Mission of the American Dialect Society--the "so what?" question

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Sat Nov 1 20:21:46 UTC 2003

At 10:38 AM -0500 11/1/03, Mai Kuha wrote:
>Thanks for articulating that, Scott. This is what I've felt for years.
>Interesting messages are the ones in which the answer to "so what?" is
>stated, hinted at, asked about, or recoverable to readers. We can all
>benefit a great deal when lexicographical contributions make a more or less
>explicit point about, say, a folk etymology, an interesting word formation
>process, an inaccuracy in current thought on which sounds can occur
>together, or the relationship between language and social conditions or
>political events. (Maybe the "so what" is always perfectly obvious to all

    First, asking "So what?" conveys a tinge of
irritation/aggressiveness/disinterest, i.e., it is not really
appropriate for a scholarly discussion conducted in a spirit of good
will. More appropriately, one would ask: "What is the significance of
the new information being advanced?

    It would be nice, of course, to recognize promptly the full significance of
newly discovered information, but this frequently doesn't happen. I
believe I read that Alexander Graham Bell had to work secretly on the
invention of the telephone because his father-in-law thought it was a
waste of time and effort
(the telegraph would never be replaced). The full significance of the
airplane was not promptly recognized (It was widely regarded as a toy
for the rich).

    George Thompson discovered the 1912 attestations of "jazz,"
antedating the previously noticed attestations of 1913. This was an
important discovery, but its full significance is still uncertain
(controversial). How could George Thompson promptly answer the "so
what?" question when he first shared his information with ads-l
(information, incidentally, which was important enough to produce an
article in the Los Angeles Times)?

    Now, those of us in ads-l are a community of scholars--some in
academia and others outside of it but all with something to
contribute. And scholarship entails attention to detail, with
discoveries cheered for their own value and for the potentially
broader insight they may bring.

    So if OED gives 1920 for the first attestation of "ice cream cone,"
and Sam Clements locates a 1905 attestation, this is a significant
advance in the full chronological picture of the term. The 1905
attestation may in addition provide insight into the start or
popularization of the term, but even without that insight, we deal
here with a discovery. Some may respond "So what? I'm not interested
in that area," but the point is that we deal here with a bona fide
step forward and therefore something worth sharing.

    We all marvel at the achievements of DARE and OED for their
historical documenting of the English language.  But how did those
achievements come about?
Answer: by the determined, inspired searching of people like Fred
Shapiro, Barry Popik, George Thompson, Douglas Thompson. These and
their fellow researchers are the unsung heroes of lexicography,
receiving perhaps a brief mention in a dictionary's introduction, but
otherwise usually seeing the individual fruits of their labor appear
without due credit.

    That lack of repeated credit-giving cannot be changed. But surely
a scholarly organization devoted to the study of the the
English/American language can see to it WE give as much due credit as
possible to the people producing their steady contributions (please
avoid the word "spewing"); this is truly a labor of love.

Gerald Cohen

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