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Dictionaries as a Source of Usage Controversy E. Ward Gilman X he editors of Webster's Dictionary ofEnglüh Usage attempted to do in a usage book what they believed had not been done before: to collect evidence of each disputed usage, to gather as many recorded opinions as possible about the usage, and if possible to find out how the usage came to be a matter of dispute. In trying to trace each usage to its point of origin, we found a few extraordinary cases in which a dictionary or a lexicographer was apparently the cause of or a contributor to the controversy. The role of cause or contributor in relation to some controversial point of usage is a surprising one for a dictionary. Dictionaries have usually been considered to have a mediating force in usage controversy . Evidence that dictionaries are seen in such a light can be found as early as the 1880s. A Syracuse, N.Y., Schoolbook publisher, C. W. Bardeen, brought out a little handbook called VerbalPitfalL· in 1883. In it he surveyed the opinions of the leading usage controversialists of his time and checked them against Webster's and Worcester's dictionaries . Those usages reprehended by the controversialists but recorded without comment in the dictionaries Bardeen dismissed as quibbles. So to be the focus of some usage dispute could be seen as a failure to display that impartial authority the public expects of a dictionary . The instances we will look at show the dictionary disappointing us in a variety of ways—some purely accidental, some deliberate, some perhaps unavoidable, and some eminently avoidable if the editors had been more attentive and sometimes more bold. The first of the means of producing controversy we will look at is pure accident: the controversy arose from the way the dictionary was organized, and the failure of the controversialists to understand that organization. The controversy concerning the words pernickety and persnickety is an example. 76E. Ward Gilman One generally unrecognized favor the much maligned Webster's Third New International Dictionary, 1961 (W61) did for the general public was to do away with the divided dictionary page. W61's predecessors had a section in smaller type at the foot of each page, known inhouse as the pearl section (from the size of the type: pearl was an old name for five-point type). The pearl section was intended as a device by which rare and nonstandard terms could be entered with a minimal expenditure of space. Pernickety, a Scotticism, came into wider general use during the 19th century. It was first recorded in Webster's New International Dictionary , 1909 (W09), from which it was carried into the 1934 edition (W34). In the meantime a variant persnickety had begun to be used in the United States. The editors of W34 were aware of its existence, but they had little evidence of its use. So they put it in the pearl section as a variant ofpernickety. Alphabetically persnickety fell on page 1827; pernickety , the main entry, was on page 1825. Aspersnickety began to appear more often in print, letters to the editor questioning it began to appear too. The point ofeach letter (the first one in the Merriam-Webster files dates from early 1945) is that the writer could not find the spelling in the dictionary and assumed , therefore, that it was not a word (or not a "real" word). Very often the editorial page respondent couldn't find it either, but one at Time magazine did in January 1946. When dictionaries began to enter the form in a more visible way, the letters stopped, and the issue died out. Still, enough letters were written to get the question recognized in a couple of usage books. The second controversy got its start from the expression of an editor's opinion. From the time of Samuel Johnson on, dictionary editors have seldom been shy about expressing an opinion about the propriety of this or that locution. Henry Bradley, who edited the E section of the OED, was no exception. One of the usages he chose to disapprove was the third sense of the noun enormity: "Excess in magnitude ; hugeness, vastness." Bradley first labeled...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 75-84
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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