A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Of Pit Bulls and Bar Mitzvahs
Back in the old days (pre-Internet), when life was simpler, dictionaries were thought to carry a certain authority. People consulted them in order to learn or verify the proper and accepted meaning of words, to resolve disagreements, and sometimes to find an authoritative hook on which they could hang arguments. Today, the Internet and other technological developments make those scenarios a little less dependable and straightforward.
If you follow various forums in which speakers debate the meanings of words, it's easy to get the impression that "the dictionary," as the whole world of them is often popularly referred to, is no longer regarded as an anchor of certainty on the reference shelf. Do such challenges to established usage or well-researched definitions deserve any attention? Here are a couple of examples that have come up recently.
Let's take an easy one first. The website BuzzFeed promotes itself as having "the hottest, most social content on the web." It features "breaking buzz and the kinds of things you'd want to pass along to your friends." It recently posted this story, which takes the editors of Merriam-Webster Dictionaries to task for carrying the following definition of pit bull:
a type of dog that is known for its strength and its ability to fight
It's not clear exactly where the BuzzFeed staffer found this definition, though it is possibly a legitimate paring down of the definition that appears in Merriam-Webster's flagship title, the Collegiate:
a dog (as an American Staffordshire terrier) of any of several breeds or a real or apparent hybrid with one or more of these breeds that was developed and is now often trained for fighting and is noted for strength and stamina
The BuzzFeed article then goes on with dozens of pictures that depict pit bulls in affectionate and cuddly poses with humans, fellow dogs, or with other creatures, and the compiler of these endearing images concludes that "I think we can all agree: Merriam-Webster's dictionary has some serious editing to get to." The comments section has collected more than 300 observations from denizens the pit bull corner, most of whom completely agree with the spirit and tone of the article. The most upvoted comment characterizes the Merriam-Webster definition as "half-assed."
When I say that this one is easy, I mean: it's easy and completely justifiable to dismiss this tempest in a tea cup as errant nonsense. The article's author and many commenters seem to assume that Merriam-Webster's lexicographers have a prejudice against pit bulls, or that they have formulated their definition merely on the basis of whimsy or personal opinion. The pit bull sympathizer camp overlooks the simple and important fact of usage, and the duty of dictionary-makers to make it the basis of the definitions of words. In English today, the most salient verb collocations of pit bull are maul, attack, and bite. Adjectives most likely to occur before pit bull are vicious and rabid. In light of these patterns, a dictionary would be remiss in its obligations if its definition of pit bull did make reference to the violence and aggression associated with this breed of dog.
A learner of English wishing to know the salient facts about pit bulls would be poorly served by a definition that did not include these important facts. The question of whether a definition of pit bull should also note the admirable qualities that pit bull owners think are overlooked is beside the point. Those qualities can be inferred by the presence of dog in the definition. No dictionary makes note of the encyclopedic information pertaining to particular breeds with regard to their suitability as pets or their capacity to participate in affection scenarios.
A more nuanced case arose recently on the question-and-answer website Quora, where participants rank "knowledge" on the basis of its personal appeal. Someone posted the question, Which is more correct: "have a bar mitzvah" or "get bar mitzvah"?
The answer that received the most upvotes is that neither of these usages is correct, and that the correct usage is "to become (a) bar/bat mitzvah." The second-most popular answer to the question is along similar lines. My evidence-based answer to the question trails in at third.
On this question, dictionaries are in line with usage. When people talk about a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, most of the time they are talking about the ceremony marking the occasion. Accordingly, most dictionaries give as their first, and sometimes their only definition, something along the lines of "an initiation ceremony marking the 13th birthday of a Jewish boy and signifying the beginning of religious responsibility" (that's the definition given here). Again, an English learner encountering the term and wishing to learn its meaning would be best served by a definition that identified bar mitzvah as a ceremony, not as a person. Is there any basis for arguing that such a usage is not correct?
This case is not as straightforward as the case of pit bull because here there are sound etymological reasons for equating bar mitzvah with the boy (or girl for bat), not the ceremony. That is the original meaning. But usage, that old tyrant, has nearly eclipsed the original meaning of bar/bat mitzvah in the majority speech community; and usage is in fact what determines what words mean.
When words shift in denotation (as in the case of bar/bat mitzvah) the Internet now makes available to us a retrospective critique about the change from speakers vested in the original usage of the word. When words refuse to shift in denotation (as in the case of pit bull), the Internet now brings to our attention the voices of protesters who cry "unfair!" In both cases, a minority speech community (etymological conservatives, pit bull sympathizers) would have their preferred usage given preference. Should dictionary editors take note of such instances of preferences about word usage?
Dictionaries today may indeed be suffering a crisis of identity and authority in the wake of the demise of the print dictionary, and the emergence of generations who will never use one. But the quickest way that dictionaries, in whatever form, could assure they won't be taken seriously would be to surrender the scientific (i.e., evidence-based) nature of their definitions to influence by the wishes of language police, no matter what the credentials of those police. Speakers who wish that words would acquire and then retain a particular meaning should seal up those words hermetically and never release them to the public. Words in the public domain take on a life of their own with little regard for the wishes of their creators or defenders. Dictionaries merely document the evidence.