Fair Usage

On the politics of dictionaries


in Beyond Words


In 2001, Harper’s published an essay on lexicography by David Foster Wallace (“Tense Present”) that I have come to think of as classic, though I have no idea if fans of the author or lexicographers agree. I happened to be in college, studying linguistics, at the time, and I remember reading it excitedly, footnotes and all, the afternoon it arrived, on our college-y furniture, the requisite IKEA POÄNG. Rarely was the cover story so “relevant to my interests.”

Though my favorite subdiscipline was semantics, I had been largely unaware of what Wallace called “the seamy underbelly” of U.S. dictionary making, its “ideological strife and controversy and intrigue.” Said controversy, I learned, is essentially bipartisan — there’s a “liberal” school of pure descriptivism, wherein “words” like “heighth” get included without comment or censure, which sits in opposition and reaction to the “conservative” school of prescriptivism, or normative lexicography, which avows that “heighth” is not a word, sentences must not end with a preposition, etc.

The loyalties among academic linguists are clear, and this I remember from day 1 of LING 200 — prescriptivists are generally regarded as hypocritical, pedantic prigs, not to be tolerated. True linguists, they’ll aver, seek to describe the language as it’s used, not to tell people the right and wrong ways to speak it. In Wallace’s terms, this “influential contra-SNOOT school” believes “normative standards of English grammar and usage are functions of nothing but custom and superstition and the ovine docility of a populace that lets self-appointed language authorities boss them around.” Steven Pinker, in a 1994 piece for the New Republic, provides an exemplary inflammatory quote:

Once introduced, a prescriptive rule is very hard to eradicate, no matter how ridiculous. Inside the writing establishment, the rules survive by the same dynamic that perpetuates ritual genital mutilations and college fraternity hazing.

This rhetoric works like gangbusters on freshmen: Descriptivism = cool, prescriptivism = uncool. The choice is yours.

However, in the 15 years that have passed since I completed my linguistics degree, I’ve realized that descriptivism can quickly succumb to its own kind of smugness; it forms its own set of shibboleths and rules. There’s often an insider-y smirk lurking behind the declaration that “language changes.” Yes, language changes — everything changes, Q.E.D. But there’s room in the middle for language moderates who can tell the difference between, on the one hand, arbitrary, baseless, unenforceable rules and, on the other, a refusal to correct even obfuscating or harmful errors.

Recently, anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan challenged the Oxford Dictionary of English (not, N.B., identical to the Oxford English Dictionary) on its numerous sexist usage examples, including:

  • For rabid: “a rabid feminist”
  • For shrill: “the rising shrill of women’s voices”
  • For grating: “her high, grating voice”
  • For nagging: “a nagging wife”

He noted, further, a bias in work-related terms like research (“he prefaces his study with a useful summary of his own researches”) and doctor (“he was made a Doctor of divinity”), contra housework (“she still does all the housework”).

Oxford Dictionaries responded flippantly, by their own eventual admission, defending their examples as coming from “real-world use.” But as they later noted, “rabid” in its metaphorical sense occurs more frequently alongside words like “fan” and “supporter” than “feminist” in their language corpus (as in, “Apple, for decades, was supported by a small but rabid fan base”). And herein lies the problem with descriptivism: It’s usually humans doing the describing, not some definitive, objective uber-recorder. “Pure” descriptivism, however initially well-intentioned, can easily select and then, through codification, amplify language that is sexist, racist, or otherwise biased, sweeping context under the rug.

If we winkingly defend these examples as “valid usage” under the supposedly liberal auspices of descriptivism, we risk enforcing the conservative values we were trying to fight in the first place. (Wallace: “The very language in which today’s socialist, feminist, minority, gay, and environmentalist movements frame their sides of political debates is informed by the Descriptivist belief that traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, elitist: unfair.”) The not-my-fault defense reminds me of editors, confronted on their publishing records overwhelmingly favoring white male authors, passing the buck to their submissions queue. Take for example the Guardian’s book editor Claire Armitstead, who said, in response to VIDA research in 2011: “We always try to keep an even balance but many more men offer themselves to review books than women.” Perhaps if you published more reviews by women, more women reviewers would offer themselves?

Cherry-picked usage examples, any given magazine’s submission queue ratio — these are what I think of as “false mirrors.” Like voting patterns in gerrymandered districts, they don’t reflect a factual reality. It’s a chosen reality, chosen by someone in power. Wikipedia isn’t a source of facts either; it’s one version of reality according to a very specific cross-section of the population (again, overwhelmingly white and male). A New York Magazine article reports that “Sex and the City has fewer citations than a single character from Grand Theft Auto,” and “if you look at the Wikipedia pages of a male and female contemporary artist of similar stature in the art world, the female artist’s page will typically be less developed.” It also claims, annoyingly:

Unlike other spaces where women are underrepresented, Wikipedia doesn’t have any official gatekeeper excluding us. No one hires you to edit Wikipedia. Which means it’s the kind of thing you can’t really complain about unless you do your part.

Actually, you can complain about it! Whether they’re “official” or not is beside the point; active Wikipedia editors do act as gatekeepers, practicing “overly aggressive editing of women’s pages” (according to sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos). Women and minorities are excluded by unofficial gatekeepers all the time. When the overrepresented are in power, the underrepresented tend to stay underrepresented. Maybe the white men who have embraced descriptivism so fully have forgotten what it was originally for.

So-called descriptivist dictionaries and usage guides can’t really opt out of a point of view. Heisenberg would say that if you shine a light on usage, you change its velocity. In other words, all descriptivism is naïve descriptivism. And if you need a point of view, why not aim for an ethical one? Let’s be descriptivists when the “errors” harm no one, but prescriptivists in the service of a less oppressive language. •

Images courtesy of Michelle Tribe via Flickr (Creative Commons)