Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Outrageous Dictionary

When Webster's Third New International Dictionary was published fifty years ago, it caused a ruckus. In his piece, "When a Dictionary Could Outrage," published in The New York Times Book Review on September 25, Geoffrey Nunberg describes the reaction to "what critics viewed as a lax admissions policy." Some of the criticism focused on the addition of neologisms such as "litterbug" and "wise up." Some of it focused on the editors' refusal to condemn "ain't." And some of it focused on the decision to draw illustrations from "down-market sources like Ethel Merman and Betty Grable." To the modern ear, this sounds like elitism, but at the time the critics of Webster's Third included not only writers such as Dwight Macdonald and Wilson Follett, but also the popular novelist Rex Stout (of Nero Wolfe fame), who had the detective "feed his Third to the fire a page at a time while declaring it 'subversive and intolerably offensive.'"

As Nunberg points out, it's hard to imagine a new edition of a dictionary causing such an uproar today. When I left home for college in 1969, one of the things I was sure to pack was my brand new dictionary, a standard high school graduation gift of the era. Does anyone still bring a dictionary to college? "The dictionary simply doesn't have the symbolic importance it did a half-century ago, when critics saw the Third as a capitulation to the despised culture of middlebrow ... That was probably the last great eructation of cultural snobbery in American public life." I have to confess I consult the Urban Dictionary more often than I consult traditional printed dictionaries in order to look up words and terms (frequently somewhat obscene) used in the mass media and by my students. Nunberg gives a number of examples of classic dictionaries that have responded to fears of irrelevance by lowering their standards of admission; they keep up with changing times and "don't keep words waiting in the vestibule long." Such words and phrases as "wassup," "BFF," "muffin top," "freegan, "geek chic," and "staycation" now appear in venerable dictionaries such as the O.E.D. The Internet is in many ways the ideal medium for a dictionary. Online dictionaries can be updated constantly and cheaply, they can incorporate audio and video to illustrate the use of words and model correct pronunciation, they can be accessed easily by users of handheld devices, and open-source projects such as the Wex legal encyclopedia and dictionary demonstrate that they can be the result of group collaboration.

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

My daughter took a print dictionary with her when she went to college -- my old college dictionary: A Webster's 3rd! Thank you for an entertaining blog post, Marie! I, too turn to the Urban Dictionary to figure out unfamiliar terms. Thank heavens for the folks who compile and maintain it!