Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America
Number 25, 2004
pp. 107-121 | 10.1353/dic.2004.0009
Life or Lexicography: How Popular Culture Imitates Dictionaries Tl Andrea R. Nagy mose who delight in dictionaries may be pleased to learn that we are all becoming lexicographers. I first suspected this when I saw a billboard that looked like a dictionary entry. It read, "New home, n. See NationsBank."1 Subsequently, I have collected over 50 additional examples of texts that quote or mimic dictionary entries. They were published primarily in American English print sources during the years 1990-2003 and they appeared in a variety of media, including books, newspapers, billboards, t-shirts, shopping bags, catalogues, newsletters, magazine covers, and wallpaper. In other words, dictionary text and style pervade our popular culture. Here is another example: pure (pyoor) adj. chewing (choo' ing) adj. satisfaction (sat'is-fak' shan) ?. 1. Gratification of a desire. 2. Mouth-pleasing feeling. 3. Cool and refreshing ^. Relax and enjoy. 5. Wrigley's Spearmint Gum.2 'From a NationsBank billboard advertisement, Interstate 95 North outside of Baltimore, Maryland, November 1997. Because much of the evidence for this article is ephemeral, readers would find reproductions of advertisements and other items helpful; however, proprietary restrictions on such material prohibit reproduction here. Also, given the difficulty of constructing bibliographic entries fr this evidence, references for dictionary imitations presented in the text are provided in footnotes. All other references appear, as usual, at the end of the article. Wrigley's Spearmint Gum advertisement, People (29January 1990). Dictionaries:Journal ofthe Dictionary Society ofNorth America 25 (2004) 108Andrea R. Nagy What is the purpose and significance of these mock definitions? At the broadest level, their very existence suggests that reader response to the dictionary has expanded from commentary and analysis to include popular imitation and parody, as well. More specifically, these imitations illustrate an ambivalent response to a canonical text. All of them honor the dictionary's authority at least to some extent by copying its distinctive stylistic and typographical conventions.3 They appropriate every part of the dictionary entry in order to interrupt customary patterns of reading and thereby command attention. However, their purposes vary: imitations that I classify as the serious, the semi-serious , and the humorous either adopt the lexicographer's authority as their own or they parody it. In each case, a writer creates intertextual links between dictionary text and "normal" text in order to establish credentials, tell ajoke, or advertise a product. The full range of imitations offers a popular commentary on the dictionary: our culture respects this reference book as a work of scientific accuracy but it is also skeptical toward its authority and eager to experiment with it. This ambivalent response to the dictionary begins with the critical commentary. Readers over the years have productively analyzed both the glories and the limitations of the dictionary's expansive scope, neutral voice, and brief definitions. On one hand, the dictionary is esteemed as a basic tool of literate society, a key to effective reading , writing, and speaking. We appeal to the authority of "the dictionary ," as if there only one that has always existed, when in fact there are a number of competing products that have changed over time. Such popular canonization accompanied the dictionary from its birth: even the earliest English dictionaries were promoted as essential books for self-improvement, collections of keywords yielding access to all other books. Later dictionaries have been even more celebrated. Indeed, the history of the dictionary has culminated in great books, such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (WNID3) , that have recorded the vast scope and variety of the English language. The Washington Post recognized this epic achievement when on New Year's Eve, 1995, it named Johnson's Dictionary "Greatest Book of the Millennium," praising it as "a triumph of a single human's will, and a lasting monument to 'Throughout this article, when I speak of "the dictionary," I refer to the genre and to the conventions that dictionaries generally follow. Life or Lexicography: How Popular Culture Imitates Dictionaires 109 learning and literacy" (Von Drehle 1995, Fl). With similar exuberance , Roy Harris identifies the dictionary as a fundamental tool of civilization : "The very familiarity of...