Unit 8 - But What's a Dictionary For?
But What's a Dictionary For?
The storm of abuse in the popular press that greeted the appearance of Webster's Third New International Dictionary is a curious phenomenon. Never has a scholarly work of this stature been attacked with such unbridled fury and contempt. An article in the Atlantic viewed it as a "disappointment," a "shock," a " calamity," "a scandal and a disaster. " The New York Times, in a special editorial, felt that the work would " accelerate the deterioration " of the language and sternly accused the editors of betraying a public trust. The Journal of the American Bar Association saw the publication as " deplorable," "a flagrant example of lexicographic irresponsibility,, " "a serious blow to the cause of good English." Life called it "a non-word deluge " monstrous ", " abominable" and "a cause for dismay." They doubted that "Lincoln could have modelled his Gettysburg Address" on it-a concept of how things get written that throws very little light on Lincoln but a great deal on Life.
What underlies all this sound and fury? Is the claim of the G. R C. Merriam Company, probably the world's greatest dictionary maker, that the preparation of the work cost $3.5 million, that it required the efforts of three hundred scholars over a period of twenty-seven years, working on the largest collection of citations ever assembled in any language-is all this a fraud, a hoax?
So monstrous a discrepancy in evaluation requires us to examine basic principles. Just what's a dictionary for? What does it propose to do? What does the common reader go to a dictionary to find? What has the purchaser of a dictionary a right to expect for his money?
Before we look at basic principles, it is necessary to interpose two brief statements. The first of these is that a dictionary is concerned with words. Some dictionaries give various kinds of other useful information. Some have tables of weights and measures on the flyleaves. Some list historical events and some, home remedies. And there's nothing wrong with their so doing. But the great increase in our vocabulary in the past three decades compels all dictionaries to make more efficient use of their space. And if something must be eliminated , it is sensible to throw out these extraneous things and stick to words.
The second brief statement is that there has been even more progress in the making of dictionaries in the past thirty years than there has been in the making of automobiles The difference, for example, between the much-touted Second International (1934) and the much-clouted Third International (1961) is not like the difference between yearly models but like the difference between the horse and buggy and the automobile. Between the appearance of these two editions a whole new science related to the making of dictionaries, the science of descriptive linguistics, has come into being.
Modern linguistics gets its charter from Leonard Bloomfield's Language (1933). Bloomfield's for thirteen years professor of Germanic philology at the University of Chicago and for nine years professor of linguistics at Yale, was one of those inseminating scholars who can't be relegated to any department and don't dream of accepting established categories and procedures just because they're established. He was as much an anthropologist as a linguist, and his concepts of language were shaped not by Strunk's Elements of Style but by his knowledge of Cree Indian dialects.
The broad general findings of the new science are:
1. All languages are systems of human conventions, not systems of natural laws.
The first-and essential-step in the study of any language is observing and setting down precisely what happens when native speakers speak it.
2. Each language is unique in its pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.
It cannot be described in terms of logic or of some theoretical, ideal language.
It cannot be described in terms of any other language, or even in terms of its own past.
3. All languages are dynamic rather than static, and hence a "rule" in any language can only be a statement of contemporary practice. Change is constant-and normal
4. "Correctness" can rest only upon usage, for the simple reason that there is nothing else for it to rest on. And all usage is relative.
From these propositions it follows that a dictionary is good only insofar as it is a comprehensive and accurate description of current usage.
And to be comprehensive it must include some indication of social and regional associations.
New dictionaries are needed because English changed more in the past two generations than at any other time in its history.
It has had to adapt to extraordinary cultural and technological changes, two world wars, unparalleled changes in transportation and communication, and unprecedented movements of populations.
More subtly, but pervasively, it has changed under the influence of mass education and the growth of democracy.
As written English is used by increasing millions and for more reasons than ever before, the language has become more utilitarian and more informal. Every publication in America today includes pages that would appear, to the purist of forty years ago, unbuttoned gibberish. Not that they are; they simply show that you can't hold the language of one generation up as a model for the next.
