Sabotage in Springfield: Webster's Third Edition

The Second Edition of the Merriani-Webster international unabridged dictionary has held an unchallenged position in the world of American writers, editors, teachers, students, and general readers. In the new Third Edition, however, the dictionary makers in Springfield, Massachusetts, hare abrogated their authority, says WILSON FOLLETT,and the result is in many particulars a calamity. Mr. Follett, author and editor, is himself an authority on language and usage.

OF DICTIONARIES, as of newspapers, it might be said that the bad ones are too bad to exist, the good ones too good not to be better. No dictionary of a living language is perfect or ever can be, if only because the time required for compilation, editing, and issuance is so great that shadows of obsolescence are falling on parts of any such work before it ever gets into the hands of a user. Preparation of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language began intensively in the Springheld establishment of G. & C. Merriam Company in 1936, but the century was nine months into its seventh decade before any outsider could have his first look at what had been accomplished. His first look is, of course, incompetent to acquaint him with the merits of the new work; these no one can fully discover without months or years of everyday use. On the other hand, it costs only minutes to find out that what will rank as the great event of American linguistic history in this decade, and perhaps in this quarter century, is in many crucial particulars a very great calamity.

Why should the probable and possible superiorities of the Third New International be so difficult to assess, the shortcomings so easy? Because the superiorities are special, departmental, and recondite, the shortcomings general and within the common grasp. The new dictionary comes to us with a claim of 100,000 new words or new definitions. These run almost overwhelmingly to scientific and technological terms or meanings that have come into existence since 1934, and especially to words classified as ISV (belonging to the international scientific vocabulary). No one person can possibly use or even comprehend all of them; the coverage in this domain, certainly impressive to the nonspecialist, may or may not command the admiration of specialists. It is said that historians of the graphic arts and of architecture were displeased with the 1934 Webster, both for its omissions and for some definitions of what it included in their fields. Its 1961 successor may have disarmed their reservations; only they can pronounce.

But all of us may without brashness form summary judgments about the treatment of what belongs to all of us—the standard, staple, traditional language of general reading and speaking, the ordinary vocabulary and idioms of novelist, essayist, letter writer, reporter, editorial writer, teacher, student, advertiser; in short, fundamental English. And it is precisely in this province that Webster III has thrust upon us a dismaying assortment of the questionable, the perverse, the unworthy, and the downright outrageous.

Furthermore, what was left out is as legitimate a grievance to the ordinary reader as anything that has been put in. Think — if you can — of an unabridged dictionary from which you cannot learn who Mark Twain was (though mark twain is entered as a leadsman’s cry), or what were the names of the apostles, or that the Virgin was Mary the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, or what and where the District of Columbia is!

The disappointment and the shock are intensified, of course, because of the unchallenged position earned by the really unabridged immediate predecessor of this strange work. Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition (1934), consummated under the editorship of William Allan Neilson, at once became the most important reference book in the world to American writes, editors, teachers, students, and general readers — everyone to whom American English was a matter of serious interest. What better could the next revision do than extend the Second Edition in the direction of itself, bring it up to date, and coirect its scattering of oversights and errata?

The 1934 dictionary had been, heaven knows, no citadel of conservatism, no last bastion of puristical bigotry. But it had made shrewd reports on the status of individual words; it had taken its clear, beautifully written definitions from fit uses of an enormous vocabulary by judicious users; it had provided accurate, impartial accounts of the endless guerrilla war between grammarian and antigrammarian and so given every consultant the means to work out his own decisions. Who could wish the forthcoming revision any better fortune than a comparable success in applying the same standards to whatever new matter the new age imposed?

Instead, we have seen a century and a third of illustrious history largely jettisoned; we have seen a novel dictionary formula improvised, in great part out of snap judgments and the sort of theoretical improvement that in practice impairs; and we have seen the gates propped wide open in enthusiastic hospitality to miscellaneous confusions and corruptions. In line, the anxiously awaited work that was to have crowned cisatlantic linguistic scholarship with a particular glory turns out to be a scandal and a disaster. Worse yet, it plumes itself on its faults and parades assiduously cultivated sins as virtues without precedent.

EXAMINATION cannot proceed far without revealing that Webster III, behind its front of passionless objectivity, is in truth a fighting document. And the enemy it is out to destroy is every obstinate vestige of linguistic punctilio, every surviving influence that makes for the upholding of standards, every criterion for distinguishing between better usages and worse. In other words, it has gone over bodily to the school that construes traditions as enslaving, the rudimentary principles of syntax as crippling, and taste as irrelevant. This revolution leaves it in the anomalous position of loudly glorifying its own ancestry — which is indeed glorious — while tacitly sabotaging the principles and ideals that brought the preceding Merriam-Webster to its unchallengeable preeminence. The Third New International is at once a resounding tribute of lip service to the Second and a wholesale repudiation of it — a sweeping act of apology, contrition, and refoim.

