A Pivotal Moment in the History of Lexicography?


I stumbled across an interesting old Los Angeles Times article about the state of dictionary publishing. The 1993 piece describes a new direction taken by the dictionary publishers: massive publicity campaigns, some to the tune of $2.5 million. (Who knew any books ever sold enough to recoup that kind of spending blitz?)

The article seems to mark an important moment in the language: a time when lexicographers were forced to think of things other than lexicography: namely, attention-getting. Nothing’s wrong with that, of course, as long as it’s not tainting the lexicography itself. But more recent developments suggest it could be.

Take, for example, the recent addition in Merriam-Webster’s of the word “youthquake.” That’s a great entry for UrbanDictionary or any other source that compiles new coinages and of-the moment slang. But that’s not a real dictionary’s job. Folks who write dictionaries are supposed to follow a procedure built on unbiased scholarship to determine whether a word has gained enough acceptance in the language to warrant entry in the dictionary. I don’t know about you, but I don’t hear people using "youthquake" enough to suggest it’s a legit addition to the language.

What I do see are CNN headlines announcing wacky new words added to dictionaries -- announcements that, no doubt, started with press releases issued by the dictionary publishers.

I’m about as accepting of language change as a person can be. If the dictionary tells me that one of the most vulgar or upsetting words in the English language can now be used to mean “hat,” I’ll accept it, provided it's based on untainted research.  But if it looks like someone fudged the research a bit just so he could put out an attention-grabbing press release, that’s a problem. It means that something we long took for granted -- pure lexicography, an honest, scholarly snapshot of the language and how it changes -- is in danger.