It's not that you mustn't. You can't. For example, in the issue in which Life stated editorially that it would folly the Second International, there were over forty words constructions, and meanings which are in the Third International but not in the Second. The issue of the New York Times which hailed the Second International as the authority to which it would adhere and the Third International as a scandal and a betrayal which it would reject used one hundred and fifty-three separate words, phrases, and constructions which are listed in the Third International but not in the Second and nineteen others which are condemned in the Second. Many of them are used many times, more than three hundred such uses in all. The Washington Post, in an editorial captioned "Keep Your Old Webster's, " says, in the first sentence, "don't throw it away," and in the second, "hang on to it." But the old Webster's labels don't "colloquial" and doesn't include "hang on to," in this sense, at all.
In short, all of these publications are written in the language that the Third International describes, even the very editorials which scorn it.
And this is no coincidence, because the Third International isn't setting up any new standards at all;
it is simply describing what Life, the Washing-ton Post, and the New York Times are doing.
Much of the dictionary's material comes from these very publications, the Times, in particular, furnishing more of its illustrative quotations than any other newspaper.
And the papers have no choice. No journal or periodical could sell a single issue today if it restricted itself to the American language of twenty-eight years ago.
It couldn't discuss halt the things we are inter ester in, and its style would seem stiff and cumbrous.
If the editorials were serious, the public-and the stockholders-have reason to be grateful that the writers on these publications are more literate than the editors.
And so back to our questions: what's a dictionary for, and how, in 1962, can it best do what it ought to do? The demands are simple.
The common reader turns to a dictionary for information about the spelling, pronunciation, meaning, and proper use of words.
He wants to know what is current and respectable.
But he wants-and has a right to-the truth, the full truth.
And the full truth about any language, and especially about American English today, is that there are many areas in which certainty is impossible and simplification is misleading.
Even in so settled a matter as spelling, a dictionary cannot always be absolute. Theater is correct, but so is theatre.
And so are traveled and travelled, plow and plough, catalog and catalogue, and scores of other variants The reader may want a single certainty.
He may have taken an unyielding position in an argument, he may have wagered in support of his conviction and may demand that the dictionary "settle" the matter.
But neither his vanity nor his purse is any concern of the dictionary's; it must record the facts.
And the fact here is that there are many words in our language which may be spelled, with equal correctness, in either of two ways.
So with pronunciation. A citizen listening to his radio might notice that James B. Conant, Bernard Baruch, and Dwight D. Eisenhower pronounce economics as ECKuhnomiks,
while A. Whitney Griswold, Adlai Stevenson, and Herbert Hoover pronounce it EEKuhnomiks.
He turns to the dictionary to see which of the two pronunciations is "right" and finds that they are both acceptable.
Has he been betrayed? Has the dictionary abdicated its responsibility?
Should it say that one must speak like the president of Harvard or like the president of Yale, like the thirty-first President of the United States or like the thirty-fourth?
Surely it's none of its business to make a choice.
Not because of the distinction of these particular speakers; lexicography, like God, is no respecter of persons.
But because so wide-spread and conspicuous a use of two pronunciations among people of this elevation shows that there are two pronunciations.
Their speaking establishes the fact which the dictionary must record.
The average purchaser of a dictionary uses it most often, probably, to find out what a word means.
As a reader, he wants to know what an author intended to convey. As a speaker or writer, he wants to know what a word will convey to his auditors.
And this, too, is complex, subtle, and for ever changing.
An illustration is furnished by an editorial in the Washington Post (January 17, 1962).
After a ringing appeal to those who love truth and accuracy and the usual combinations about abdication of authority and barbarism , the editorial charges the Third International with pretentious and obscure verbosity and specifically instances its definition of so simple an object as a door.”
The definition reads:
a movable piece of firm material or a structure supported usu. along one side and swinging on pivots or hinges , sliding along a groove, roiling up and down, revolving as one of four leaves, or folding like an accordion by means of which an opening may be closed or kept open for passage into or out of a building, room, or other covered enclosure or a car, airplane, elevator, or other vehicle.
Then follows a series of special meanings, each particularity defined and, where necessary, illustrated by a quotation Since, aside from roaring and admonishing the gentle men from Springfield that accuracy and brevity are virtues,” the Post's editorial tails to explain what is wrong with the definition,
we can only infer from so simple a thing that the writer takes the plain, downright, man-in-the street attitude that a door is a door and any damn fool knows that.
