Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Humpty Dumbty

So here is a "lexicographer" who is going to define for us how we ought to use words. She haughtily informs us why we ought not to worry too much about using non-words as words.
So, please, leave off the "not a real word" apologia. A far better (and dare I say, funner) technique is to jump in with both feet and use whatever word strikes your fancy. Instead of being defensive, demand that any who dare to quibble over your use prove that your word is, in fact, not a word.
Well, Miss Expert, some of us haven't forgotten that the purpose of words is communication, and communication requires rules that are agreed upon by the participants. Humpty Dumpty might have been satisfied with his usage, but the rest of the world finds him a bit ridiculous.

Now of course, we have more flexibility when we are speaking casually: we are able to clarify what we mean in response to a question or a quizzical look from the listener, and we may communicate additional meaning by way of intonation, facial expressions, gestures, and so forth. But the greater the distance between our audiences and us, the more important it becomes to adhere to rules if we want to be correctly understood.

That's why Miss Lexicographer has it all wrong. Dictionaries absolutely must not be treated as or designed to be primarily descriptive if they are to be useful for their purpose of facilitating communication. If I can take what Webster says and do what I want with it as the mood strikes me, or as the fit seizes me, then heaven help my readers.

In my opinion this attitude of modern lexicographers (Miss Expert is merely representative of many in her guild, I'm afraid) is a monstrous wart on the nose of modernity. We have been so eager to throw off rules of any sort that we have actually stumbled into the same delusion in our approach to language.

Ironically, Miss Lexicographer seems not to realize that she is undermining her chosen profession with remarks like this:
What do they imagine the penalty is for using an "unreal" word? A ticket from the Dictionary Police?
Ha. Ha.

No, the penalty is an increased likelihood of failing to communicate. But if she's right about all this, why on earth would I want a dictionary at all? Why not just make up some gibberish and assign it the meaning I choose? And if you dare to complain, well, I'll just say, "You poor benighted thing. Prove my words aren't words!" Well, I'll feel so good about you walk away and decide to ignore me. Oh, wait...

Sadly, I fear that the author's argument has far more appeal in an age of just plain lousy education, where the average man's working vocabularly is dwindling. He can't come up with the right word for what he wants to say, so he resorts to making it up. But a vocabulary deficit isn't going to be solved by ignoring it.


Anonymous said...

Come on. You badousalers are all the hoopylot. A word is jsust a kerminkle.

(She forgot to argue that obsenities are not obsene because they are just "words".)

Finally, a post were I don't have to run a spellchekc.


Reginald de Piperno said...


That kind of junk from people who know ought to know better really gets my dander up, obviously. It's like they can't even follow their arguments through to their inevitable and dreadful conclusions.


Rickson said...

I think denouncing any rules and authority is not so much the effects of Mordernity as of Post-Mordernism. Could this be my [own]attempt to "spell-check"? :)

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hi Rickson,

Yes, I would say that Miss Expert's foolishness is more post-modern. You're right. My particular emphasis in that part of the post was on the fact that it is modern lexicographers - "modern" in the sense of current or up-to-date - who have so badly bastardized the very purpose of dictionaries as prescriptive.

Certainly the philosophies and inspirations for this foolishness are postmodern, though.

Thanks for keeping me on my toes :-)