In the dictionary, or not

« previous post | next post »

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.

 



34 Comments

  1. Ellen K. said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

    I'm thinking… "artful" is in 21 dictionaries at onelook.com, and "inartful" gets 69,300 hits at Google. (Okay, I wasn't thinking precisely that… I did have to look up the numbers. :))

  2. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

    While it does seem that word inclusion is fairly in line with popular usage, in my experience dictionary pronunciations are almost always prescriptive as opposed to descriptive. The vast majority of "preferred" pronunciations (at least of words that have variable pronunciation) I have never said nor heard.

  3. Ray Girvan said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

    Out of interest, a further corpus check for "inartful": Google Books 623 hits, Google Scholar 704 hits. The modern context is mostly legal, but there are plenty of examples in general texts such as this 1831 example ("fastened, or clotted together in a very inartful manner") and this 1969 one ("Around and around we rolled, inartful attempts at gouging following inartful attempts at biting").

  4. carla said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    Isn't it common for words prefixed by in- not to be found in dictionaries; at least, not under their own headwords? That is to say: is the fact that "inartful" cannot be found in a dictionary such strong evidence that it isn't a word? Or is the complaint that when dictionaries give synonyms for "artful" these usually include "artless" but not "inartful?"

    (These questions are not aimed at Prof. Zwicky, of course, but rather at those who complain about the inartfulness of using "inartful.")

    About the other complaint – that, as Prof. Zwicky puts it, "dictionaries should be directive and prescriptive — authorities on how people SHOULD speak and write." This, too, seems to miss the point of how dictionaries work and how they are best used. After all, including informal words in the dictionary with appropriate indicators of usage provides a very helpful guide to to people using a dictionary for the purpose of looking up words and deciding whether and how to use them.

  5. john riemann soong said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 6:08 pm

    The idea of "this word cannot be found in the dictionary therefore it is wrong" also seems dependent on assumptions about the morphology and syntax of whatever language the word is in. I mean, if we all spoke a polysynthetic language, we'd regularly coin new words since each word would often contain enough information as whole sentences.

  6. Phil Hand said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 9:56 pm

    "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."

    Then here we've got a fairly fundamental disconnect between writer and reader, haven't we? One that should probably be addressed by lexicographers if they wish to have a decent relationship with their reading public.

    Because readers use dictionaries in precisely that way – to find out how they should speak and write. Don't know how to spell a word (i.e. how you should spell a word)? Look it up in the dictionary. Don't know how to understand this writer's use of imply/infer? Look them up in the dictionary. Don't know how you should deploy the word esoteric in your writing? Look it up in the dictionary.

    Because there is only one genre of dictionary – it's not split into descriptive dictionaries and prescriptive dictionaries – dictionaries get used to answer all the questions we have about how words are used AND about how words should be used. My guess is that dictionaries are probably used more to find out how words should be used – and if lexicographers aren't cool with that, then there's a problem.

  7. Ray Girvan said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

    Because there is only one genre of dictionary – it's not split into descriptive dictionaries and prescriptive dictionaries

    Up to a point. Although I'm not sure there are any these days as prescriptive as, say, Johnson, there are gradations. The OED has a few prescriptive features – particularly in its persistence in clinging to -ize endings against the general tide of -ise in British English. And (see Old Dictionaries, New Knowledge) even now you can find in it a lot of entries where words, despite long usage, are still described as "erroneous". Collins Cobuild products, on the other hand, are radically descriptive, being based on very current corpus data.

  8. Nathan said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 10:57 pm

    @Phil Hand: The point is not that lexicographers leave out information on how to use words. A good dictionary frequently includes information about the register ("formal", "usually considered vulgar", etc.) of many words. What bothers some people is not what is left out, but what is included, such as slang, swear words, and so forth. As carla said, these words are given together with what should be enough information for the reader to decide whether and how to use them.

  9. Timothy M said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 11:30 pm

    "Inartful" is a perfectly cromulent word.

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 11:45 pm

    From its use in the contexts presented, it seems the most valuable quality of the word is the vagueness it derives from having no well-codified definition. Of course in English any word can be vagued, and they all have been at one time or another, but a word not in any dictionary starts out with an advantage.

  11. dr pepper said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 11:48 pm

    If i'm not sure of the basic meaning of a word, or its origin, i check a dictionary. If i'm not sure how best to use a word, i check a thesaurus. Unfortunately thesaurus.com has lost most of its usefulness since they gutted it.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 12:19 am

    I suspect I'm not the only one who who most often uses a dictionary because I'm reading something and want to know what a word means. When I do that, I don't want to know how to use the word, I want to know how the author used the word, and expect the dictionary to help me. (Though with some words, Wikipedia is more useful than a dictionary.)

