Merriam-Webster – Bringing the Mondegreen to Linguistic Fanboys Everywhere

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Spotted this one on Slashdot today. Reading the comments, I came along quite a few that expressed what appears to be complete and utter dismay at the introduction of new words into the language. For example, this one:

“Even if you can guess what it means, it’s always good fun to pounce on neologisms and jargon and grill the user why they are using them instead of a more traditional word.”

And then there was this one:

“my old boss used to love these damn things and every time he’d say the word “webinar” a peice [sic] of me died a little inside”

It reminds me of a time I was driving around Brisbane with a friend, it was Christmas time, and I noted a sign in front of a church that stated something along the lines of “Christmass Services”. I made an offhand comment about the mispelling, and my friend pointed out that the origin of the word indicates that it should, indeed, be spelled “Christmass” (as it derived from the Mass for Christ). The main point of her comment though was the fact that language is an ever-changing and constantly evolving beast. Wordsmiths – myself included – are often very quick to point out that something is not a word, or is a neologism, or just isn’t right for some other reason.

We all use language in different ways every day – the language we use to speak to our friends is not the same as we use to speak to our children, or to authorities. The language that we use to write emails to our friends is different to the language that we use to write a complaint to the phone company. In my case, the language that I use to write technical documentation is different to the language I use to write fiction, and is different to the language I am using to write this blog post. The most interesting thing about that is the language that I use to do all those things has changed – as I’ve gotten older, as my opinions have changed, as my knowledge has increased, as my tastes have changed, and as I’ve come across new words.

I was working on the latest fiction project last night, writing very short snippets in first person for several different characters, and consciously trying to alter the ‘voice’ of each section to suit that character. Not as easy as it sounds, but I’m reasonably pleased with the results, so far.

Language, in all its forms, shifts and changes with attitude and society. While I’ve never considered Merriam-Webster to be authoritative, and I certainly wouldn’t rely on it for any of my work, at least we ought to give them credit for trying to document the language as it is used, rather than how it ‘ought’ to be. And for that reason alone, it has a place in the world.

Originally posted at On Writing, Tech and Other Loquacities.

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4 Responses to “Merriam-Webster – Bringing the Mondegreen to Linguistic Fanboys Everywhere”

  1. lukeskywalker246 Says:

    Huh? In what sense is Merriam–Webster not authoritative?

  2. laubai Says:

    Consciously switching between distinct voices is a great exercise — one of my tutors divided voice into velocity, verbosity, viewpoint (1st/3rd/omni, etc.), and vision (what is actually noticed by the speaker). Listing the characteristics of those elements before you start writing is really useful when it comes to focusing on specific characters. 🙂

  3. loquaciouslinguist Says:

    lukeskywalker: It can be authoritative, depending on the topic. I tend to avoid it (for technical writing especially) because of its tendency to include very new neologisms. It’s not as slow to bend to the changes in language as many other dictionaries – this is both a good and a bad thing. Which it is depends on what you’re using it for. For technical writing, I prefer to make sure I’m using words that are well established in the vernacular. If you are writing contemporary fiction, though, Merriam-Webster might be just what you’re looking for.

    laubai: that’s a great idea!

    • lukeskywalker246 Says:

      Maybe you should consult a dictionary for the meaning of ‘authoritative’. It doesn’t mean what you clearly think it means.

      A dictionary documents the words that are in use in a language. Merriam–Webster is an authoritative source on the words in use in contemporary American English. Documenting words that are not useful to a particular piece of writing that you’re working on, or an area that you work in, or that you personally don’t like for whatever arbitrary reason you choose (too new, too old, too long, too French) does not make a source more or less authoritative. In fact, it says nothing about its authority.

      The authority of Merriam–Webster is not the point here anyway. As a writer, it’s up to you to select words that you think are appropriate for your audience and your purpose. You seem to want a dictionary that will somehow magically do your job for you and give you the ‘OK’ to use a particular word in a particular place. That’s not what dictionaries are for and no dictionary is ever going to give you that, beyond noting that particular usages might be archaic, vulgar, regional, or specialized in some other way. A dictionary that included only words that are ‘OK’ to use in any and every piece of written English would be pretty short.

      Modern dictionaries are descriptive not prescriptive in nature, reflecting the position of modern linguistics more generally. If you want prescriptivism, invest in a style guide. This is simply a case of ‘the right tool for the right job’ — next you’ll be complaining that you can’t make toast in your DVD player because it’s not ‘authoritative’ enough!

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