Symposium on Language and Culture; Proceedings

By Viola E. Garfield; Wallace L. Chafe | Go to book overview

LYNCHING THE LEXICOGRAPHERS

James H. Sledd

DURING THE year 1961, two books touched the consciences of our literati: Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, which they have defended against the charge that it is obscene, and Webster's Third New International Dictionary, 1 which they have condemned for listing ain't. To an unsophisticated nostril, the taint of ain't is less offensive than the odor of sanctimony. It is painful to see a serious dictionary misread, misrepresented, and misquoted and to see base motives attributed by quacks to honest scholars. It is disgusting that the editors of a legal journal should print a demonstrably false accusation and that a right reverend bishop should defend high standards of language and morality by attacking the spirit of bolshevism among the Merriam Company's employees. The lexicographers (to modify a citation from M. R. Cohen) have "not been condemned in the court of human reason, but lynched outside of it."

An unlettered conscience may allow the judicious use of tar and feathers, but forbids the pleasure of lynching the lynchers on their own tree. Not all the community of reviewers has been implicated in the crime. Some reviews have been favorable; and of the unfavorable ones, not all are alike and not all are altogether unjustified in their criticisms.

With some reason, favorable reviewers have listed among the virtues of the Third International its fidelity to its linguistic principles, its comprehensive survey of the English vocabulary (especially the new words that mark recent developments in science and technology), its broadly based description of current usage, its careful discrimination of senses in definitions which generally are objective and precise and which are supported by numerous quotations, its realistic representation of the regional standards of American pronunciation in an improved phonetic alphabet, and its solutions of various technical problems in dictionary-making.

Equally reasonable objectors have said, among other things, that the learning of the gentlemen in Springfield has not saved them from a certain tactlessness or from insensitivity to the needs of common readers; that the editors were unwise to drop the label colloquial and to use the label slang so sparingly; that their new technique of definition is sometimes awkward and confusing; that they have neither consistently excluded nor consistently included traditional encyclopedic matter; that their typography is hard on the reader's eyes; and that even some of the principles of modern linguistics are not beyond dispute. Briefly, though the Third International is a good dictionary, it is a dictionary; and the perfect dictionary has never been made. A reviewer who found no error or deficiency in such a book would be suspect.

Not many have laid themselves open to that kind of suspicion. A new Webster's always creates a little stir, and Webster's Third has been very widely noticed in the popular press; but, unless the admen wanted to sell out the old copies of the second edition, the

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Symposium on Language and Culture; Proceedings
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page i
  • Preface iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction vii
  • An Evolutionary Sketch of Russian Kinship 1
  • Notes 22
  • Bibliography 23
  • Culture Geography at a Distance: Some Problems in the Study of East European Jewry 27
  • Notes 36
  • Bibliography 38
  • Linguistic Evidence for Salish Prehistory 41
  • Notices to Aes Members 51
  • Notes 57
  • Bibliography 58
  • Inconsistencies in Cherokee Spelling 60
  • The Sequential Distribution of Thanking in Aymara Culture 64
  • Notes 67
  • Lynching the Lexicographers 69
  • Notes 94
  • Notices to Aes Members 96
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