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What's in your dictionary?
Oct 24, 2014
It is odd the way people talk about “the dictionary” – by which they mean that abstraction of the lexicon which they somehow access through whatever particular version and edition they happen to have. Sometimes, this leads to totally unreasonable expectations. If this Johnsonian conduit to the wordlist of your language happens to be a minidictionary, or one that was published twenty years ago, then you should not be surprised to find that a new technical term is not in it. And yet there is outrage in the voices of the people who complain that they looked up a word and it is not in the dictionary. There is some magic attached to the whole enterprise born of the intuition that the dictionary is no ordinary book but a reflection of the living language which we all share and of which we all have ownership. There is also a sense of the cohesion of the variety, of its layering into slang and regionalism and specialist jargon which are nevertheless aspects of a whole.
That sense of personal ownership makes everyone an expert on the language. They know the words that should and shouldn’t be in the dictionary, a knowledge which usually lines up with language choices they made in adolescence with regard to lexicon, accent, pet phrases, usage issues, etc. Some people temper that decision-making with a general optimism and delight in change. Others are hardline conservatives who see all change as decay in standards. The dictionary becomes a battleground.
The fact that we are all experts on our own variety of English makes the life of a dictionary editor interesting because so many people are prepared to get involved in the processes of the dictionary. On the other it is this emotional investment that makes us willing to correct the personal choices of others in terms of grammar and usage and defend our own. Thus pedants are born.
Which version of the dictionary are you currently using? Let us know in the comments section below.
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