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  • Stunning revelation: Secret dictionary panel controls English language

    National Enquirer: An alien ate my words
    National Enquirer: An alien ate my words

    There’s a secret committee that controls the English language. We’ve long suspected as much. Now we know it for a fact. The existence of a lexicographic cabal sounds like a story out of the National Enquirer, but the startling revelation that a little known panel of experts decides what words go into the dictionary came this week in reports from the BBC and the New Republic, two impeccable journalistic sources.

    First, Columbia University law professor Tim Wu proposed in the pages of TNR a committee to keep objectionable videos off YouTube that would work exactly “the way … panels of prominent authors decide what words should be in the American Heritage Dictionary.” 

    Then the Beeb’s Cordelia Hebblethwaite leaked the name of a top-secret American word guardian: “[Merriam-Webster’s Kory] Stamper is one of the powerful few who get to choose which words are included in the dictionary.” It was the most stunning revelation since the Washington Post’s Robert Novak outed CIA agent Valerie Plame.

    In the old days, who put all those words in the dictionary was no secret. Everybody in eighteenth-century London knew what Samuel Johnson was up to, recycling his vocabulary by cutting up copies of his publications and pasting the words, in alphabetical order, into a scrapbook which he copied and sold on Craig’s List.

    Noah Webster didn’t hide behind a cloak of invisibility either. A schoolmaster with a penchant for antiquing, Webster, whose name is synonymous with dictionary, rambled New England’s byways picking up old words, mending them, and reselling them to collectors in New Haven and Hartford.

    But these were individual entrepreneurs, converting language into cash. The idea that a group of experts should decide what goes in a dictionary is even older. In 1635 Cardinal Richelieu started the French Academy, a group of “40 immortals” who controlled what words could enter the French dictionary and what words would be kept out. After the Academy’s first dictionary was published in 1694, anyone caught with banned words was guillotined. The French have always been strict about their language.

    dictionary of the French Academy, 1694

    The modern concept of dictionary-by-committee starts with the Oxford English Dictionary, with its own group of “philological mortals” who asked Britons to send in their words on scraps of paper to support the war effort. The editors' goal was not to weed words out, but to include pretty much every word they found. Until that dictionary was finished, seventy-one years later, no one at the OED was allowed to open the office windows, lest a strong wind blow the fragile slips around and undo all their work. 

    James Murray of the OED

    The OED’s James Murray, shown here in his study at Hogwarts, headed a committee which decided which of the words on the 3 x 5 slips in the cubby holes lining the walls would make it into the dictionary. They included as many words as they could.

    Today dictionaries are still made by groups of editors, not by individual word stars like Johnson or Webster. And today's lexicographers don’t consider themselves gatekeepers. Despite Tim Wu's claim, the American Heritage Dictionary author panel doesn't censor our vocabulary, it discusses questions of usage. It's always the dictionary editors who decide what words to include, and they choose not official words, or good words, but words they think people will need to look up. But there’s a common saying that no one wants to know how laws or dictionaries are made, and people prefer to think that dictionaries exist to dictate what words we should use, and how we should use them. That's why Wu chose to model his YouTube regulatory group on how he thought dictionaries work. He didn’t want to be associated with the moralistic censorship of the Hays Office, which kept sex out of 1940s Hollywood movies, or the Index librorum prohibitorum, a religious group which banned heretical books for centuries, because he knew that Americans love free speech and hate censors. But Americans all love dictionaries, because everybody agrees that free speech is fine, just so long as it’s correct speech.

    That lexicographers are not the correctors of English is something Wu and the general public don’t consider. According to popular opinion, a word isn’t a word until it’s been recognized by the dictionary. But there’s more than one dictionary. Not all dictionaries have the same words, or the same definitions for the words they do have. Dictionaries don’t necessarily record every meaning of a word, and words can have a long life before they’re included in dictionaries, or after they’ve been dropped from dictionaries, or even if they’ve never been noticed by dictionaries.

    Johnson's definition of 'lexicographer' as

    Lexicographers are word collectors, not word banishers. Samuel Johnson defined them as ‘harmless drudges,’ but by referring to dictionary makers as “the powerful few” Cordelia Hebblethwaite gives the impression that collecting and defining words is just the kind of job young MBAs see themselves doing five years from now.

    Help wanted: Lexicography

    Language, we know, is power. So maybe it’s time that lexicographers shake off their customary diffidence and accept their role as power brokers. Dictionary makers might at least embrace the popular notion that they’re faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Even with the hipster glasses, nobody wants to be Clark Kent. 


    UPDATE: Click on this Oxford English Dictionary video to see secrets of the lexicographic cabal that puts words into the dictionary.

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