural pronoun "they" to stand for an individual of either sex. To use "he," the dictionary says, is "old-fashioned and sexist." Using "he or she" - as in "Every child needs to know he or she is loved" - is "tiresomely long-winded."
Predictably, the NODE's readiness to boldly stir up controversy unleashed a flood of comment in British newspapers.
Writing in the London Daily Telegraph, Stephen Hill, chairman of the long-established Duckworth Publishers, quarreled with the NODE's approach to split infinitives. They had nothing to do with Latin, Hill insisted: "The grammatical rule is very simple: the 'to' in the infinitive does not stand as a preposition to the verb stem but as an integral part of the infinitive."
Simon Jenkins, a former editor of the London Times, took space in his old paper to declare that "grammar is too important to be left to grammarians." Captain Kirk might not have liked Mr. Jenkins's line of approach.
"A split infinitive is a boy sent on a man's errand," he wrote. "To those who want their sentences to flow, all qualifiers impede meaning by altering and weakening ill-chosen nouns and verbs. If a verb needs an adverb, it is the wrong verb."
Tell that to the crew of the Starship Enterprise.
Words That Made It Into Oxford
mouse potato - noun informal a person who spends large amounts of leisure or working time operating a computer.
* origin 1990s: on the pattern of a couch potato.
downshift chiefly N. Amer. - noun an instance of changing a financially rewarding but stressful career or lifestyle for a less pressured and less highly paid but more fulfilling one.
adhocracy - noun the replacement of over-rigid bureaucracy with more flexible and informal forms of organization and management.
* origin 1970s: blend of ad hoc and -cracy.
la-la land - noun N. Amer. informal Los Angeles or Hollywood, especially with regard to the lifestyle and attitudes of those living there or associated with it; a fanciful state or dreamworld.
* origin: la-la, reduplication of LA.