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LEXICOGRAPHERS AS CLOSET AUTHORITARIANS ROBERT W. WADSWORTH In his 1871 book Words and Their Uses Richard Grant White republished his essay of 1869: "A Desultory Denunciation of English Dictionaries." In it he condemned every one of the popular dictionaries of his day for "wearisome superfluity " and "puerile iteration" (366): "In their labor-saving, thought-lulling convenience, as in their serious faults, their many and grave deficiencies, and their needless, inconvenient, and costly cumbrousness, they are alike" (384). White, as Mencken observes, was a man of tremendous learning. His essay sparkles with wit and contains a great deal of sense. His design for a good dictionary suggests the Concise Oxford of our own day. But his world was very different from ours. And he shows no awareness of the special needs of a large clientele dependent upon dictionaries for its livelihood: printers, proofreaders, editors, and, in our own day, typists—not to mention manufacturers of "spell-check" typewriters—all those called upon to "decide, or at least act as if a decision had been made, in cases where scholars are still debating" (Chicago Manual of Style v). White died before the Century, the International, and the Standard appeared as fresh affronts to his ideals. Meanwhile, as the master printer Theodore Low De Vinne writes in his book Correct Composition, other changes were taking place: During the last fifty years there has been no marked improvement in the average writer's preparation 81 82Robert W. Wadsworth of copy for the printer, but there have been steadily increasing exactions from book-buyers. The printing that passed a tolerant inspection in 1850 does not pass now. The reader insists on more uniformity in mechanical details, (viii) Pomting out that not one printing house in a hundred had more than one dictionary, De Vinne provided a tabulation of the spelling preferences of seven dictionaries (four American, three British). In 1948 a similar tabulation for four dictionaries was included in an American manual for editors (Skillin et al.), but in a later edition the tabulation was dropped. All that was needed was "the dictionary"—obligingly identified in one guide in 1954 as "the most recent edition of Webster's New International Dictionary . . . standard in the United States" (Harvard 40).? Style manuals of individual publishers show a corresponding evolution. In 1921 the Atlantic Monthly Press published a two-page list of house departures from Merriam-Webster spellings. 2 A selection appears below: Calibre, Centre, Fibre, Manœuvre, Spectre Cyclopaedia, Diarrhoea, Orthopaedic Gramme, Kilogramme, Programme Mould, Smoulder Plough Practise (v.), Practised, Practising Quartette, Quintette, Sextette Not one of the exceptions listed here is visible in the Atlantic we read today. As late as 1949 the University of Chicago Press clung to forms of its own, perhaps under the lingering influence of the Century; but the last two editions of the manual have scrapped the exceptions and referred the reader to Merriam-Webster. Lexicographers as Closet Authoritarians83 As stylebooks have shrunk, dictionaries have swollen. Lexicographers , whatever their wishes, have been burdened with as many as possible of the case decisions no one else wishes to make and record: in spellings, in the written forms of compound words, and in the division of words into syllables. Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and little minds need big dictionaries. Dictionaries do not only grow; as even Richard Grant White had to admit, they improve. And as they improve at the job they all try to do, they come into closer agreement, at times achieving a consensus that comes close to a party line. If some artless American writes "I cancelled my order and rode home on the street car," this statement is unlikely to reach print or even typewriting without going through the hands of some compulsive equipped with a modern American dictionary, who will clean up the text to read "I canceled my order and rode home on the streetcar." This laundered version then stands as evidence of the popular will for the next edition of that dictionary. Authority feeds on itself. Spelling, compounding, and syllabication, even taken together , are only a small part of lexicography, which deals with spoken as well as written English, but they provide the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 81-95
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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