  13. an observer said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 12:42 am

    For a well-written discussion of this topic, I recommend:

    Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction
    Edgar Schuster
    ISBN 978-0-325-00478-5
    http://books.heinemann.com/Products/E00478.aspx

  14. Garrett Wollman said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 1:17 am

    I don't find "inartful" to be particularly transparent, and looking at the most convenient print dictionary to hand (AHD3) under "artful" doesn't help matters much. I think I understand from context that it's one of those distancing "non-apology" words that are occasionally discussed here. OED2 doesn't help much either: the relevant senses of "artful" seem to be "5. Produced by art, as opposed to what is natural; artificial, imitative, unreal." and "6. Skilfully adapted for the accomplishment of a purpose; ingenious, clever; passing gradually into: Cunning, crafty, deceitful." The negations of either of these definitions don't seem to fit with the examples given for "inartful". I would take "inartful" to mean "exhibiting poor judgment or inappropriate choice of words".

  15. rawb said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 3:55 am

    "6. Skilfully adapted for the accomplishment of a purpose;"

    I would describe inartful as Unskillfully adapted for the accomplishment of a purpose.

  16. James Wimberley said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 4:15 am

    Ryan Denzer-King: In my experience dictionary pronunciations are almost always prescriptive as opposed to descriptive.

    I wonder if this isn't good sense. A neologism has to be decoded, not just looked up in mental dictionary. If the new word is met for the first time, variable pronunciation will make the task much more difficult. So prescriptive dictionary pronunciations would be helpful.
    That's assuming your assertion is correct. Can you cite some examples? The syntax of neologisms tends to be standard: the past tense of to grake would be graked not groke, rejecting the irregular model of wake/woke. A priori, one would expect the pronunciations of neologisms to be standard too.

  17. Stephen Jones said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 10:58 am

    'Inartful', like 'irregardless', isn't a word. It's a potato, or a tumor (possibly cancerous), or maybe some other form of carbon-based past life, or maybe a Platonic essence or … .

  18. Stephen Jones said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 11:01 am

    @RayGirvan

    There are not just corpus-based dictionaries; there are corpus-based grammars.

    The point about the Cobuild is that it is aimed at the foreign language learner. I used it a lot in Spain, mainly to check I wasn't descending into Spanglish.

  19. Dennis Brennan said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

    I'm a lawyer, and I've used the word "inartful" and have seen others do so. It always seemed like a perfectly unremarkable word to me. The typical phrase is "inartful drafting"; that is to say, a phrase or passage in a legal document whose meaning is ambiguous or difficult to parse. Something that's inartfully drafted is difficult to follow, and may or may not be technically correct.

  20. David Eddy said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 12:38 pm

    Why can't I have a dictionary (obviously built in software), that only contains the words, terms, slang, acronyms, abbreviations, etc. that ***I*** use?

  21. Mark Liberman said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

    David Eddy: Why can't I have a dictionary (obviously built in software), that only contains the words, terms, slang, acronyms, abbreviations, etc. that ***I*** use?

    Don't you mean "… that I would choose to use, if I were well informed and gave the matter a suitable amount of thought"?

  22. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

    Dennis Brennan: Something that's inartfully drafted is difficult to follow, and may or may not be technically correct.

    So inartful means clumsy. Why not use clumsy? Inartful sounds very clumsy.

  23. David Eddy said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 1:22 pm

    Mark –

    I work in a technology company, awash in opaque acronyms & technobabble… so "my choosing" is only a small slice of the challenge. As to my giving it a "suitable amount of thought." Riiiiiiiight!

    If I raised my hand & asked "Please speak English!" every time I encountered a term I didn't know, I'd be laughed out of town.

  24. dr pepper said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

    Is there any overlap in the usages of "inartful" and "artless"?

  25. Tim Silverman said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

    The distinction between what one would expect to find a descriptive and a prescriptive dictionary isn't all that sharp. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is prescriptive advice, but in order to follow it, one needs a descriptively accurate account of what it is that the Romans do. And a descriptively accurate dictionary is largely designed to describe the norms of a community, with the implicit assumption that many of its readers will wish to follow those norms.

    There are, of course, also reference books of common mistakes, but it would be strange to look for a dictionary containing everything one shouldn't say. It would be a very large work …

    There are also dialect dictionaries and dictionaries of slang. I guess ettiquette manuals aren't the boom business they once were, but a dictionary purporting to contain only the way the best people say things is not inconceivable. But an awful lot of people would laugh at it.

  26. TootsNYC said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 4:20 pm

    @ Tim Silverman:
    "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is prescriptive advice, but in order to follow it, one needs a descriptively accurate account of what it is that the Romans do. And a descriptively accurate dictionary is largely designed to describe the norms of a community, with the implicit assumption that many of its readers will wish to follow those norms."

    Artfully done!

    Why should you usually avoid words that are not in the dictionary? Because they are not widely enough used to appear there, which means few people will know them; and because no one can look them up.

    However, if you can look up their COMPONENTS (as in "inartfully")

    And "inartfully done" does not mean "clumsily done." It means "done without artisanship or great skill." There *is* a difference.

    And "artless" is most often used to mean "done without artifice"–and will probably be read that way.

  27. TootsNYC said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

    @ Garrett Wollman: Maybe you need a different dictionary?

