Infallible dictionaries? An inquiry

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

A DICTIONARY carries the same weight of authority as the U.S. Constitution or Newton's laws of motion - or that's what many people seem to think. I wish they were right. But our dictionaries, like our language, are constantly in flux. And let's be honest: Most lexicographers, or dictionary makers, aren't iconic figures like the Founding Fathers or Sir Isaac Newton. Not to give anyone the short end of the stick, but let's say that, on average, lexicographers are as smart and conscientious, as highly skilled and motivated, as physicians. For the most part they do meticulous work. But occasionally they forget to check your blood pressure. Or they fail to specify whether "wildlife" has a plural and, if so, whether it's "wildlives", like the plural of life, or "wildlifes", like the plural of "still life".

I'll bet that I am the only non-lexicographer in the world to have looked up hundreds of things in each of seven major American dictionaries: the American Heritage, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, Microsoft Encarta, the New Oxford American, the Random House Webster's Unabridged, Webster's New World and Webster's Third. (The Oxford English Dictionary is by far the best available resource for word histories, but I didn't compare it with the others, because it's neither American nor particularly contemporary.) I did all this to research my new book, Your Own Words. Even as a 25-year veteran professional user of dictionaries, I was surprised by some of the things I found out.

For instance, when your dictionary shows more than one spelling for a word, were you taught to prefer the one listed first? So were most of us, I think. Yet according to the dictionaries themselves - generally in the tiny type up front - whenever the dictionary gives two spellings with "or" (or just a comma) between them, it isn't urging us to choose the first one; it's telling us that either spelling is fine and that the two occur in our language with roughly equal frequency. Often the dictionaries are wrong about this. In fact, that they would be wrong is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

SOMETHING similar applies to variant pronunciations. Maybe the first pronunciation given is the one your dictionary's lexicographers believe is the most common. (None of the dictionaries declare the first pronunciation to be the "best".) Or maybe they believe the pronunciations are equally common - but still, they had to put one of them first.

That tiny type in the front of the book will tell you what the makers of your dictionary have in mind. This is good to know because the makers of our various dictionaries don't all have the same things in mind. The American Heritage Dictionary is attentive to niceties that "educated speakers" observe. For instance, its usage note for "impact" reads, in part: "Eighty-four per cent of the Usage Panel disapproves of the construction to impact on, as in the phrase social pathologies, common to the inner city, that impact heavily on such a community; fully 95 per cent disapproves of the use of impact as a transitive verb." But Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, America's best-selling dictionary, shies away from making such value judgments. It lists "impact" as an intransitive verb and a transitive one, and for the latter gives the definition "to have a direct effect or impact on" without comment.

So you might think the Collegiate would admit that nowadays a "grille" can be a restaurant. Personally, I dislike this usage. "Grille" is supposed to mean the metalwork that disguises a radiator or decorates the front of a car. Restaurateurs in New York seem to share my feeling: Zagat lists 44 New York City restaurants with "Grill" in their names but just two with "Grille". However, Boston, where I live, has 28 restaurants with "Grill" and 12 with "Grille". None of the seven dictionaries so much as mention this use of "grille", whether to disparage or simply to report it. Dictionaries can't be relied on to include all the words we come across even in everyday life.

Nor do they necessarily mean what they seem to say. The great majority of America's copy editors would go along with the hyphenation in both of these sentences: "An up-to-date dictionary is up to date" and "A far-fetched theory is far-fetched". (Don't believe me? Use Google News to check my work.) But five of the dictionaries present "up-to-date" and "far-fetched" only as hyphenated compound adjectives. They may note, somewhere, that hyphens aren't used in certain adjectival compounds unless these directly precede a noun, but they're vague about which hyphens to take out. The Collegiate says about compound words in general: "It is often completely acceptable to choose freely among open, hyphenated and closed alternatives (as lifestyle, life-style or life style)." Hey, thanks a lot!

As someone who regularly uses seven dictionaries - actually, way more than that - in print, on CD-ROM and online, I'm not here to tell you that dictionaries are useless, any more than I would advise you never again to consult a physician. But to extract from a dictionary all the knowledge that went into it, we need to understand what jobs the makers of a particular dictionary intended it for, to read the front matter and get to know our dictionary well and to be as sceptical and sophisticated about the information in a dictionary as we are about information found elsewhere.

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