The right-about-face is, of course, particularly evident in the vocabulary approved. Within a few days of publication the new dictionary was inevitably notorious for its unreserved acceptance as standard of wise up, get hep (it uses the second as a definition of the first), ants in one’s pants, one for the book, hugeous, nixie, passel, hepped up (with hepcat and heps ter), anyplace, someplace, and so forth. These and a swarm of their kind it admits to lull canonical standing by the suppression ot such qualifying status labels as colloquial, slang, cant, facetious, and substandard. The classification colloquial it abolishes outright: “it is impossible to know whether a word out of context is colloquial or not?" Of slang it makes a chary occasional use despite a similar reservation: “No word is invariably slang, and many standard words can be given slang connotations or used so inappropriately as to become slang.” Cornball is ranked as slang, corny is not.

The overall effect signifies a large-scale abrogation of one major responsibility of the lexicographer. He renounces it on the curious ground that helpful discriminations are so far beyond his professional competence that he is obliged to leave them to those who, professing no competence at all, have vainly turned to him for guidance. It some George Ade of the future, aspiring to execute a fable in slang, were to test his attempt by the status labels in Webster III, he would quickly discover with chagrin that he had expressed himself almost without exception in officially applauded English. With but slight exaggeration we can say that if an expression can be shown to have been used in print by some jaded reporter, some candidate for office or his speech writer, some potboiling minor novelist, it is well enough credentialed for the full blessing of the new lexicography.

This extreme tolerance of crude neologisms and of shabby diction generally, however, is but one comparatively trifling aspect of the campaign against punctilio. We begin to sound its deeper implications when we plunge into the definitions and the copious examples that illustrate and support them. Under the distributive pronoun each we find, side by side: “(each of them is to pay his own fine) (each of them are to pay their own fine).” Where could anyone look for a neater, more succinct way to outlaw the dusty dogma that a pronoun should agree in number with its antecedent? Here is the same maneuver again under another distributive, everybody: “usu. referred to by the third person singular (everybody is bringing his own lunch) but sometimes by a plural personal pronoun (everybody had made up their minds).” Or try whom and whomever: “(a . . . recruit whom he hoped would prove to be a crack salesman) (people . . . whom you never thought would sympathize) . . , (I go out to talk to whomever it is) . . . (he attacked whomever disagreed with him).” It is, then, all right to put the subject of a finite verb in the accusative case — “esp. after a preposition or a verb of which it might mistakenly be considered the object,”

SHALL we look into what our dictionary does with a handful of the more common solecisms, such as a publisher might introduce into a cookedup test for would-be copy editors? Begin with center around (or about). It seems obvious that expressions derived from Euclidean geometry should make Euclidean sense. A center is a point; it is what things are around, not what is around them; they center in or on or at the point. The Second Edition defined the Great White Way as “That part of Broadway . . . centering about Times Square” — patently an oversight. Is it the same oversight that produces, in the Third: “heresy . . . ..3: a group or school of thought centering around a particular heresy”? We look up center itself, and, lo: “(a story to tell, centered around the political development of a great state) . . . (more scholarship than usual was centered around the main problems),” followed by several equivalent specimens.

Here is due to. First we come on irreproachable definitions, irreproachably illustrated, of due noun and due adjective, and we think we are out of the woods. Alas, they are followed by the manufacture of a composite preposition, due to, got up solely to extenuate such abominations as “the event was canceled due to inclement weather.” An adjective can modify a verb, then. And here is a glance at that peculiarly incriminating redundancy of the slipshod writer, equally as: “equally opposed to Communism as to Fascism.” The intolerable hardly than or scarcely than construction is in full favor: “hardly had the birds dropped than she jumped into the water and retrieved them.” The sequence different than has the double approbation of editorial use and a citation: conjunctive unlike means “in a manner that is different than,” and a passage under different reads “vastly different in size than it was twenty-five years ago.” Adjectival unlike and conjunctive unlike both get illustrations that implicitly commend the unanchored and grammarless modifier: “so many fine men were outside the charmed circle that, unlike most colleges, there was no disgrace in not being a club man”; “unlike in the gasoline engine, fuel does not enter the cylinder with air on the intake stroke.”

This small scattering should not end without some notice of that darling of the advanced libertarians, like as a conjunction, first in the meaning of as, secondly (and more horribly) in that of as if. Now, it is well known to the linguistic historian that like was so used for a long time before and after Langland. But it is as well known that the language rather completely sloughed off this usage; that it has long been no more than a regional colloquialism, a rarely seen aberration among competent writers, or an artificially cultivated irritant among defiant ones. The Saturday Evening Post, in which like for as is probably more frequent than in any other painstakingly edited magazine, has seldom if ever printed that construction except in reproducing the speech or tracing the thoughts of characters to whom it might be considered natural. The arguments for like have been merely defensive and permissive. Not for centuries has there been any real pressure of authority on a writer to use like as a conjunction—until our Third New International Dictionary decided to exert its leverage.

