A new dictionary-related inquiry

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Thu Aug 30 14:39:17 UTC 2012

Because dictionaries ar consulted for both kinds of information,
"prescriptive" and "descriptive" effectively are opposite ends of a
spectrum when it comes to dictionary policy.

Many readers simply assume that a dictionary is meant to be prescriptive.
They believe that a definition can and should be both timeless and
"razor-sharp" (a word used by Merriam in the '70s to tout their
_Collegiate_). Such beliefs automatically make standard dictionaries more
"prescriptive" than their editors intended.

As Steve says, genuine "prescriptivism" in general dictionaries is mostly
reducible to a relative handful of frequently used forms that for one
reason or another have attracted debate, usually on the basis that they are
"illogical" and therefore to be shunned, even when the illogicality is not
immediately obvious.  (The belief that language operates according to
strict rules of logic is, of course, a popular and fundamental
misapprehension; the expectation that it can be made to in some
all-encompassing way is equally erroneous.)

When the Oxford American Dictionary appeared in 1980, its publicity
claimed it "lays down the law about usage."  That's the last truly
prescriptive claim I can recall for any standard dictionary, and of course
even at the time it was - shall we say? - exaggerated.

Usage is a two-way street. We want to know what a word is probably is
intended to mean when we meet with it word, but we also want to to use
words so that we ourselves don't sound like lunkheads to others whose
standards may be stricter (and in come cases pettier) than our own.
Dictionaries have to help readers do both. This is especially difficult
in high-profile cases where prescriptive advice is based solely on personal
taste, which in turn may be based chiefly on previous prescriptive advice
in an endless loop. The often belabored "decimate" is a prime example.


On Thu, Aug 30, 2012 at 8:48 AM, Ben Zimmer
<bgzimmer at babel.ling.upenn.edu>wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Ben Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: A new dictionary-related inquiry
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Steve Kleinedler asked me to forward this response to Fred's post.
> ------
> As the Executive Editor of the American Heritage Dictionaries, I must
> address some of the points of this email.
> The American Heritage Dictionary does not "eschew" databases. We have a
> very robust citations database.
> It is true we have a Usage Panel, but their input is used to help us write
> usage notes for a couple hundred entries.  The lexicographical staff most
> certainly does not, and could not, turn to the Usage Panel for input on
> every word and edit. Between the fourth edition and the fifth edition,
> there were over 10,000 new words and senses added, and there were hundreds
> of thousands of edits. To imply that every change we make is run past the
> Usage Panel is ludicrous.
> Some Usage Notes do provide prescriptive information -- information that
> users have come to expect in researching how formal language is presented.
> Most, however, are balanced with information about how the word is used --
> and that's where the responses of the Usage Panel are helpful. The reader
> can gauge to what degree these Panelists adhere to a specific "rule."
> Like our competitors, the editorial staff of the American Heritage
> Dictionaries crafts definitions based on citational evidence that shows how
> the word is used. The American Heritage Dictionary is NOT considered a
> "prescriptive" dictionary, although, like most cases, it does provide a
> small amount of prescriptive information (for instance, see the note at
> irregardless). A user would want to know the story of irregardless because
> if he or she were to use it in a formal situation, he or she would want to
> be aware of how a good deal of the audience might react to that, depending
> on the context. Our competitors do the same for these hot-button items such
> as "irregardless."
> Steve Kleinedler
> Executive Editor
> American Heritage Dictionaries
> On Wed, Aug 29, 2012 at 10:15 PM, Fred Shapiro wrote:
> >
> > A legal scholar has asked me to pass on the following questions.  If
> anyone=
> >  wants to respond, please post to the list or send a private e-mail to
> me a=
> > t fred.shapiro at yale.edu<mailto:fred.shapiro at yale.edu>:
> >
> > "Although I struck out with my initial inquiry last May, I now have a
> more =
> > specific inquiry that might yield something more fruitful.
> >
> > I have almost completed coding my dataset of approx. 120 Supreme Court
> case=
> > s in which the justices since 1987 have used specific dictionaries to
> help =
> > justify their decisions (55 criminal cases; 41 labor and employment
> cases; =
> > 21 business and commercial cases).  In exploring some of the
> lexicographic =
> > literature (e.g. Sidney Landau, Howard Jackson, Herbert Morton's book
> about=
> >  Webster's Third, and the Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography) I have
> re=
> > gularly come across a basic distinction between the descriptive and
> prescri=
> > ptive definitional approaches.
> >
> > As you may know, Webster's Third sharpened the debate as to whether
> definit=
> > ions should tend toward authoritative pronouncements on what a word's
> meani=
> > ng Ought to be, or instead attempt to describe the way(s) a word is
> actuall=
> > y used by members of a speech community. I have coded for a range of
> specif=
> > ic dictionaries (plus a catchall category), and I wonder if there is
> some r=
> > ecognized taxonomy on this topic. My own sense is that Webster's Third
> fall=
> > s clearly in the descriptive camp, and I would tend to place the OED
> there =
> > as well. Webster's Second appears more prescriptive in its approach, and
> th=
> > e American Heritage, which seems to eschew databases and instead to rely
> on=
> >  a panel of 200 prominent scholars, writers and others (including
> Justice S=
> > calia!!) to help gauge acceptability, also seems prescriptive. Black's
> Lega=
> > l Dictionary, which treats the judicial definitions from West's Words &
> Phr=
> > ases the way general dictionaries might treat citation files or
> electronic =
> > corpora, strikes me as more prescriptive--because judicial
> interpretations =
> > are self-conscious efforts to decree the meaning of words rather than
> colle=
> > cted examples of word usage.
> >
> > I am hoping that someone in your Dictionary Society cohort has views
> about =
> > this kind of classification, or can refer me to sources that address the
> di=
> > stinction among specific dictionaries. Apart from Justice Scalia's
> occasion=
> > al sarcastic asides about Webster's Third, the Justices don't address
> the d=
> > ifference (for words they "define" via dictionaries) between
> descriptions o=
> > f usage and pronouncements about the most correct usage--but their own
> patt=
> > erns of reliance suggest that several may have individual dictionary
> prefer=
> > ences.
> >
> > Assuming there is some kind of prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy (or
> perha=
> > ps a continuum?), I also am trying to assign a place to other
> dictionaries =
> > that the Justices use with some frequency: (i) Random House; (ii) Funk &
> Wa=
> > gnalls; (iii) Webster's Collegiate; (iv) 19th century dictionaries; (v)
> dic=
> > tionaries of etymology (Barnhart and Oxford); (vi) other law
> dictionaries (=
> > Ballentine's, Bouvier, Burril ); (vii)  technical dictionaries of
> medicine,=
> >  chemistry, business, accounting, finance, economics. Thoughts from you
> or =
> > your colleagues on any of these additional dictionaries are welcome.
> >
> > Please feel free to share this email with others who might be
> interested; I=
> >  welcome insights from those with far more lexicographic expertise than
> I h=
> > ave as part of my examination into how the Court is using (or misusing)
> dic=
> > tionaries."
> >
> >
> > Fred Shapiro
> > Editor
> > YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (Yale University Press)
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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