segunda-feira, 2 de fevereiro de 2015
Panic at the Dictionary
By Stefan Fatsis
In the early nineteen-sixties, a passel of newspapers and magazines mounted a cultural jihad against a dictionary. The book in question was Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, published by what was then the G. & C. Merriam Company. Its great offense was permissiveness. The Third, critics asserted, sanctioned scores of words—“finalize,” “irregardless,” “wise up,” “hepcat,” “ain’t”—without the ruler on the knuckles they deserved, labels such as “colloquial,” “erroneous,” “incorrect,” or “illiterate.” “This development is disastrous because, intentionally or unintentionally, it serves to reinforce the notion that good English is whatever is popular,” the Times fulminated in an October, 1961, editorial.
The paper wasn’t alone. “It Ain’t Right,” The New Republic declared. “A Non-Word Deluge,” Life Magazine exaggerated. “Anarchy in Language,” apocalypsed the Chicago Sun-Times. By far the longest and most thorough analysis, and the most caustic denunciation, was published by this magazine. In a March, 1962, article titled “The String Untuned,” Dwight Macdonald lambasted the science-y discipline of structural linguistics, of which the Third’s editor, Philip B. Gove, was an adherent, concluding that the new dictionary had “made a sop of the solid structure of English, and encouraged the language to eat up himself.” (Even today at The New Yorker, Webster’s Second, first published in 1934, is preferred to Webster’s Third—though Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, now in its eleventh edition, is consulted before either.)
Half a century later—chomp, chomp, chomp—it’s hard to fathom a fuss of such passion and duration kicking up over a book of definitions. Grouse about “imply” and “infer” all you want, but Gove’s descriptivist style has triumphed over Macdonald’s prescriptivist desires. It’s standard thinking, at Merriam-Webster, Inc., and other lexicographic joints, that language changes with time; that usage once considered “wrong” can become, if not exactly “right,” then at least widespread; and that the role of the dictionary is to show, not tell. (Sometimes what we think is newly bad or wrong has been around the block; “finalize” is at least a hundred and forty years old.)
But the lexicographic kerfuffle, thank goodness, isn’t dead. Instead of arriving cloaked in a schoolmarm’s petticoats, it comes now bristling with righteous, if polite, indignation over society’s continuing plunge into a digital abyss. Earlier this month, a group of writers headed (alphabetically, anyway) by the novelist Margaret Atwood told Oxford University Press that they were “profoundly alarmed” by the removal, from one of the publisher’s beginner dictionaries, of several dozen words related to nature, including “almond,” “blackberry,” “minnow,” and—think of the children!—“budgerigar.”
The deletions aren’t new. The words were expunged from editions of the Oxford Junior Dictionary published in 2007 and 2012. But dictionary makers don’t announce what they take out of their books. Sleuthing is required. Lisa Saunders, a mother of four in Northern Ireland, first noticed Oxford’s disappeared words in 2008. While helping her son with homework, she realized that “moss” and “fern” had gone AWOL. Smelling a rat—but not a “ferret,” which had been stricken—she went on to compare entries across six editions of the dictionary dating to 1978. Saunders was “completely horrified,” she told the Telegraph, to discover that, in addition to flora and fauna, religious terms such as “saint,” “chapel,” “psalm,” and “vicar” had been excommunicated.
The newspaper summoned a couple of academics to bemoan the changes. “I grieve it,” the master of a private school said solemnly, of the demise of “buttercup.” The story, naturally, spread. The Daily Mail quoted a “senior clergyman” who called the edits “depressing.” Columnists tsk-tsked. Environmentalists howled. Nuns lamented the passing of “nun.” The issue wasn’t just the removal of words reflecting a bygone pastoral Christian monarchy (“monarch”: gone). It was the sources of the words added in their apparent stead—words from technology (“blog,” “chatroom,” “database”), politics and economics (“democratic,” “euro,” “interdependent”), and modern life (“bilingual,” “dyslexic,” “bungee jumping”).
But especially technology. The critics of Oxford’s modest revisions to a small dictionary—the book in question is aimed at seven-year-olds—make a convenient reductive leap: that adding “broadband” while deleting “acorn” is a sure sign that the human race is going to the “devil” (subtracted) while holding an “MP3 player” (added). In their letter to the publisher, Atwood et al cite research showing that kids play outside less than they did a generation ago, and they assert that “obesity, anti-social behavior, friendlessness and fear are known consequences.” Let’s stipulate that this is true, and that these are disturbing trends. Who’s to blame? Parents? Schools? Video games? “The Oxford Dictionaries have a rightful authority and a leading place in cultural life,” the writers say. They write that the Junior Dictionary “should address these issues and that it should seek to help shape children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends.”
The job of the editors of the Oxford Junior Dictionary is no more to get children off of screens and into the woods than it is to reverse global warming or reform FIFA. Their job is to make an Oxford Junior Dictionary that people want to buy. One way dictionary publishers persuade people to buy their products is by updating old editions with new words in which potential customers—in this case, parents, teachers, birthday-present givers, even children themselves—might be interested, and that reflect changes in the language and the times. As a poster on a Reddit thread about the deletions noted, for someone growing up today, “acorn” is arguably a less important word than “broadband.”
And print lexicography is a zero-sum game. Space is limited. When a word goes in, another often has to come out. Dictionary editors make decisions about inclusion based on such criteria as frequency of usage and occurrence in published sources. When it comes to children’s dictionaries, an Oxford spokesman noted during the latest row, words familiar to children at particular ages, commonly misspelled words, and curricular requirements also play a role. With just ten thousand entries, the O.J.D. is a sampler for developing minds, not a comprehensive catalogue of the language; a typical college-level dictionary contains about fifteen times as many words.
So while “magpie” might not be in this particular dictionary, neither are hundreds of other outdoorsy words that children might come across and could stand to know, let alone see, touch, or smell. Even with the deletions, Oxford says that the latest edition still includes about four hundred words related to nature, from “daffodil” to “hedgehog” to “zebra.” The next age-level book, the publisher notes, contains “buttercup” (so let the grieving cease) and other words not found in the book for younger children. And the one after that holds presumably even more. Oxford would love for parents to collect them all.
The ruckus, half a century ago, over Webster’s Third was largely manufactured. Many of the words selected by critics to illustrate the linguistic decay supposedly permeating the Third could also be found in their beloved Second, published three decades earlier; they just didn’t bother looking. Today’s tempest over “turnip” is similarly trumped up. Sure, children should play outside more. Yes, many kids lead digital lives that are more cloistered and sedentary than ones lived back in the day. But the removal of a few words from a dictionary isn’t a sign of anything more than the removal of a few words from a dictionary, and the evolution of culture, like it or not. And besides, if a kid really wants to know what “acorn” means, she can still look it up.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 15:52