How it is exerted will appear in the following: “(impromptu programs where they ask questions much like I do on the air) . . . (looks like they can raise better tobacco) (looks like he will get the job) (wore his clothes like he was . . . afraid of getting dirt on them) (was like he’d come back from a long trip) (acted like she felt sick) . . . (sounded like the motor had stopped) . . . (the violin now sounds like an old masterpiece should) (did it like he told me to) . . . (wanted a doll like she saw in the store window) . , . (anomalies like just had occurred).”

By the processes represented in the foregoing and countless others for which there is no room here, the latest Webster whittles away at one after another of the traditionary controls until there is little or nothing left of them. The controls, to be sure, have often enough been overvalued and overdone by pedants and purists, by martinets and bigots; but more often, and much more importantly, they have worked as aids toward dignified, workmanlike, and cogent uses of the wonderful language that is our inheritance. To erode and undermine them is to convert the language into a confusion of unchanneled, incalculable williwaws, a capricious wind blowing whithersoever it listeth. And that, if we are to judge by the total effect of the pages under scrutiny — 2720 of them and nearly 8000 columns of vocabulary, all compact in Times roman — is exactly what is wanted by the patient and dedicated saboteurs in Springfield, They, if they keep their ears to the ground, will hear many echoes of the despairing cry already wrung from one editorial assistant on a distinguished magazine that still puts its faith in standards: “Why have a Dictionary at all if anything goes?”

THE definitions are reinforced, it will have been conveyed, with copious citations from printed sources. These citations occupy a great fraction of the total space. They largely account for the reduction in the number of entries (from 600,000 to 450,000) and for the elimination of the Gazetteer, the Biographical Dictionary, and the condensed key to pronunciation and symbols that ran across the bottoms of facing pages — all very material deprivations. Some 14,000 authors, we are told, are represented in the illustrative quotations — “mostly from the mid-twentieth century.”

Can some thousands of authors truly worth space in a dictionary ever be found in any one brief period? Such a concentration can hardly fail to be, for the purposes of a dictionary, egregiously overweighted with the contemporary and the transient. Any very short period, such as a generation, is a period of transition in the history of English, and any great mass of examples drawn primarily from it will be disproportionately focused on transitional and ephemeral elements. To say that recording English as we find it today is precisely the purpose of a new dictionary is not much of a retort. For the bulk of the language that we use has come down to us with but minor, glacially slow changes from time out of mind, and a worthy record of it must stand on a much broader base than the fashions of yesterday.

It is, then, a mercy that among the thousands of s raps from recent authors, many of them still producing, we can also find hundreds from Shakespeare, the English Bible, Fielding, Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James, Mark Twain, and so on. But the great preponderance of latterday prose, little of it worth repeating and a good deal of it hardly worth printing in the first place, is likel to curtail by years the useful life of the Third Hew International.

So much is by the way. When we come to the definitions proper we face something new, startling, and formidable in lexicography. The definitions, all of them conformed to a predetermined rhetorical pattern, may be products of a theory — Gestaltist, perhaps? — of how the receiving mind works. The pattern, in the editor’s general preface, is described as follows: “The primary objective of precise, sharp defining has been met through development of a new dictionary style based upon completely analytical one-phrase definitions throughout the book. Since the headword in a definition is intended to be modified only by structural elements restrictive in some degree and essential to each other, the use of commas either to separate or to group has been severely limited, chiefly to elements in apposition or in series. The new defining pattern does not provide for a predication which conveys further expository comment.”

This doctrine of the strictly unitary definition is of course formulated and applied in the interest of a logical integrity and a simplification never before consistently attained by lexical definitions. What it produces, when applied with the rigor here insisted on, is in the first place some of the oddest prose ever concocted by pundits. A typical specimen, from the definition of the simplest possible term: “rabbit punch . . : a short chopping blow delivered to the back of the neck or the base of the skull with the edge of the hand opposite the thumb that is illegal in boxing.” When the idea, being not quite so simple, requires the one-phrase statement of several components, the definition usually turns out to be a great unmanageable and unpunctuated blob of words strung out beyond the retentive powers of most minds that would need the definition at all. Both theory and result will emerge clearly enough from a pair of specimens, the first dealing with a familiar everyday noun, the second with a mildly technical one:

groan ... 1: a deep usu. inarticulate and involuntary often strangled sound typically abruptly begun and ended and usu. indicative of pain or grief or tension or desire or sometimes disapproval or annoyance

kymograph ... 1: a recording device including an electric motor or clockwork that drives a usu. slowly revolving drum which carries a roll of plain or smoked paper and also having an arrangement for tracing on the paper by means of a stylus a graphic record of motion or pressure (as of the organs of speech, blood pressure, or respiration) often in relation to particular intervals of time.

