Guestblogging Dictionary Myths:

Part 1: The Myth of the Lexicographer-Judge

What’s a dictionary myth? A dictionary myth is something that people believe about dictionaries (and words as they appear in dictionaries) that simply isn’t true. They can be semi-harmless dictionary urban legends (like the one that holds that antidisestablishmentarianism is the longest word in the dictionary) or they can be more pernicious, such as the widespread belief that if a word isn’t in “the dictionary”, it’s not a real word.

A little bit more on the pernicious side is the belief that lexicographers — the folks who edit the dictionary — are somehow on a higher plane of word usage than the common person, and that they make decisions as to what does and does not enter the hallowed ranks of dictionary-words based on some exquisite aesthetic sense, some finely-tuned Sprachgefühl, a kind of lexical perfect pitch.

This, I hasten to assure you, is flatly not true.

Lexicographers are not the word-judging equivalents of the literary critic or the music reviewer; they’re not the curators of the word museum. The lexicographer is, or should be, a scientist-journalist combo. They should research what words are actually being used, how, where, when, and by whom, and then report these facts of usage to the public in a clear, timely, straightforward manner. [Don’t worry, we’ll discuss what happens when what the lexicographer finds is ‘wrong’ later this week.]

Of course, the problem with current dictionaries (and pretty much all dictionaries everywhere at all times) is that there are often more words to be reported on than there is space in the printed book. So how to decide which words make it onto the page, and which don’t? Lexicographers don’t cherry-pick the pretty words, or the words with the best etymologies, or the words that are used in their favorite novels: they pick the words that will be of the most use to the largest group of people. They report ‘newsworthy’ words, words that they think will have sticking power, words that seem serviceable and sturdy, good for the long haul. (And, let’s not forget, because making dictionaries is a commercial endeavor, they also pick words that will get publicity, attract attention, and drive consumers to their product. Those words are the chrome trim on the family sedan.)

Perhaps starting out a week of guest-blogging about dictionaries by undermining my own authority is not the brightest of bright ideas, but I feel curiously compelled to do it. By removing any special glamour from my job — by making it just a job, and not a calling — I hope that it will be easier to talk about the underlying data (how we know what we know about words) and to talk about the possible dictionaries of the future, instead of arguing about taste (because, as we all know de gustibus non est disputandum).

Oh, and by the way, the other myth about lexicographers is that we are horrified, appalled, and indeed, quite put out when we see misspellings, nonstandard usages, slang, or informality in general. This is ridiculous — it’s like expecting doctors to faint at the sight of blood. Our usual reaction to a word we haven’t seen before (especially slang!) is “ooh, interesting!” We feel the same way about “errors,” too, for the most part. Every error, every place where the language system breaks down, is a chance to deduce how language works, in the same way that every neurological injury gives us hints as to how the brain ought to function. So, please, don’t let the fear of making a mistake in front of the lexicographer keep you from commenting!