Arrant Pedantry

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Book Review: Word by Word

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper

Disclosure: I received a free advance review copy of this book from the publisher, Pantheon Books. I also consider Kory Stamper a friend.

A lot of work goes into making a book, from the initial writing and development to editing, copyediting, design and layout, proofreading, and printing. Orders of magnitude more work go into making a dictionary, yet few of us give much thought to how dictionaries actually come into being. Most people probably don’t think about the fact that there are multiple dictionaries. We always refer to it as the dictionary, as if it were a monolithic entity.

In Word by Word, Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper shows us the inner workings of dictionary making, from gathering citations to defining to writing pronunciations to researching etymologies. In doing so, she also takes us through the history of lexicography and the history of the English language itself.

If you’ve read other popular books on lexicography, like The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch, you’re probably already familiar with some of the broad outlines of Word by Word—where dictionaries come from, how words get in them, and so on. But Stamper presents even familiar ideas in a fresh way and with wit and charm. If you’re familiar with her blog, Harmless Drudgery, you know she’s a gifted writer. (And if you’re not familiar with it, you should remedy that as soon as possible.)

In discussing the influence of French and Latin on English, for example, she writes, “Blending grammatical systems from two languages on different branches of the Indo-European language tree is a bit like mixing orange juice and milk: you can do it, but it’s going to be nasty.” And in describing the ability of lexicographers to focus on the same dry task day in and day out, she says that “project timelines in lexicography are traditionally so long that they could reasonably be measured in geologic epochs.”

Stamper also deftly teaches us about lexicography by taking us through her own experience of learning the craft, from the job interview in which she gushed about medieval Icelandic family sagas to the day-to-day grind of sifting through citations to the much more politically fraught side of dictionary writing, like changing the definitions for marriage or nude (one of the senses was defined as the color of white skin).

But the real joy of Stamper’s book isn’t the romp through the history of lexicography or the English language or even the self-deprecating jokes about lexicographers’ antisocial ways. It’s the way in which Stamper make stories about words into stories about us.

In one chapter, she looks into the mind of peevers by examining the impulse to fix English and explaining why so many of the rules we cherish are wrong:

The fact is that many of the things that are presented to us as rules are really just the of-the-moment preferences of people who have had the opportunity to get their opinions published and whose opinions end up being reinforced and repeated down the ages as Truth.

Real language is messy, and it doesn’t fit neatly into the categories of right and wrong that we’re taught. Learning this “is a betrayal”, she says, but it’s one that lexicographers have to get over if they’re going to write good dictionaries.

In the chapter “Irregardless”, she explores some of the social factors that shape our speech—race and ethnicity, geography, social class—to explain how she became one of the world’s foremost irregardless apologists when she started answering emails from correspondents who want the word removed from the dictionary. Though she initially shared her correspondents’ hatred of the word, an objective look at its use helped her appreciate it in all its nuanced, nonstandard glory. But—just like anyone else—she still has her own hangups and peeves, like when her teenage daughter started saying “I’m done my homework.”

In another chapter, she relates how she discovered that the word bitch had no stylistic label warning dictionary users that the word is vulgar of offensive, and she dives not only into the word’s history but also into modern efforts to reclaim the slur and the effects the word can have on those who hear it—anger, shame, embarrassment—even when it’s not directed at them.

And in my favorite chapter, she takes a look at the arcane art of etymology. “If logophiles want to be lexicographers when they grow up,” she writes, “then lexicographers want to be etymologists.” (I’ve always wanted to be an etymologist, but I don’t know nearly enough dead languages. Plus, there are basically zero job openings for etymologists.) Stamper relates the time when she brought some Finnish candy into the office, and Merriam-Webster’s etymologist asked her—in Finnish—if she spoke Finnish. She said—also in Finnish—that she spoke a little and asked if he did too. He replied—again, in Finnish—that he didn’t speak Finnish. This is the sort of logophilia that I can only dream of.

Stamper explodes some common etymological myths—no, posh and golf and the f word don’t originate from acronyms—before turning a critical eye on Noah Webster himself. The man may have been the founder of American lexicography, but his etymologies were crap. Webster was motivated by the belief that all languages descend from Hebrew, and so he tried to connect every word to a Hebrew root. But tracing a word’s history requires poring over old documents (often in one of those aforementioned dead languages) and painstakingly following it through the twists and turns of sound changes and semantic shifts.

Stamper ends the book with some thoughts on the present state and future of lexicography. The internet has enabled dictionaries to expand far beyond the limitations of print books—you no longer have to worry about things line breaks or page counts—but it also pushes lexicographers to work faster even as it completely upends the business side of things.

It’s not clear what the future holds for lexicography, but I’m glad that Kory Stamper has given us a peek behind the curtain. Word by Word is a heartfelt, funny, and ultimately human look at where words come from, how they’re defined, and what they say about us.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is available now at Amazon and other booksellers.

