The dictionary is dead. Long live the dictionary!

8 min read
Will dictionaries survive in the digital age?
Artwork by Nicolae Negura

Scandal. Calamity. Disaster.

Few would use these words to describe a dictionary. But these harsh words were indeed lobbed at Webster’s Third New International Dictionary when it was published in 1961.

At 2,726 pages and almost 14 pounds, the dictionary is the result of a decade’s worth of work by Philip Gove and his team of lexicographers, signaling a major editorial break with the previous edition and with dictionaries as historically conceived.

Gove believed that dictionaries should be descriptive, rather than prescriptive—that they should capture how people use language, instead of telling them how to use it. The old guard didn’t think so. Critics in the New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, to name a few, issued scathing editorials on the new dictionary, warning it would hasten the decline of the English language and exhorting readers to stick with its reactionary forebear.

Webster’s Second didn’t shy away from judging English language usage. To the contrary, it featured some 600,000 entries on appropriate usage, including, but not limited to, the rules for bridge; all the names in the Bible and Shakespeare works; guidelines for will versus shall; and thousands of definitions written in a tone that’s anything but neutral.

Its editors would cringe at my frank assessment: Webster’s Second was downright judge-y.

David Skinner, author of The Story of Ain’t, adds:

Webster’s Second was not afraid of passing judgment: Apache were “nomads, of warlike disposition and relatively low culture.” Aleut were “peacable” but only “semi-civilized.” And it was rather puritanical. Many sexual terms were suppressed, and those that made it in were deprived of their naughty side. Horny was defined only as having something to do with actual horns.

An instrument of the people

The editors of Webster’s Second argued that the dictionary contained everything worth knowing. A dictionary to educate the ignorant and cultivate the uncultured, with only the highbrowest of highbrow citations let in. Yet the work failed to capture the sociocultural context of its time. Despite their influence during the 20s and 30s, as Skinner points out, there was no mention of Babe Ruth or Louis Armstrong. Pop culture was considered undignified.

Philip Gove would have none of this snobbery. He believed that the English language was “an instrument of the people,” that Webster’s Third “should have ‘no traffic’ with artificial distinctions of correctness in the language.” So he chopped it all up and created a dictionary that presents the language people actually speak. He even went so far as to not absolutely condemn the word ain’t — the entry read “though disapproved by many and more common in less-educated speech, used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers, esp. in the phrase ain’t I.”

Webster’s Third was born at a time of massive social and cultural upheaval in the United States. It was the decade of second-wave feminism, the introduction of the birth control pill, the emergence of the black power and gay rights movements. It was a time of revolution. A time when the line between highbrow and lowbrow started blurring. And although the dictionary sought to be completely objective, it more accurately reflected society at the time than its predecessor. If society, and therefore language, are malleable, why shouldn’t dictionaries capture that?

We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned electrical sockets.

Kory Stamper, author of The Secret Life of Dictionaries
Dictionaries in the digital age

Word by word

With Webster’s Third, lexicography changed. Today, words enter the dictionary when they’re used by many people who all agree that it means the same thing. At least those are Merriam Webster’s two cents on the subject. New words start gradually dropping into people’s conversations, in chats, forums, podcasts, hashtags, twitter status’ updates, maybe into the odd tagline or two.

The more people use it, the more likely it is that lexicographers will stumble upon it and start taking notice. In their daily reading and marking activities, dictionary editors look for new words, or new usages of existing words, and try to understand how people are using them. They’ll start collecting citations — 3″ x 5″ slips of paper — documenting the word’s context and source and laying the foundations on which they’ll build the word’s meaning and definition.

Eventually, the word gathers enough citations from a wide range of sources over a wide enough period of time, at which point lexicographers determine if it is firmly established and should be included in upcoming editions of the dictionary.

The secret lives of dictionaries

This process is chronicled in Kory Samper’s book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. She walks us through the halcyon days of Merriam Webster. We’re invited behind the scenes as she writes about the eccentric, obsessive world of lexicography, and the people behind it:

In the process of learning how to write a dictionary, lexicographers must face the Escher-esque logic of English and its speakers. What appears to be a straightforward word ends up being a linguistic fun house of doors that open into air and staircases that lead to nowhere. People’s deeply held convictions about language catch at your ankles, your own prejudices are the millstone around your neck. You toil onward with steady plodding, losing yourself to everything but the goal of capturing and documenting this language.

Almost 60 years after Webster’s Third was published, Merriam Webster continues capturing and documenting the language. And although it’s not as intense as it was in the 60s, dictionaries still play a role in the culture wars. Every once in a while, editors are flooded with angry letters or e-missives. Kory Stamper recalls the time when the definition of marriage was expanded to include same-sex marriage, in 2003. It wasn’t a political decision, despite the accusations. It was simply meant to reflect how people were now using the word. But perhaps it’s hard to remain neutral in an increasingly bipartisan world.

And, oddly enough, Merriam Webster seems to be changing approaches.

Dictionaries in the digital era

Dictionaries in the digital age

Word by Word leaves us off in 2017, wondering what will become of dictionaries in a time when no one buys them anymore. Although Adam Mahler, our favorite litterateur and marketing copywriter, still roams the 1282 pages of the monstrous thesaurus sitting on his desk, long gone are the days when people proudly displayed their dictionaries and encyclopedia collections. We don’t rely as much on dictionaries. With their laissez-faire approach to language, the decline of the print industry, and reports of plummeting sales, lexicography’s future is a bit uncertain. Stamper herself admits, by the end of the book:

The language is booming, but lexicography is a shrinking industry.

But maybe it’s not as bleak as some would paint it.

In 1996, Merriam Webster launched its first website, providing free access to its dictionary and thesaurus. A brilliant digital strategy soon followed, playing the SEO game and leveraging social media channels to spark conversation and bring the institution to the 21st century.

An uncertain future

Today, Merriam Webster’s Twitter account has a whopping audience of over half a million, and has gathered a cult following, due to its witty remarks on usage, real-time data, trend watch, impeccably timed Words of the Day and politically charged analyses, such as when it tweeted the definition of “fact” in response to Kellyanne Conway’s infamous “alternative facts.” In fact, pun intended, the tweet went viral, prompting headlines like Can Twitter Save the Dictionary?

Indeed, whether these ripostes are coming from a place of linguistic righteousness, marketing strategy, or both, Trump’s administration seems to be the running target for Merriam Webster’s clarifications, drawing a lot of attention to themselves in the process. And with online dictionaries running ads as part of their revenue strategy, they need to keep our eyes glued to their pages longer. Maybe Twitter can save something after all.

In an interview with The New York Times, Jesse SheidlowerV said that “in times of stress, people will go to things that will provide answers. The Bible, the dictionary or alcohol.”

Maybe using digital platforms in a way that closely resembles the old prescriptivist dictionaries is the way to forge on and stay relevant. Maybe lexicographers can join fact-checkers and other journalists in the fight against misinformation and “alternative facts,” calling out lies for what they really are. Maybe the dictionary is in a unique position to steer us in the right direction. And, in the process of saving itself, maybe it can save us too.

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