A Word, Please
A comprehensive list of ‘Duh!’
A few weeks ago, dictionary-maker Merriam-Webster posted on Twitter this handy tip: “It’s fine to use mad to mean ‘angry’-even if doing so makes some people mad.”
I have since compiled an exhaustive list of every possible appropriate response to this little nugget of wisdom. Here’s the complete list: “Duh!”
In all my years of fielding readers’ language complaints, I’ve never once heard someone say that people shouldn’t use “mad” to mean “angry.” If we were all characters in “Oliver Twist” maybe this would be a thing. But we’re not. So Merriam’s tweet was as useful as announcing that you can put ketchup on your French fries. Thanks for the handy tip, fellas. But maybe next time consider whether I’d picked that up on my own by age 4.
Gabriel Roth, an editor and language blogger at Slate, made the grave error of straying from the above list of appropriate responses, opting instead to unleash a series of tweets questioning Merriam’s market positioning.
It’s important to note here that Roth wasn’t challenging Merriam’s statement. On the contrary, he’s very open-minded about language, on record as supporting the use of “they” to refer to a singular antecedent. Yet something about Merriam’s “mad” tweet inspired Roth to respond: “I feel like @MerriamWebster is turning into the ‘chill’ parent who lets your friends come over and get high.”
Roth elaborated on this point in series of follow-up tweets. Finally, whoever mans the social media keyboard at Merriam’s decided to chime in: “@gabrielroth No one cares how you feel.”
The cheers were deafening. More than 31,000 people clicked the “Like” button on Merriam’s rather rude tweet and nearly 18,000 reposted it. Buzzfeed reported the digital smackdown, drawing chest-beating cheers from the short-attention-span crowd. The whole incident made me wonder, as I have many times, why people always seem so eager to align themselves with brutes and bullies. But I digress.
Roth responded in a blog post on Slate, noting this about Merriam: “Its editors characterize their approach as ‘descriptivist,’ which means they aim to reflect language as it exists, rather than to lay down the law, usage-wise. … Yet something about @Merri amWebster’s flaunting of its progressive credentials had begun to rub me the wrong way.”
I don’t take sides in disputes like this one. You’ll never see me jump in the middle of a scrap to take up arms for one camp or the other. Nope, the only time you’ll see me jump in is when I can point out how both sides are wrong.
And here it comes.
Roth almost has it, but not quite. Merriam’s isn’t a descriptivist dictionary. Lexicography — the act of making dictionaries — is descriptivism itself. Dictionaries record how people use the language. That’s all. So Roth’s comments about how Merriam is lax with the “laws” rather than laying them down is nonsensical. No dictionary has the power to make the rules.
True, dictionaries can take more liberal or more conservative interpretations of the data. And, true, because we use dictionaries as rulebooks they do have power. But no credible dictionary aims to tell us how we “should” use the language.
Lexicography is a pure pursuit: science, not legislation. So as long as a dictionary is practicing lexicography in good faith, you can’t accuse its authors of shirking their rule-making duties.
Still, Roth was on to something: Merriam has been accused in the past of tainting their lexicography with a less noble motive: marketing. Past editions of the dictionary have added terms like “accidently” as an alternative to “accidentally” and “dead presidents” to mean “money” — entries sure to draw lots of media attention if you mention them in a press release.
The question is not whether Merriam is acting too “chill.” The question is whether the Merriam people are letting their desire for attention pollute the once pure pursuit known as lexicography. After all, there’s no denying that a little shock value can score you lots of “likes,” clicks, retweets and even newspaper headlines.
That’s why a cheap shot like “No one cares what you think” doesn’t speak well about Merriam’s motives.
June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.