Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of US lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near-Lewinskian scale?

For instance, did you know that some modern dictionaries are notoriously liberal and others notoriously conservative, and that certain conservative dictionaries were actually conceived and designed as corrective responses to the "corruption" and "permissiveness" of certain liberal dictionaries? That the oligarchic device of having a special "Distinguished Usage Panel... of outstanding professional speakers and writers" is some dictionaries' attempt at a compromise between the forces of egalitarianism and traditionalism in English, but that most linguistic liberals dismiss the Usage Panel device as mere sham-populism, as in e.g. "Calling upon the opinions of the elite, it claims to be a democratic guide"?

Did you know that US lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?

-- David Foster Wallace, Authority and American Usage

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It is widely believed that every word has a correct indisputable meaning and that teachers and books are the supreme authority in matters of meaning and usage. Few people ask by what authority the writers of dictionaries and grammars say what they say.

The task of writing a dictionary begins with reading vast amounts of the literature of the period or subject that the dictionary is to cover. As the editors read, they copy on cards every interesting or rare word, every unusual or peculiar occurrence of a common word, a large number of common words in their ordinary uses, and also the sentences in which each of these words appears.

That is to say, the context of each word is collected, along with the word itself. For a really big job of dictionary-writing, such as the Oxford English Dictionary (usually bound in about twenty-five volumes), millions of such cards are collected, and the task of editing occupies decades. As the cards are collected, they are alphabetized and sorted. When the sorting is completed, there will be anywhere from two or three to several hundred illustrative quotations for each word, each on its card...

The editor reads the cards carefully, discards some, re-reads the rest, and divides the stack according to what seem to be the several senses of the word. The editor cannot be influenced by an idea of what a given word ought to mean, but must work according to what the collected quotations reveal about the word.

The writing of a dictionary, therefore, is not a task of setting up authoritative statements about the "true meanings" of words, but a task of recording, to the best of one's ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past. The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver.

-- S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action