A new dictionary-related inquiry

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Thu Aug 30 17:37:26 UTC 2012

Another response to Fred's post, sent on behalf of Steven Pinker (chair of the
American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel). He also sent his response directly
to Fred.


I’ve recently looked at the history of the so-called prescriptive versus
descriptive dictionaries, and I have to agree with Steve Kleinedler and extend
his observations. The distinction is almost entirely mythical, a meme ginned up
by the media in the early 1960s and repeated endlessly for fifty years with no
fact-checking. The differences between so-called descriptive dictionaries like
Webster’s Third and so-called prescriptive ones like AHD are trifling – an
entry here or there is given the label “nonstandard” instead of “erroneous” (or
the like), but the same words and senses are flagged, and the same judgments
given. The reason is obvious: no dictionary could survive in the marketplace if
it defied the sensibilities of the current community of careful writers, whether
by failing to inform the user of the lack of acceptance of words like
irregardless or by futilely resisting once-stigmatized words or senses that
have become unexceptionable, like to contact and to finalize.

The prescriptive-versus-descriptive dictionary dichotomy is an urban legend
which should be buried once and for all. For more on this, see my recent
article “False Fronts in the Language Wars” in Slate:

Steven Pinker
Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
Chair of the Usage Panel, American Heritage Dictionary

On Thu, Aug 30, 2012 at 8:48 AM, Ben Zimmer wrote:
> 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
> > at 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
> > cases 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 regularly come across a basic distinction between the
> > descriptive and prescriptive definitional approaches.
> >
> > As you may know, Webster's Third sharpened the debate as to whether
> > definitions should tend toward authoritative pronouncements on what a word's
> > meaning Ought to be, or instead attempt to describe the way(s) a word is
> > actually used by members of a speech community. I have coded for a range of
> > specific dictionaries (plus a catchall category), and I wonder if there is
> > some recognized taxonomy on this topic. My own sense is that Webster's Third
> > falls 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 the American Heritage, which seems to eschew databases and instead to
> > rely on a panel of 200 prominent scholars, writers and others (including
> > Justice Scalia!!) to help gauge acceptability, also seems prescriptive.
> > Black's Legal Dictionary, which treats the judicial definitions from West's
> > Words & Phrases 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 collected 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
> > distinction among specific dictionaries. Apart from Justice Scalia's
> > occasional sarcastic asides about Webster's Third, the Justices don't
> > address the difference (for words they "define" via dictionaries) between
> > descriptions of usage and pronouncements about the most correct usage--but
> > their own patterns of reliance suggest that several may have individual
> > dictionary preferences.
> >
> > Assuming there is some kind of prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy (or
> > perhaps 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 & Wagnalls; (iii) Webster's Collegiate; (iv) 19th century
> > dictionaries; (v) dictionaries 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
> > have as part of my examination into how the Court is using (or misusing)
> > dictionaries."
> >
> >
> > Fred Shapiro
> > Editor
> > YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (Yale University Press)

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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