Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Word Court: The Judge Is In

The next time a language usage brouhaha has you ready to scream, come to blows or file for divorce -- wait! Cool down and contact Barbara Wallraff. The author of The Atlantic's popular Word Court and Word Fugitives columns and a weekly syndicated columnist for King Features, Barbara has been sorting out thorny language questions -- and occasionally saving marriages -- for over a quarter century. She's also written three terrific books on the subject: Word Fugitives, Your Own Words and Word Court. We had a lively talk with Barbara about usage, the role of dictionaries and the hidden power of Google:

VT: Your columns really give you an ear to the linguistic ground.

Barbara: They sure do. The format of my columns is question and answer -- people send me queries that I respond to. I like to think that makes me the best-informed language columnist out there.

VT: Why?

Barbara: Because I find out about things that are turning into problems that would just never occur to me. Readers notice and send me letters about them and ask me to give my judgment. One recent example had to do with the use of "supposably" instead of "supposedly." You know as well as I do which one is preferred in just about every context, but if you look in dictionaries, this isn't covered as a controversy. Now, I happen to be a member of the Usage Panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, so I sent the editor, Joseph Pickett, an email saying, Hey Joe what's up with this?

If you Google "supposably," you will find people on the Internet asking whether it's a word, and other people answering it's a non-word or it's a very specialized word or it's a perfectly good word. It seems to me dictionary users would want to know about this, too. So why isn't it covered? Joe and I had a long exchange. I came away with a little clearer idea of just how tough it is to decide exactly what to put in the dictionary. He came away saying he was going to give "supposably" its own entry in the next edition.

VT: Sounds like there's more going on behind the scenes at a dictionary than we imagine.

Barbara: One of the points I made in my second book, Your Own Words, is that your average dictionary user thinks the dictionary is something very different from what the lexicographers who put it together think it is.

The front matter of the dictionary tells you all kinds of stuff about what the lexicographers think they're doing. But if you take it seriously and look through the dictionary -- look up thousands of things, as I did -- you'll find that they don't necessarily do what they say they're doing. I got into a shouting match about this at a Dictionary Society of North America convention a couple of years ago.

We tend to think of commercial dictionaries as a scholarly product, and the people who create them have been taught to do a particular thing they do very well. But a lot of what they do is not what most people wish they would.

VT: Can you give us an example of what you mean?

Barbara: Just think of a word that can be pronounced two different ways. For instance, "Caribbean" - pronounced "kar-uh-bee-uh n" or "kuh-rib-ee-uh n." People tend to think that the first pronunciation given is the more correct one. But if you look in the front matter, the dictionary will often say, Well, any pronunciation given is perfectly fine; neither pronunciation is better than the other. I feel like, Then just pick one and tell me that that's the way to say it. But lexicographers will explain that they don't feel comfortable making a value judgment like that.

Same thing applies where there are two different spellings. The dictionaries will say, If we give you both spellings separated by an "or" or by a comma, either spelling is fine, don't worry about it, they're equal. Well, people don't know that. They tend to think the first spelling is the better one. If a spelling comes after "also," they will tell you there's nothing wrong with it either, it's just less common. Well, you know, help me out here -- tell me how you expect me to spell it.

VT: People are looking for answers.

Barbara: Absolutely. And why shouldn't they be? If you get really fanatical about it, the way I am, and you check the spellings on Google or Google News, you'll sometimes find that the dictionaries are just wrong and out of date - it's an entry they haven't bothered to correct.

At the same time, what you have is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Take Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, the most popular dictionary in America, also known as "Web 11." If they put X spelling first and Y spelling second, most people who use the dictionary - and who don't read the front matter - will think, Oh, the X spelling is the one that I should use. So Web 11 is causing that spelling to become the more popular one.

VT: You mention checking Google or Google News. Can you explain that?

Barbara: Well there's a lot about that in my second book again, Your Own Words. The knock on this process is obviously that you don't necessarily want to choose a spelling based on "majority rules." But over time this is exactly what happens. Many of the changes in our language are a history of understandable mistakes being made. For example, take "restaurateur" spelled without the "n." One of these days, it's just going to turn into "restauranteur."

It's important, though, to pay attention to the difference between Google News and regular Google because everything that's in the Google News database comes from edited media. It may not be edited very well, but someone paid to copy edit has looked over practically everything in there. That is quite different from the wide world of the web full of people expressing themselves as freely as possible.

Once you start looking in Google News, you can get a sense of where language is going. Some years ago when I was editing a travel piece for the Atlantic, we had an argument about whether people knew what an "infinity pool" was. Do you know what an "infinity pool" is?

VT: I think so.

Barbara: If you type "infinity pool" into Google News, you can see whether it's used in mainstream publications or just the newsletter of the swimming pool industry association. You can see whether mainstream publications expect readers to know, or feel they have to explain, that an infinity pool is a pool with one edge over which water runs freely to give the impression of the pool extending into an ocean or other body of water beyond.

VT: What's the significance of this?

Barbara: Resources like Google News are similar to what lexicographers use when they figure out what words to put in dictionaries.

VT: It's kind of like a People's Corpus.

Barbara: Yes, exactly. You can figure out if a word is well established enough to use in your context. You don't need to wait until the next edition of the dictionary comes out. I do a lot of this kind of thing. But let me say that I do respect, and use, dictionaries.

VT: So dictionaries aren't exactly obsolete?

Barbara: I have four of them on my hard disk. I also have a subscription to the OED Online, and I use a few others online. I use dictionaries and other reference books a lot. But some of my favorite questions are ones where you think, I didn't know that was in play.

VT: An example?

Barbara: Not long ago I had a question about whether a "late model car" is a recent model car or whether it's a car of a model that is late, or deceased. I thought this was perfectly obvious: it's a recent car. But only one of my dictionaries, the New Oxford American, comes out clearly and says that. When I started tooling around on the Web for this, I used Google itself, "big" Google rather than Google News, because I wanted to know how car dealers and people in that world use the term.

On Google you find phrases like "classic, antique and other late model cars" that make it clear that some people who sell these things use "late model" the other way. Isn't that interesting -- that some of these insiders have come up with what in common parlance means "newish" to mean a particular kind of old? All I can say is, Guys, stop it. A word that can either mean "old" or "new" just isn't going to be useful to anybody.

VT: Fascinating.

Barbara: A question like that is what I mean when I say that I feel so well informed by being in touch with my readers. It never would have occurred to me that there was any question about "late model" if a reader hadn't asked me about it.


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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 8th 2007, 11:00 AM
Comment by: Noël P.
I saw in Blog du Jour that Barbara mentions the OED online as an indispensable, if expensive, resource. Just wanted to mention that some libraries enable their members to access the OED online for free (from your own home computer), as mine in Richmond borough (London, England) does. It's worth checking!
Thursday March 8th 2007, 1:44 PM
Comment by: Mandisa J.
I don't think that this is all that important. Word misuse is common, we are not all English teachers. The main reason I think most Americans don't use some words correctly is because we are taught at a certain grade in school to use context clues and not the dictionary.

We also associate different words with different ways of being, classes and groups of people instead of using them freely, or as they are defined.

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