Print Edition - 2017-04-21  |  Oped

Uncivil war over words

  • Just as there have been battles over words and their meanings, the writing of dictionaries in the US has always been political
- KORY STAMPER
The meaning of words is as hotly contested as ever, and dictionaries must go where language users go

Apr 21, 2017-

Americans can’t agree on much these days. They’ve obviously fallen out over politics. They can’t even agree on the facts. Now they’re fighting over words.

For years, we mild-mannered lexicographers have been posting online about the most common lookup of the moment on our website. So when, in January, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, told reporters he wasn’t going to define the word “betrayal,” and lookups spiked, we saw it as our duty to post a definition.

But all of a sudden, people were furious, usually because of something related to Donald Trump: “facts,” after the presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway created alternative ones, and “Svengali,” when this paper’s editorial board wrote that Stephen Bannon, the White House strategist, was “positioning himself not merely as a Svengali but as the de facto president.”

It made no difference how dispassionately we tried to present the data (“Lookups for ‘wiretapping’ are up 98,000 percent after Spicer told reporters that Trump wasn’t using the term literally”). We were accused of abandoning our job of writing definitions and subtweeting, trolling and owning members of the administration.

 “I literally pasted a definition to Twitter,” said my colleague Lauren Naturale, the social media manager at Merriam-Webster, “and somehow that’s political now.”

The attention should probably not have surprised us. Just as there have always been battles over words and their meanings, the writing of dictionaries in the United States has always been political.

We have, at the outset, Noah Webster to thank. While most people associate him with dictionaries, he was, in truth, one of the founders of this country. Nearly every exploit he undertook had one goal in mind: to unify and strengthen the United States.

“Customs, habits and language, as well as government, should be national,” he wrote in 1789. “America should have her own, distinct from all the world.”

Webster’s 1783 spelling book and his two dictionaries were the product of this doctrine of American exceptionalism. And they were the anvil and the hammers with which he forged a sense of national identity for generations of Americans.

When, in 1828, it was time to market his magnum opus, the American Dictionary of the English Language, Webster secured recommendations not just from professors and deans, but from dozens of congressmen. Not all approved this idea of making legislators the unacknowledged poets of the world, to mangle Shelley’s phrase.

 “We suffer members of Congress to make our laws,” carped one reviewer, “but not to make our language.”

When a protégé, Joseph Worcester, challenged Webster’s pre-eminence, the elder accused the younger man of plagiarism. Worcester had committed, Webster charged, “an act of great injustice to a man who has rendered the country an invaluable service.”

Dictionary writing, in other words, was a patriotic vocation. Over the decades that followed, this sacred calling took a back seat to scholarship. Dictionaries were no longer a one-man show, but written by an academic staff, professors mindful that America itself was fracturing.

Noah Porter, the chief editor of the 1864 revision of Webster’s dictionary (rights to which had then been acquired of G & C Merriam), is said to have instructed editors not to use quotations from antislavery sources in the dictionary, lest it be seen as a mouthpiece of the Union states during the Civil War. Porter, who was also a theologian of whom friends said, “Aggressive revolt is not his element,” strove to keep his edition above the fray.

It didn’t work. The revised edition, and Porter, were attacked by Confederate sympathizers and opponents of abolition for politicking in their definitions. Critics pointed to the entry on “congress” as proof of Yankee meddling. The 1864 version of the dictionary drew from a broader range of sources than the 1828 edition did, and so stepped away from the Federalist orientation of the original. The “congress” entry referred to “the assembly of senators and representatives of the people of a nation” and defined the body’s role as “for the purpose of enacting laws, and considering matters of national interest.”

This focus on national interests over states’ interests was taken as Union propaganda. The meek theologian’s dictionary was harangued as “disloyal,” full of “partisan bigotry” and “deprived of all manliness.”

“They are not Webster’s definitions,” thundered one J. Ditzler of Kentucky, in 1866, “but those of the double-dyed radicalism of Massachusetts.”

Nearly a century after the Civil War, lexical controversy still raged. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, published in 1961, was highly controversial. The historian Jacques Barzun assailed it as “undoubtedly the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party.” Disgusted by the dictionary’s supposed departure from tradition and adoption of a more scientific approach to language, he called it “the representation between covers of a cultural revolution.”

So great was the hue and cry that a competing dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, was created to wrest the language out of the debasing hands of the longhaired pinkos at Merriam.

And here we are, still disloyal and deprived of manliness. The meaning of words is as hotly contested as ever, and dictionaries must go where language users go. News organizations have had lengthy, public discussions about how to cover President Trump and his administration, down to when to use the word “lie” and who deserves the epithet “white nationalist.” The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit let an order to stop the enforcement of the first executive order on refugees stand in part because the president had repeatedly called it a “Muslim ban.”

Lexicography is, by nature, a slow process. A lexicographer has to consider a word’s use over time and across a wide variety of sources and speakers. No one source or era is given primacy; what a word means is stripped of spin or rhetoric and placed in a broad historical context. Language moves much faster than lexicographers do, but the lexicographer’s myopic attention to detail is what keeps dictionary definitions from becoming an Orwellian organ of the state.

The English language is a direct democracy, sustained by each person who uses it; the dictionary is its enduring record. It is one of the mirrors we as Americans can look into and see who we were and who we are. Don’t let any Svengali tell you different.

—© 2017 The new york times      

Published: 21-04-2017 07:47

User's Feedback

Click here for your comments

Comment via Facebook

Don't have facebook account? Use this form to comment

Main News