But if so, he has walked into one of lexicography's biggest booby traps: the belief that the obvious is easy to define.
Whereas the opposite is true. Anyone can give a fair description of the strange, the new, or the unique.
It's the commonplace, the habitual, that challenges definition, for its very commonness compels us to define it in uncommon terms.
Dr. Johnson was ridiculed on just this score when his dictionary appeared in 1755.
For two hundred years his definition of a network as "any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the inter sections” has been good for a laugh.
But in the merriment one thing is always overlooked: no one has yet come up with a better definition!
Subsequent dictionaries defined it as a mesh and then defined a mesh as a network. That's simple, all right.
Anyone who attempts sincerely to state what the word door means in the United States of America today can't take refuge in a log cabin.
There has been an enormous proliferation of closing and demarking devices and structure in the past twenty years,
and anyone who tries to thread his way through the many meanings now included under door may have to sacrifice brevity to accuracy and even have to employ words that a limited vocabulary may find obscure.
Is the entrance to a tent a door, for instance? And What of the thing that seals the exit of an air plane?
Is this a door? Or what of those sheets and jets of air that are now being used, in place of old-fashioned oak and hinges, to screen entrances and exists? Are they doors?
And what of that accordion-like things that set off various sections of many modern apartments?
The fine print in the lease takes it for granted that they are doors and that spaces demarked by them are rooms-and the rent is computed on the number of rooms.
Was I gypped by the landlord when he called the folding contraption that shuts off my kitchen a door?
I go to the Second Inter national, which the editor of the Post urges me to use in preference to the Third International.
Here I find that a door is the movable frame or barrier of boards, or other material, usually turning on hinges or pivots or sliding, by which an entranceway into a house or apartment is closed and opened; also, a similar part of a piece of furniture, as in a cabinet or book case.
This is only forty-six words, but though it includes the cellar it excludes the barn door and the accordion-like thing.
So I go on to the Third International. I see at once that. the new definition is longer. But I'm looking for accuracy, and if I must sacrifice brevity.
To get it, then I must. And sure enough, in the definition which raised the Post's blood pressure, I find the words "folding like an accordion.”
The thing is a door, and my landlord is using the word in one of its currently accepted meanings.
The new dictionary may have many faults. Nothing that tries to meet an ever-changing situation over a terrain as vast as contemporary English can hope to be free of them and much in it is open to honest and informed, disagreement.
There can be linguistic objection to the eradication of proper names.
The removal of guides to pronunciation from the toot of every page may not have been worth the valuable space it saved.
The new method of defining words of many meanings has disadvantages as well as advantages.
And of the half million or more definitions, hundreds, possibly thousands, may seem inadequate or imprecise.
To some (of whom I am one) the omission of the label "colloquial" will seem meritorious; to others it will seem a loss.
But one thing is certain: anyone who solemnly announces in the year 1962 that he will be guided in matter s of English usage by a dictionary published in 1934 is talking ignorant and pretentious nonsense.
这并不是说你不应该这样做，而是你根本不可能这样做。比如，《生活》杂志曾在某一期中发表一篇社论，声明它要以《韦氏国际英语词典》(第二版)为准，可就在这一期的《生活》杂志上却出现了四十多个见之于第三版却未见于第二版的词汇、结构与意义。有一期《纽约时报》上高喊第二版是它坚决拥护的权威，而第三版则是它要摒弃的愚弄和骗人之作。可这一期的《纽约时报》上却用了一百五十三个收录于第三版却未收进第二版的单词、短语和句法结构，另外还用了十九个受到第二版指责的词语。这些单词和词组有的重复出现多次，因此在一期《纽约时报》上出现的这类词语共达三百余处。《华盛顿邮报》在一篇标题为"留着你的老韦氏"的社论中，开宗明义第一句话就说，"don't throw it away(别扔掉它)"，第二句又说，"hang on to it(紧紧抱住它)"。然而，在老韦氏词典中，don't被标注为"口语用法"，而"hang on to"的这个意义则根本没有收录。
n. 愚蠢，荒唐事 (复)follies: 轻松歌舞剧
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