We Are the Dictionary, and Dictionaries 'R' Us

By Walker, Ruth | The Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 2013 | Go to article overview

We Are the Dictionary, and Dictionaries 'R' Us


Walker, Ruth, The Christian Science Monitor


Among the underreported news stories that you may have missed over the summer was "the death of English."

I mean that literally. No, figuratively, but it has a literal connection with literally.

The figurative use of literally (as in, "When I gave him the news, he literally exploded") is a pet peeve of many. Sometime in August, someone found that if you enter the words "define literally" into a Google search box, the figurative definition pops up after the more literal-minded definition.

That someone was reportedly a Swede living in Texas, evidently browsing the Web while stuck in traffic. He tweeted a link to a screen grab of the offending Google page with the message "We did it guys! We killed English!" The tweet was retweeted and then picked up by a number of news organizations. Inclusion of this usage in "the dictionary" was a sign of the decline, if not actual demise, of "English."

This tweet itself could be flagged as an assault on a number of usage rules: setting off nouns of address ("guys") with commas, avoiding slang and unnecessarily gender-specific language ("guys" again on both counts), and using verb tenses correctly. The Guardian got this last one right, though, by framing the question thus: "Have we literally broken the English language?"

But I digress. A few days after this brouhaha, Erin Brenner at Copyediting weighed in with a helpful observation: "A dictionary gets its authority from language users." She continued: "Dictionaries describe language. They observe the words and rules we create and follow. We create the words and meanings." And "we" means all of us, ultimately, not just the editorial gatekeepers.

This "literal" flap recalled David Skinner's book of last fall, "The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published. …

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