In defence of the dictionary

by dantewilde


The dictionary has been recording British English since Richard Mulcaster (regarded as the founder of English language lexicography) wrote a non-alphabeticised list of 8,000 English words in 1592. He titled the volume Elementarie and was the first to make such a list (the first purely English alphabetical dictionary came in 1604). In 2013, centuries later, when Shakespeare still dances on the tongues of performers and readers  view his language as almost alien, The Oxford English Dictionary has once again made the headlines for a ‘travesty’. The word ‘literally’ now officially has two meanings.

Literally is often used as an intensifier (to say the 1,000 page epic was literally 1,000 pages) and also to say something is the way it is, the telephone was literally ringing. The word has also been used figuratively, to say one is ‘literally dying of laughter’ when one is in fact doing nothing of the sort.

With it’s addition to the Oxford English Dictionary the figurative usage of the word is no longer wrong. Unfortunately, this means that next time you hear a teenager “like literally dying” of whatever it may be, you can no longer reprimand their insolence, though the purists may still. And if you’re a purist nodding in agreement or fuming at the travesty’s waltz into officialdom, it’ll pay to remember two facts; the first incorrect usage of the word literally occurred in 1769; and the dictionary is a recorder of words, not a creator.

Essentially, no matter where you stand on this issue, The Oxford English Dictionary causes us to stare the changes of the language in the face. It was over a century after the first English dictionary was written that we have a recorded misuse of the word, over three hundred years later, the misuse has become official. It isn’t the first time the editors of the dictionary have put us in this position (and the way we’re heading, it won’t be the last). Other words include; Lol, Grrrl, and Meatspace (which sounds as though it could have been a blue movie), among many other horrifying terms (yes, I’m treating them as nouns for emphasis). The simple truth is that these words were added due to the proliferation of their usage. Phrases that have swept across the language and have themselves evolved (lol no longer means ‘laugh out loud’ exclusively, and is used to soften a sentence or indicate sarcasm) along the way.

It’s the adaptability of the language and those that come up with such ridiculous terms that are to blame. Words such as twitter didn’t exist before the website, and if someone ‘tweets’ it’s generally accepted that they shared information, not made a bird call. The role of the dictionary is to record the changes in the language and neologisms as they come into popular usage. It’s important to remember that this has always been the prime purpose of a dictionary. To stare accusingly at the editors as they walk down the street or declare you’ll never use a dictionary again is, frankly, a cop-out.

It pays for us all to check our vocabularies for the words we love to despise. Because your bank teller and your mother are as equally responsible as that teenager you know. The English language will continue to grow and change and for those that think 19th century English was the pick, it’ll be a hard journey. It wasn’t until the post Chaucerian era (possibly as late as the 1600s) that the letter k became silent in; knee, knick-knack, knife &c. An evolutionary phrase in the language that is often over looked, there is, phonetically speaking, no reason for k to be in the above words, but it’s recorded in the dictionary as so and no spelling alteration has taken place.

Without the dictionary, we would be lost. While it’s more common to consult the internet for the correct spelling of a word your word processor doesn’t recognise (mine still gets tripped up with s not z) these words had to come from somewhere. When Shakespeare and his contemporaries were writing, there was no such dictionary (which, I should add, formalised the correct spelling of the words it recorded) and we know Shakespeare often spelt his name at least seven different ways. To compound the issue, the words he used were oft’ unfamiliar to his audience or had never been used before. Which one can imagine led to a rather confusing state of affairs.

For as much as we have the dictionary to thank for recording words, we have to thank it for finalising the spelling of those words. English instead of being based on phonetics, is now a system of unalterable letters, which, when placed in the correct order, are instantly recognisable. Instead of lamenting the addition of colloquialisms and the latest trends, thank your dictionary. Thank it for giving us a workable system of written communication that in its current form cannot be changed or altered (in regards to spelling) and be thankful, purists, that you can still literally aim at the employers of ‘yous’ and ‘u’ and ‘whateva’.

Hug your dictionary and remember, it is simply the impartial recorder of the writhing chaos that is the English language.