Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 6, 2013

Dictionaries Ain’t Law Books

I  recently spotted an article reporting that “tweet,” in the sense of an entry on Twitter, is now an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Duh.

Regular readers know that we consult the OED regularly to investigate interesting or recondite words. The reason I enjoy the Oxford English Dictionary is because it is “A dictionary on historical principles.” That means in addition to defining the meanings of a word, it cites its origin, including its first known appearance in English, and derivation: where it came from.

The word “tweet” has been around a long time. Consulting my 40 year-old edition of the dictionary, I find that the first recorded use of “tweet in English was in 1845: an ornithological description of the sound of a bird, which OED describes as “echoic,” that is, imitating a sound (OED, unfortunately, doesn’t tell us which bird’s call that long-ago birdwatcher was describing). In other words, “tweet” didn’t derive from a word in Latin, French or Germanic or any of the other usual sources of English words, but was coined to imitate a sound. There apparently was some related word, “tuite,” as long ago as 1549 in something named the “Complaynt of Scotland,” which I can’t find on the shelves in the Under Western Skies HQ research library, so I can go no further in pursuing that source. One can imagine generations of bird-students coming up with characterizations of birdsong, though, so far as I know, none of them came up with “HAH-hah-ha-HAH-ha” until Mel Blanc started working for Walter Lantz as Woody Woodpecker’s original voice.

This occasion is an opportunity to dispel the notion that listing a word in “the dictionary” somehow makes it “official.” A fact of linguistic life: dictionaries don’t contain the LAW of language. They record the HISTORY of language. No (respectable) dictionary prescribes usage — it records it. I vividly remember ardent discussions among my group of fellow philosophes and intellectuals in about the seventh grade (that’s 12 years old for readers not familiar with the U.S. school system), discussing the merits of the word, “ain’t.” “IT’S IN THE DICTIONARY!” (we often spoke in ALL CAPS in those early days), cried G., whose parents hailed from Kentucky, where “ain’t” had common usage in their clan long before their immigration to the Colony in the 17th Century. “IT’S NOT CORRECT ENGLISH,” declared A., whose parents, sprung from later German immigrants, priding themselves on adopting the proper English of their adopted land. The debate raged, until we shifted to more contemporary concerns, such as the correct lyrics and deeper meanings of “Louie, Louie.”

“Ain’t,” it’s true, has been around a long time, and was widely used in common speech. OED cites its first written use as 1778, although one may assume that its use in daily vernacular extends much earlier. It became for many writers the way to place characters in a specific class — Dickens and Twain are primary here. Whatever the propriety of “ain’t’s” usage, it fills a big gap in English grammar. There are widely accepted contractions for “will not,” “did not,” “are not,” but nothing very catchy for “am not.” Ain’t is actually a pretty good word. There’s no other short way to say “Am not.” Well, a dictionary editor back in those earlier years of mine did what dictionary editors do: he or she RECORDED the language as it was being used and put “ain’t” in the dictionary.

That’s the job of a dictionary: report the language and its various forms. A dictionary editor’s job ain’t one of saying whether or not it’s proper English. The word exists, it’s commonly used, it’s “in the dictionary.”

The job of a dictionary ain’t either to say whether a word ought to (or oughta) be used in a certain way. With millions or billions of “tweets” going out every day, and with a large percentage of the world’s population and not just English-speaking ones, mind you) immediately recognizing that “to tweet” means to post some passage of 140 characters or fewer online, it would be remiss of those editors not to recognize the usage. Dictionaries ain’t law books; they trail the usage of language and they report it. If we waited for dictionary editors to tell us how to use the language, we’d lose the very deepest power language possesses: the ability to adopt old words, invent new ones or transform existing uses into new ones. There would never be a tweet, a blog, or even — thank you, Spiro T. Agnew — any nattering nabobs of negativism. We’d be mired in the they way the language was spoken when the fist authoritative dictionary was published, and never have the eminently useful terms, “groovy,” “cool,” “keen” and, most critically important of all, “bodacious.”

If ol’ Bill Shakespeare had stuck to what was in the dictionary already, he would never have invented the 1500 new words for which he is credited. Yes, that’s true. Bardic Bill was the single most powerful generator of neologisms in English, and perhaps of any language ever since Adam started naming things. Note, though, when he was writing there was no English dictionary as yet, so he was free to invent things, just as writers always did and still do. English is particularly suited to the coinage of new words or new applications for existing words, and it’s been a part of the way the language has worked from before recorded history. Some writers set out with the intention of inventing new words. Lewis Carroll may have been the king of this practice, even inventing a technical term — “portmanteau word” — for his method, in which he combined existing words to form new ones. He melded “lithe” and “slimy” to create one of the new words in his line, “‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbel in the wabe.”

Our consideration of dictionaries should include a warning about accuracy. Just because something is free and instantly accessible via the Internet doesn’t mean it’s correct. The editors and publishers of dictionaries go through rigorous steps to assure the accuracy of word definitions, spellings and origins. There are probably thousands of sites on the Web that present what they purport to be the origin of words — especially slang words, like “OK.” Be cautious in accepting those claims at face value. Some of it is inaccurate or misleading, based on speculation or hearsay. For example, most spell checkers, including the one incorporated in this blog system, will flag that word above, “bodacious.” Well, there’s the difference between proper language and effective language in a nutshell!

As the late John Ciardi, a master etymologist often said, “Good words to you.”

© 2013 Brad Nixon

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Responses

  1. I always love your posts! I do share them with others who might enjoy them, so hope that is O.K. with you. Keep those thoughts coming our way!

    Like

  2. Nice piece, thanks. Are legal dictionaries law books?

    Like

    • It’s very funny that you asked that. I actually thought about that Black’s Law Dictionary sitting on The Counselor’s shelf, and asked myself the same question. Since I didn’t come up with an answer as good as the question, I let it go. I invite you to answer your own question!

      Like


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