September 20th, 2014


I was yelled at in the fourth grade for spending too much time at the back of the room reading the copy of Webster’s 2nd Edition that was strapped to a bookstand in a corner.

I use a lot of dictionaries. On my laptop, I use the OED and Merriam-Webster Unabridged online editions, which I subscribe to. I also have dated copies of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate and the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary installed on my laptop hard disk in case I am disconnected from the Internet.

In my workroom, I have a treasured copy of the Merriam-Webster Unabridged 2nd Edition, the flyspeck print two volume of the OED, and several other old dictionaries, including one my father got when he was in high school in the 1930s.

This is overkill. Aside from my early predilection for dictionaries, in college I received advice from two obscure but great writers: Herrlee Creel and Edwin McClellan. Creel, whom I have blogged about before, was a historian of early China. McClellan translated and wrote about 20th Century Japanese novels. Both, in their time, were noted for their clear and elegant style. Both told me that they used a dictionary constantly. Both had copies of Webster’s Unabridged, 3rd Edition, next to their desks. Both said that writers who use thesauri are illiterate. They both emanated a whiff of arrogant martinet, but I still think they gave good advice.

I do know that poking around in a dictionary, especially the OED with its historic quotations and etymologies, consistently leads me to the exact word I am looking for. My online dictionaries have thesauri and lists of synonyms and antonyms and I have an old copy of Roget, but nothing works better for me than reading definitions and quotations.

Webster’s 2nd Edition was the last prescriptive dictionary published by Merriam-Webster. If I had to take a side, I would declare myself a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist. Generally, I think it is most important to know how language is used. Prescriptivists expect a dictionary to be a rulebook for language usage and want to be told what a word should mean, not what people mean when they use it. For example, a prescriptivist expects to be told that “hopefully” is an adverb that must never modify an entire sentence, as in “Hopefully, George will not anger Hephzibah.” A descriptivist will note that “hopefully” is often used in that manner, although some speakers avoid it.

When the 3rd edition came out, the prescriptivists declared both the ruin of the English language and the end of civilization. Nero Wolfe burned the 3rd edition in his fireplace and high school English teachers wept in despair. For a while, condemning the 3rd edition was the rage among folks who hadn’t looked in a dictionary since the last time they read Homer. Nevertheless, serious writers and students of the language rejoiced. After its initial spike in popularity from the histrionics, the 3rd edition has continued to be a standard reference.

Why do I keep a copy of the 2nd edition around? Because its pages are a door to a lost world. The authors and editors of 2nd edition were sure of their place in the world as the arbiters of crisp distinctions between correct and incorrect. Reading it, you catch a glimpse of a world where platonic ideal words hold all true knowledge. A wonderful world, but it never did exist and never will exist, but fascinates me nonetheless.

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