English lexicographer Jonathon Green offers this well-reasoned article criticizing crowd sourcing for dictionaries under the thesis “dictionaries are not democratic.” As a confirmed word snob and English language fetishist, I have to say that I generally agree.
To study and love the English language is to accept and even celebrate that it is and always has been the most mutable language in human history. The properties that make English so hard to learn for the foreign student are exactly those traits we logophiles find so attractive. I believe good writing, beyond clarity of intent, is about two things: sound and connotation. For the student of English, it’s enough to acquire the denotation of a word like grumpy, but the serious writer will spend more than a little effort considering the contextual appropriateness of prickly, testy, waspish, churlish, or irascible. This is both the joy and the mania of the medium.
So, one might assume that if embracing the ephemeral nature of English is part of loving the language, then the rapid mutations of digital-age neologisms would be eagerly accepted as well. For some, I’m sure this is the case, and it’s true that fleeting colloquialisms are always fun when they add color and spice to everyday parlance. But the professional communicator also wants his language moored to something a bit more firm, which is why I believe Mr. Green makes a good case for lexicographers beyond mere job security.
Take the word I used above, logophile. I knew such a word existed, but writing this at dawn and half a coffee short, I couldn’t think of it. One thing Web searching offers that a dictionary does not is a means to stumble about with half words and phrases in search of the target. While doing exactly this, I found wordophile, cited in Meriam-Webster’s online urban dictionary. Wordophile is sort of fun sounding, so why not choose it over logophile? In the context of this piece, the correct choice for me is the word that has more solid roots in the language, whereas I might use wordophile in a more casual or flippant circumstance.
The question of professional vs amateur lexicography feels anachronistically futile in a world where many college educators are happy to receive papers using whole English words at all rather than the truncated form of Tweetish. Still, Mr. Green and his ilk are guardians of something more profound than dusty and heavy stacks of paper. When language is stretched too thin and too rapidly, vagueness becomes the norm in all communication. We see this in corporate and political shorthand all the time — two worlds where speaking without saying anything is often a purposeful strategy.
In the next podcast I’ll be posting, writer Jeffrey Turrentine refers to one downside of the Web as its being a tool for achieving “epistemic closure.” There is nothing particularly new about the observation that the Web offers the user evidence for whatever bias — political, scientific, historic, social — he brings to the keyboard, but when we combine this phenomenon with too much democratization of language itself, I believe we ultimately serve anti-democratic interests who too easily manipulate the masses through the fog of an unbound lexicon.
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