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

Barnhart barnhart at HIGHLANDS.COM
Sat Nov 1 21:31:58 UTC 2003

Cohen has made a good point here.  However, I wish to put in my 2 cents
here, too.  I presume that all the matters not directly dealing with the
narrow notion of dialect in the society's publication are, for some, a
waste of space.  How sad that the listserv must be so narrowly conceived.
As a long-term member of the society, I would feel very much alienated if
the society's meetings were similarly confined.

Regards to those who appreciate raw data,

David K. Barnhart

P.W. Please send rants and flames to me personally so that the listserv is
not burdened with non-dialect postings.

Lexik at highlands.com

American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> writes:
>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>Poster:       Gerald Cohen <gcohen at UMR.EDU>
>Subject:      Re: Mission of the American Dialect Society--the "so what?"
>              question
>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
>>explicit point about, say, a folk etymology, an interesting word
>>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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