We are the dictionary, and dictionaries 'R' us

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

Charles Krupa/AP/File
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.

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.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.