About these typical definitions as prose, there is much that any good reader might well say. What must be said is that the grim suppression of commas is a mere crotchet. It takes time to read such definitions anyway; commas in the right places would speed rather than slow the reading and would clarify rather than obscure the sense, so that the unitary effect — largely imaginary at best — would be more helped than hurt. In practice, the one-phrase design without further expository predication lacks all the asserted advantages over a competently written definition of the free conventional sort; it is merely more difficult to write, often impossible to write well, and tougher to take in. Compare the corresponding definitions from the Second Edition:

groan ... A low, moaning sound; usually, a deep, mournful sound uttered in pain or great distress; sometimes, an expression of strong disapprobation; as, the remark was received with groans.

kymograph ... a An automatic apparatus consisting of a motor revolving a drum covered with smoked paper, on which curves of pressure, etc., may be traced.

EVERYONE professionally concerned with the details of printed English can be grateful to the new Webster for linking the parts of various expressions that have been either hyphenated compounds or separate words — highlight, highbrow and lowbrow, overall, wisecrack, lowercase and uppercase, and so on. Some of the unions now recognized were long overdue; many editors have already got them written into codes of house usage. But outside this small province the new work is a copy editors despair, a propounder of endless riddles.

What, for example, are we to make of the common abbreviations i.e. and e.g.? The first is entered in the vocabulary as ie (no periods, no space), the second as e g (space, no periods). In the preliminary list, “Abbreviations Used in This Dictionary, “ both are given the customary periods. (Oddly, the list translates its i.e. into “that is,” but merely expands e.g. into “exempli gratia.”) Is one to follow the vocabulary or the list? What point has the seeming inconsistency?

And what about capitalization? All vocabulary entries are in lowercase except for such abbreviations as ARW (air raid warden), MAB (medical advisory board), and PX (post exchange). Words possibly inviting capitalization are followed by such injunctions as cap, usu cap, sometimes not cap, usu cap 1st A, usu cap A&B. (One of the small idiosyncrasies is that “usu.,” the most frequent abbreviation, is given a period when roman, denied it when italic.) From america, adjective —all proper nouns are excluded — to american yew there are over 175 consecutive entries that require such injunctions; would it not have been simpler and more economical to capitalize the entries? A flat “cap,” of course, means “always capitalized.” But how often is “usually,” and when is “sometimes”? We get dictionaries expressly that they may settle such problems for us. This dictionary seems to make a virtue of leaving them in flux, with the explanation that many matters are subjective and that the individual must decide them for himself — a curious abrogation of authority in a work extolled as “more useful and authoritative than any previous dictionary.”

The rock-bottom practical truth is that the lexicographer cannot abrogate his authority if he wants to. He may think of himself as a detached scientist reporting the facts of language, declining to recommend use of anything or abstention from anything; but the myriad consultants of his work are not going to see him so. He helps create, not a book of fads and fancies and private opinions, but a Dictionary of the English Language. It comes to every reader under auspices that say, not “Take it or leave it,” but rather something like this: “Here in 8000 columns is a definitive report of what a synod of the most trustworthy American experts consider the English language to be in the seventh decade of the twentieth century. This is your language; take it and use it. And if you use it in conformity with the principles and practices here exemplified, your use will be the most accurate attainable by any American of this era.” The fact that the compilers disclaim authority and piously refrain from judgments is meaningless: the work itself, by virtue of its inclusions and exclusions, its mere existence, is a whole universe of judgments, received by millions as the Word from on high.

And there we have the reason why it is so important for the dictionary maker to keep his discriminations sharp, why it is so damaging if lie lets them get out of working order. Suppose he enters a new definition for no better reason than that some careless, lazy, or uninformed scribbler has jumped to an absurd conclusion about what a word means or has been too harassed to run down the word he really wanted. This new definition is going to persuade tens of thousands that, say, cohort, a word of multitude, means one associate or crony “(he and three alleged housebreaking cohorts were arraigned on attempted burglary charges) or that the vogue word ambivalence, which denotes simultaneous love and hatred of someone or something, means “continual oscillation between one thing and its opposite (novels . . . vitiated by an ambivalence between satire and sentimentalism).” To what is the definer contributing if not to subversion and decay? To the swallower of the definition it never occurs that he can have drunk corruption from a well that he has every reason to trust as the ultimate in purity. Multiply him by the number of people simultaneously influenced, and the resulting figure by the years through which the influence continues, and a great deal of that product by the influences that will be disseminated through speech and writing and teaching, and you begin to apprehend the scope of the really enormous disaster that can and will be wrought by the lexicographer’s abandonment of his responsibility.