    I use Merriam-Webster's Collegiate. Its first meaning for "artful" is "performed with or showing art of skill–an artful performance on the violin."

    So, "INartful" would be, "NOT showing art or skill."

    Though, maybe it's not your dictionary–maybe you just ignored the first entries, and went looking for the confusing ones?

    I also have American Heritage's Collegiate, and its first definition of "artful" is:
    exhibiting art or skill.

  28. Grant Barrett said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

    Why should you usually avoid words that are not in the dictionary? Because they are not widely enough used to appear there, which means few people will know them; and because no one can look them up.

    This supposes that the main reason a word is not included in a dictionary is because it is not common enough. As a lexicographer, let me assure you that the main reasons a word is not included in a dictionary are because there is not enough room, enough money, nor enough manpower.

    More specifically, the publisher does not want or cannot pay for an additional signatures (sets of pages), since the cost, multiplied across the tens or hundreds of thousands of copies expected to be sold, requires more up front capital than is worth the risk. So, word comes down the pipeline: Cut 100 words. Cut 200. Cut 64 pages. Take out some proper nouns. Cut the dialect words. Cut the Britishisms. Cut the Americanisms. Cut whatever you can.

    And, of course, there are limits on time, manpower, and a lexicographer's abilities. Deadlines are unforgiving. Staff are expensive. The word-collecting techniques of lexicographers are not uniform. They are subject to whim and whimsy, current events and currency, the lexicographer's interest and skill, technique and talent, and so forth. It's a hit or miss business.

    Reinforcing this view that frequency of usage is not a compelling criterion is the number of words you can find in the mainstream dictionaries that are so rare that outside writing about the words themselves (rather than their being used unselfconsciously) you will not find them used in print (as far as can be told from the digital databases) more than a couple of times per year, if that often. The last time I checked for this very thing I found about 1 words per 100 that fit this category in the major mainstream dictionaries.

    And, finally, there is this: starting from scratch, if you paid me to do it, in a week I could find 1000 English lexical items that are used in print more than 1000 times a year and yet cannot be found in a mainstream English dictionary. Is that common enough? No? Well, then I could find 500 lexical items a week that are used more than 5,000 times a year in print. And I could keep doing that week after week until the entries in this theoretical dictionary were as vast as the stars in the sky.

    So, don't let's talk about the criteria for inclusion in a dictionary being whether or not they are widely enough used. That is, largely, a shorthand by which lexicographers and dictionary-makers refer to, in simple terms, the larger complexities and compromises of their work. It is not by itself a complete answer.

    So, to reiterate Arnold's point: You should no more use an unabridged dictionary as a guide for whether a word is "real," common, or valid than you should use a children's picture dictionary for those purposes.

  29. James Wimberley said,

    July 29, 2008 @ 5:52 am

    Rob Gunningham: So inartful means clumsy. Why not use clumsy?
    I don't think these are exact equivalents, Clumsy is the generic term; inartful seems to mean clumsy judged by the possibly recondite criteria of some profession or art. Cf. kludgy.

  30. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 29, 2008 @ 7:09 am

    @ James Wimberley, OK, I accept it.

    I would be more likely to use clumsy or inelegant, but I'm all for others using kludgy or inartful if only to add nuance to how I see the user. Someone who says kludgy is declaring their familiarity with the world of computers, whereas using inartful means for the time being that you might work for the Obama campaign.

  31. James Wimberley said,

    July 29, 2008 @ 9:18 am

    A correction to my earlier comment on the regularity of neologisms. It has ben forcefully brought to my attention that the plural of Zorg is Zorgth. Our new masters are extremely sensitive on the matter, and have announced that incorrect usage is lèse-majesté meriting "severe, prolonged, and exemplary" punishment. Fragmentary reports from the few Language Log agents that have survived examples of Zorg justice suggest that Zorg syntactic prescriptivism is enforced by gigawatt gamma-ray lasers.

  32. Rick S said,

    July 29, 2008 @ 7:57 pm

    Lovely, entirely comprehensible, and not in need of the authority of a dictionary entry.

    Applying this to "inartful" explains why it's an absolutely perfect Humpty-Dumptyism* for use in a non-apology. That its examplars were in politicians' statements comes as no surprise. Everyone is mollified that they apologized, but what it is they regret can be decided, if ever, at their convenience. I'm sure in the coming months we'll be seeing much more of this politically artful—er, apt—word.

    *'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.' — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

  33. jackofhearts29 said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 5:51 pm

    @rawb:

    instead of
    "inartful: Unskillfully adapted for the accomplishment of a purpose"

    How about:
    "Skillfully adapted for the unaccomplishment of a porpoise"

  34. Black Yoshi said,

    October 8, 2008 @ 2:38 am

    I was taught in first year linguistics that there were two qualifications required to make a collection of sounds a word:

    It needed to follow the phonemic rules of the language; and
    It needed to have a socially recognised meaning.

    I would say that inartful does both. Therefore it would be a word.

    But perhaps not. There is much more knowledge than first year on Language Log.

RSS feed for comments on this post