Last week, I opened my daily Lit Hub email to find this note: “It’s hard to remember, but for decades after the publication of Webster’s Third, people still had intense opinions about dictionaries.”
I’m sorry, what? People had “intense opinions” about the lofty tome that reminds us how to use effect and affect correctly? Indeed they did.
The fiasco began with the 1961 publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Instead of a prescriptivist tone (telling the reader how to correctly speak the English language), the editors had adopted a descriptivist one, applying linguistic theory to document how people were actually using the language in their everyday lives. And everyone lost all their chill.
Major media outlets of the day dug out their thesauruses (the less popular sister of the dictionary) and found every synonym for “disaster” to include in their reviews. It was called “subversive and intolerably offensive.” In a time when the country was entering a period of cultural upheaval, many felt the standard bearer of proper English was betraying them. And those who weren’t perturbed by these changes were no better than hippies (gasp).
It seems unimaginable today that the addition of common vernacular would cause this kind of uproar. Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for the past 5 years have been, in order: selfie (2013), vape (2014), Face With Tears of Joy emoji (2015, and yes, you read that right), post-truth (2016), and youthquake (2017).
Did you hear that? It’s every English teacher who died before 1950 rolling in their graves.
With Oxford accepting literally anything into its lexicon, and autocorrect and Siri at our fingertips, it seems that the dictionary has lost the cultural significance it held in 1961. And like in 1961, when our story began, the recent Words of the Year point to a cultural disruption of our own. Though really, you’d have to be living under a rock to miss that parallel. It makes us wonder: what will be the piece of culture we cling to, whether we should or not? Will there be something we want to hold on to, or in a world that moves at the speed of a snap, will we be able to catch it before it’s gone?
Well, that took a turn. For the complete history of the dictionary debacle paraphrased above, read Object Lessons’s in-depth analysis. It’s illuminating (I pulled that word straight out of Dictionary.com). And for a dose of snark with your grammar lesson, check out Merriam-Webster’s Twitter. As the writer of the Object Lessons piece points out, Mer and Webs have swung back in the direction of prescriptivism, if only to remind us that we can’t change the meaning of words to suit our goals (can’t imagine who would do that). But they deliver their message with a dry humor and self-awareness that makes the dictionary, dare I say it: fun. It’s comforting to have something remind us of the power words still hold. And explain the origin of asshat.