The Dictionary in 2014

Alice in Wonderland, words, Humpty DumptyIn his September column for Visual Thesaurus Orrin Hargraves comments that in pre-Internet days, as if we could remember back that far, dictionaries carried “a certain authority.” They not only satisfied writers that they were spelling and using words correctly, but they also resolved tricky dinner-table arguments. But today, dictionaries may be as likely to start those arguments as to settle them.

Because the Internet enables a much wider discussion and debate of word meanings, people have available to them a wider range of information on which to base word choice, giving dictionaries a run for their money. When using foreign words, I rely on the Internet site for straight meanings and its wide selection of idioms, but I also use its discussion threads in which native speakers debate usage and suggest how they would express an idea. Very helpful, especially with slang, which changes more rapidly than more formal speech.

Hargraves says the dictionary “is no longer regarded as an anchor of certainty on the reference shelf,” thanks to the usurpation of its role as arbiter by the lightning speed and facile opinions of the Internet. He cites this example: a recent BuzzFeed article took Merriam-Webster to task for defining “pit bull” as “a type of dog that is known for its strength and its ability to fight.” In its irrelevant objection to this characterization, BuzzFeed posted numerous cuddly pit bull photos. Dog-lovers rallied. And BuzzFeed concluded Merriam-Webster had some cleaning up to do.

These fans should have read the British dictionary definition and encyclopedia entries regarding pit bulls provided by! The inconvenient fact that the “ability to fight” was developed through decades of deliberate breeding was ignored; the definition was treated as a value judgment.

Hargraves’s second example came from Quora, where a user asked, “Which is more correct: ‘have a bar mitzvah’ or ‘get bar mitzvah’? Hargraves notes that the most popular answer endorses neither of these usages, in favor of “to become (a) bar/bat mitzvah.” While the original meaning of the term did refer to the child, in current usage, it most often refers to the ceremony. “Usage, that old tyrant, has nearly eclipsed the original meaning of bar/bat mitzvah in the majority speech community,” he says, “and usage is in fact what determines what words mean.”

Despite such debates, dictionaries will continue to base their definitions on actual usage, so people who don’t like the definition of pit bull and those defending the original meaning of bar mitzvah have a lot of usage-changing to do. But don’t blame Messrs. Merriam and Webster: “Dictionaries merely document the evidence.”