Can everyone just think for a moment about how wonderful words are?
A jack of all trades, our humble tongue bends at our every whim to classify, qualify, and gratify our expressive needs. Some craftsmen create expository labyrinths, as dense and impenetrable as the thickest of New England fogs. (I’m looking at you, Hawthorne.) Others simplify—nearly to the breaking point. (Cummings.)
But how do we know what these words mean—and not only that, but that they are being used in the right way? Who makes certain that “impact” is used correctly (never a noun!)—besides furious English teachers everywhere? Who decides how words should—or, more importantly, shouldn’t—be used?
Many would point to the dictionary, that long-established cornerstone of the literary world. Where else would you find such a holy tome explicitly classifying with exactitude and brevity the acceptable meanings and uses of every word in the English language? Where else will you discover that “inveterate” is a stand-in for “habitual”? (Which should never be confused for “invertebrate”—although you can likely say that “His inveterate lying showed him to be an invertebrate.”)
In the onslaught on inveterate vs. invertebrate, its/it’s, impact: noun or verb?, dictionaries are our eternal stalwarts, keeping watch over our doddering tongue.
Or are they?
Enter Kory Stamper, my new favorite author. She just published her first book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, in March of this year. And boy, is it a page-turner. (No sarcasm here.)
I not only enjoyed a beautiful and witty exposé into Merriam-Webster’s inner workings, but also discovered a kindred spirit and word-lover. Stamper, a true wordophile, draws us into the quiet halls of Merriam-Webster; here, you can physically feel the concentration of dozens of editors and lexicographers as they glean the meaning of every word used in print. This, naturally, requires that everyone is quietly reading.
Yes, you read that right: this is a world where you are paid to read. To read! Magazines, articles, books, journals, correspondence—if it’s in English, it’s fair game for consideration as part of the next dictionary edition.
I must confess: I think this might be my next profession (unless it dies out first.) I am likely one of .5% of the population who reads absolutely anything and everything, no matter what the content. I can’t help it. How can you tell your brain to just stop reading… everything? Letters, cereal boxes, bus ads, newsprint… My parents teased I would even read ketchup packets if they were within reach. (What else are you supposed to do while eating your McNuggets? Talk to your classmates?)
And how else do you learn what words mean, short of reading the dictionary? Context give words meaning. People give words meaning. And lexicographers boil it all down into a single, short, and sweet definition:
in·cred·i·ble \(ˌ)in-ˈkre-də-bəl\ adj : too extraordinary and improbable to be believed <making incredible claims>
Someone sat down, looked at every use of incredible in (nearly) every magazine, book, and article—and came up with that definition. Isn’t that just incredible?
However, there is a dark side to this coin. Everyone believes dictionaries to be a voice of authority on language. Which, by all rights, dictionaries themselves have been touting ever since the early 19th-century dictionary wars.
(Yes, they are a real thing. Capitalism makes liars of us all—even us language lovers.)
There’s just one problem with that claim.
Dictionaries craft definitions by capturing a language as it is being used, out in the wild. They do not hold any scruples about someone using ain’t. (Look it up now—it’s definitely in there!) And yes, an entry exists of “impact” as a noun. (Le gasp!)
This is not because lexicographers know nothing of proper grammar or parts of speech. Far from it: they had to sit down and decipher impact was being used as a noun in the first place—and decide if it was common enough to merit an entry.
Dictionaries aren’t holding a ruler over your head, beating you on the shoulders for forgetting the proper possessive for “it”. They are taking snapshots. Snapshots of everything you say. That we say. That our language says. Measuring its tiny tectonic shifts, from one generation to the next. Our language has been centuries in the making.
And our dictionary friends are keeping its photo albums.