There's a long tradition of popular peeving about dictionaries and what they have entries for: non-standard items, slang, taboo words, slurs, and so on. The complaint is that by listing these items the dictionaries are recognizing them as acceptable in the language, are "condoning" them (even when the items have appropriate usage labels attached to them). The complainers' position is that these items simply are "not words" of the language, an idea I have criticized here once, and plan to do so again.
The underlying idea is that dictionaries should be directive and prescriptive — authorities on how people SHOULD speak and write. Lexicographers do not, of course, think that way, though they are not in general opposed to the offering of advice on language use; it's just not what they do.
The underlying idea surfaces in another way, in criticisms of usages that are perceived to be (and actually may be) innovative on the grounds that they are "not in the dictionary". William Safire took up one of these in his "On Language" column last Sunday (20 June): inartful.
Safire reported an incident from 1985, in which Governor Mario Cuomo of New York apologized for comments he had made in public:
My response was inartful, and could leave a false impression of disrespect for the National Rifle Association and its many members. I regret that.
Safire went on:
As I then reported gleefully in a language column headlined "Inartful Dodger," the lobby's top gun continued to snipe at the apologetic Cuomo: "He uses the word 'inartful,'" said Alonzo Garcelon, the association's irate president. "In other words, he meant what he said, only wishes he had said it differently. Look up inartful in the dictionary. If you find it, let me know. I couldn't."
That is, if it's not in "the dictionary", it's not a word.
Safire added that 23 years later, there is "still no inartful in the great repositories of the language", a fact also remarked on by Eugene Volokh on 9/24/07:
The general question [directed at lexicographer Erin McKean] is: How do (and should) lexicographers decide whether to include a word in the dictionary?
The concrete example, contributed by Widener lawprof Ben Barros, is offered by the words "inartful" and "inartfully." Prof. Barros and I were both shocked to learn that the two words weren't in the OED or any dictionary accessible via onelook.com.
Some 20 years ago, William Safire wrote about inartful, and said "it is not a word." But of course that's wrong: It's a word that lawyers use often, though generally without recognizing it as legalese, and that nonlawyers seem to use on occasion as well.
McKean responded the next day, citing various considerations that worked against inartful, in particular its relative rarity, its association with one particular group of speakers (lawyers), and its transparency.
In any case, inartful might soon make it into the lexicographic big time, since Barack Obama and his staff seem to have picked up inartful as one of their favorite words. Safire cites, from Obama himself, "General Clark said something that was inartful about John McCain"; and from Obama spokesman Bill Burton, a characterization of an Obama statement on the D.C. gun ban as "inartful". And others can be found.
A note on transparency: huge numbers of innovative formations that are easy to interpret in context — among them, a great many verbings, with no suffix or with -ize or -ify – are unlikely to find their way into the pages of even the largest dictionaries. Here's an innovation that caught my eye yesterday, from the 26 July issue of The Economist, in a leader entitled "Unhappy America" (p. 15):
The hapless George Bush is partly to blame for [Americans' glum opinions about where their nation is heading]: his approval ratings are now sub-Nixonian.
Lovely, entirely comprehensible, and not in need of the authority of a dictionary entry.