Monday, May 17, 2021


Because it came up again with regard to the term anti-vaxxer, which someone objected to be referred to according to one of a dictionary's definitions (because he is not an anti-vaxxer according to his own definition and what he thinks should be the Merriam-Webster one) I will remind my readers here that dictionaries have not been prescriptive for sixty years, nor should they be. They are descriptive. The encyclopedia does not tell you how many people there should be in Moscow, it tells you how many there actually are.  It does not tell you who should have won the French and Indian War, it tells you what happened. 

That is not quite a fair comparison, as meanings of words shift gradually, and the editorial decisions made by the publication do sometimes put their thumb on the scale a bit, to accept a new definition more quickly or more slowly.  But the point still holds. If a lot of people start to use the word bad to mean "good," as happened with slang in the last generation, then the dictionary will record this without commenting on whether that is sensible.

This is clearer in historical dictionaries such as the Oxford English. As new meanings emerge or fall out of use, those are noted, so the new, irritating meanings for racist will carry the designation E21, meaning that it first appeared in the early 21st C. 

We have to insist that people define their terms and speak against usages we find imprecise or incorrect in many types of discussion. When we speak of God being loving, that is usually a simple idea that requires no examination.  Yet sometimes we have to pin people down on exactly what they mean by that. 

Object all you want to changes in language you believe are removing meaning and precision and speak out against them to your heart's content.  Just don't blame the dictionaries.  It's not their job to set up a standard to be obeyed.  The French Academy has tried to do that, and it has not gone well. Eventually, everyone just ignores you.


Sam L. said...

Change happens. You can, as we said int the service, "Get with the Program", or not.

Randy said...

There's a good show on NPR called Way With Words that gets into language in very educational ways. Although I still bristle at some modern usages (I literally cringe when I hear somebody use that word when they mean figuratively) the show has taught me that languages do change over time. As an example, I was listening to a radio show from around 1940 or so. They used the word Incredible to mean unbelievable, literally not credible. So in less than a lifetime the meaning of incredible had changed significantly but in a subtle way.

Korora said...

The S-word seems to have been originally a euphemism; the Proto-Indo-European root "skined" meant something like "to cut off".

Thomas Doubting said...

"... I will remind my readers here that dictionaries have not been prescriptive for sixty years ..."

Well, how do you know that? Yes, that is indeed what they claim, following the heavy influence of linguistics, but are they really merely descriptive? Are they merely objective observers of language use, with no personal or political agendas?

Maybe. But I need to see the evidence if you're going to claim that.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The Story of Ain't is a fascinating history of the change, as that particular word was a touchpoint for the controversy. The prescriptivists argued that the word should not be included at all, because it wasn't a good proper word. But ain't was only a synecdoche for a whole approach to definition, of only including the meanings that traditionalists felt were good grammar. This left out words in dialect, such as Southern, Western, and especially black usages. Such omissions are also unfair to immigrants or people learning English as a second language,who are relying on the dictionary to illuminate for them what their teacher or that person at their job meant today by a word.

It is ironic that the attacks are coming from feminists at this point, such as including the c-word or "slut" at all, or that the real-life examples from literature that illustrate the meaning within a time-period express sexist stereotypes. Dictionaries have done well resisting this and sticking with the definition as the context illustrates. I will bet they can't last. They will fold like the others.

I imagine examples might be found of dictionaries putting their thumb on the scale to hasten or slow the acceptance of a word or definition, but I don't see any evidence of this. What I do see, again and again for decades, are conservatives of either the political or grammatical type objecting to a definition because "the word shouldn't mean that," so the dictionary is promoting some sort of A: deterioration of language standards or B: political agenda. I have not seen complaints that rise above this. This is more common among folks my age, who had teachers who insisted that the dictionary was not merely a record of usage, but of correctness.

Thomas Doubting said...

I think the charge of having a political agenda is a serious one for a descriptivist. Is the lexicographer really neutrally describing language usage, or is she promoting a political agenda? Lexicographers insist on being descriptivists, so it's a serious charge, I believe.

Or maybe your point is in the evidence presented. "The word shouldn't mean that" isn't good evidence, I agree. But I don't think that is the evidence presented.

The complaint typically comes when a lefty politician or academic uses a word to mean something that the dictionary currently doesn't include in its list of definitions. But lo and behold, shortly after the politician or academic uses it that way and conservatives object, Merriam-Webster adds that definition. It seems to be covering for the left's controversial use of terms, not merely documenting common usage.

At least, that's the way I've read it. Maybe I'm wrong.

Thomas Doubting said...

Also, putting one's thumb on the scale defies the descriptivist ideal. That is prescriptivism (although maybe we should only call it "local prescriptivism" or give is some such qualifier) and is perfectly objectionable in its own right.

Thomas Doubting said...

To give an example, here is an Outkick post on the topic. Notice the complaint is not "the word shouldn't mean that" but rather that MW is changing definitions to suit the left's use of them.

A couple of snippets from the post:

The Merriam-Webster dictionary changed its definition of “anti-vaxxer” to mean anyone who opposes laws that mandate vaccination.

This redefinition follows a new trend. When the Left doesn’t like something and can’t bring it down with sound arguments, they change the meaning of the word.

This very phenomenon was described in 1984, so it should be a surprise that we are seeing it now, or at least that that's what some people think they are seeing.

I will say that Outkick and others I've seen make this charge don't actually show evidence that MW has changed their definitions. It would be nice to see some documentation of their claims.

Thomas Doubting said...

Ugh. That second-to-last paragraph should read "... 1984, so it should NOT be a surprise ..."

Thomas Doubting said...

Here's another one from HotAir, this time better-sourced.

Here's the headline: Merriam-Webster alters definition of sexual "preference" to say it's offensive after Hirono attacked Barrett for using it

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The second example is more troubling than the first. The first is an example of people using a word in that way, and the dictionary recording it. The language is changing in that way, because leftists are trying to do that intentionally. That is hardly the fault of the dictionaries. We are in the same position we have always been in, without regard to what the dictionaries are saying. We must point out that the meanings are being changed and ask people to define their terms, and show that we are the more precise.

The second one seems to be in response to direct political pressure, of a group claiming that its definition is more accurate.

It's still not very much. Thermometers don't cause fevers.

Thomas Doubting said...

When you say "thermometers don't cause fevers," I'm not sure what your point is. I haven't been claiming that dictionaries are causing language changes. I'm saying one particular one seems to have a political bias. That means it's not really a descriptivist dictionary anymore, but leaning back into prescriptivism.

However, let me now adjust my argument and claim that dictionaries DO cause language changes. People refer to them to learn, and to that extent, they can't help but serving prescriptivist functions, even if their construction is descriptivist. Schools use them to teach vocabulary, for the most obvious example.

A descriptivist dictionary is very useful because it teaches us how people are using words. A politically biased dictionary is a problem, because it teaches how a political movement wants us to use words, while (in this case) it still pretends to be a neutral observer of language usage.

So while it's true that thermometers don't cause fevers, they also don't edit dictionaries.

We are in the same position we have always been in, without regard to what the dictionaries are saying. We must point out that the meanings are being changed and ask people to define their terms, and show that we are the more precise.

Yes, I agree, but actually the left is often just as precise. I think the best we can do is be clear about what the meanings of terms we use, and ask everyone else to do that same.

If we have an advantage, I don't think it's that our definitions are more precise in most cases. I think the real argument is that our use of terms is more honest, or better describes reality, or is at least more useful in communication, but it's a post-modern world and I don't really expect that to fly.

Thomas Doubting said...

Well, I have to run off to dinner. I've enjoyed the discussion!

Have a good evening.