The Language Police

THE LANGUAGE POLICE….I know that language mavens can be kind of cranky sometimes, but Robert Hartwell Fiske is really pissed:

This new slang-filled edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary does as much as, if not more than, the famously derided Webster’s Third International Dictionary to discourage people from taking lexicographers seriously. “Laxicographers” all, the Merriam-Webster staff remind us that dictionaries merely record how people use the language, not necessarily how it ought to be used. Some dictionaries, and certainly this new Merriam-Webster, actually promote illiteracy.

Several years ago, the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary caused a stir by deciding to include four-letter words in their product. Since the marketing strategy of including swear words has now been adopted by all dictionary makers, Merriam-Webster, apparently not knowing how else to distinguish its dictionary from competing ones, has decided to include slang words in its eleventh edition.

Now, I’ll admit I’m surprised that MW’s editors say “accidently” is an acceptable spelling, but on the other hand the word “peruse” surely does mean “to read over in a casual manner,” doesn’t it?

We’re not going to solve this debate here, of course, but Fiske seems to have really jumped the shark on this. The MW 11th is hardly the first dictionary to include slang terms, and while we can debate which words have gained common usage and which haven’t (I would certainly vote against “alright,” for example, but am willing to concede my decades-long battle against it because, after all, it’s been a decades-long battle and I seem to have lost) ? but it’s awfully hard to defend Fiske’s version of maximalist prescriptivism, which would inevitably result in the language ayatollahs turning English into the equivalent of Latin or classical Arabic.

Then there’s this:

Of course, it’s in the financial interest of dictionary makers to record the least defensible of usages in the English language, for without ever-changing definitions–or as they would say, an evolving language–there would be less need for people to buy later editions of their product.

So dictionary makers aren’t simply lazy postmodern slackers unwilling to offend their readers by laying down some rules, they are actively trying to undermine the English language for the sake of filthy lucre.

Sheesh. But then again, he’s also under the impression that the word “dis” evolved because “Americans are increasingly monosyllabic.” But that’s ridiculous. Everyone knows this most classical of words has been around for 700 years….

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