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To Boldly Split Infinitives

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of Star Trek, so I thought it was a good opportunity to talk about split infinitives. (So did Merriam-Webster, which beat me to the punch.) If you’re unfamiliar with split infinitives or have thankfully managed to forget what they are since your high school days, it’s when you put some sort of modifier between the to and the infinitive verb itself—that is, a verb that is not inflected for tense, like be or go—and for many years it was considered verboten.

Kirk’s opening monologue on the show famously featured the split infinitive “to boldly go”, and it’s hard to imagine the phrase working so well without it. “To go boldly” and “boldly to go” both sound terribly clunky, partly because they ruin the rhythm of the phrase. “To BOLDly GO” is a nice iambic bimeter, meaning that it has two metrical feet, each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable—duh-DUN duh-DUN. “BOLDly to GO” is a trochee followed by an iamb, meaning that we have a stressed syllable, two unstressed syllables, and then another stressed syllable—DUN-duh duh-DUN. “To GO BOLDly” is the reverse, an iamb followed by a trochee, leading to a stress clash in the middle where the two stresses butt up against each other and then ending on a weaker unstressed syllable. Blech.

But the root of the alleged problem with split infinitives concerns not meter but syntax. The question is where it’s syntactically permissible to put a modifier in a to-infinitive phrase. Normally, an adverb would go just in front of the verb it modifies, as in She boldly goes or He will boldly go. Things were a little different when the verb was an infinitive form preceded by to. In this case the adverb often went in front of the to, not in front of the verb itself.

As Merriam-Webster’s post notes, split infinitives date back at least to the fourteenth century, though they were not as common back then and were often used in different ways than they are today. But they mostly fell out of use in the sixteenth century and then roared back to life in the eighteenth century, only to be condemned by usage commentators in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Incidentally, this illustrates a common pattern of prescriptivist complaints: a new usage arises, or perhaps it has existed for literally millennia, it goes unnoticed for decades or even centuries, someone finally notices it and decides they don’t like it (often because they don’t understand it), and suddenly everyone starts decrying this terrible new thing that’s ruining English.)

It’s not particularly clear, though, why people thought that this particular thing was ruining English. The older boldly to go was replaced by the resurgent to boldly go. It’s often claimed that people objected to split infinitives on the basis of analogy with Latin (Merriam-Webster’s post repeats this claim). In Latin, an infinitive is a single word, like ire, and it can’t be split. Ergo, since you can’t split infinitives in Latin, you shouldn’t be able to split them in English either. The problem with this theory is that there’s no evidence to support it. Here’s the earliest recorded criticism of the split infinitive, according to Wikipedia:

The practice of separating the prefix of the infinitive mode from the verb, by the intervention of an adverb, is not unfrequent among uneducated persons. . . . I am not conscious, that any rule has been heretofore given in relation to this point. . . . The practice, however, of not separating the particle from its verb, is so general and uniform among good authors, and the exceptions are so rare, that the rule which I am about to propose will, I believe, prove to be as accurate as most rules, and may be found beneficial to inexperienced writers. It is this :—The particle, TO, which comes before the verb in the infinitive mode, must not be separated from it by the intervention of an adverb or any other word or phrase; but the adverb should immediately precede the particle, or immediately follow the verb.

No mention of Latin or of the supposed unsplittability of infinitives. In fact, the only real argument is that uneducated people split infinitives, while good authors didn’t. Some modern usage commentators have used this purported Latin origin of the rule as the basis of a straw-man argument: Latin couldn’t split infinitives, but English isn’t Latin, so the rule isn’t valid. Unfortunately, Merriam-Webster’s post does the same thing:

The rule against splitting the infinitive comes, as do many of our more irrational rules, from a desire to more rigidly adhere (or, if you prefer, “to adhere more rigidly”) to the structure of Latin. As in Old English, Latin infinitives are written as single words: there are no split infinitives, because a single word is difficult to split. Some linguistic commenters have pointed out that English isn’t splitting its infinitives, since the word to is not actually a part of the infinitive, but merely an appurtenance of it.

The problem with this argument (aside from the fact that the rule wasn’t based on Latin) is that modern English infinitives—not just Old English infinitives—are only one word too and can’t be split either. The infinitive in to boldly go is just go, and go certainly can’t be split. So this line of argument misses the point: the question isn’t whether the infinitive verb, which is a single word, can be split in half, but whether an adverb can be placed between to and the verb. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, the term split infinitive is a misnomer, since it’s not really the infinitive but the construction containing an infinitive that’s being split.

But in recent years I’ve seen some people take this terminological argument even further, saying that split infinitives don’t even exist because English infinitives can’t be split. I think this is silly. Of course they exist. It used to be that people would say boldly to go; then they started saying to boldly go instead. It doesn’t matter what you call the phenomenon of moving the adverb so that it’s snug up against the verb—it’s still a phenomenon. As Arnold Zwicky likes to say, “Labels are not definitions.” Just because the name doesn’t accurately describe the phenomenon doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We could call this phenomenon Steve, and it wouldn’t change what it is.

At this point, the most noteworthy thing about the split infinitive is that there are still some people who think there’s something wrong with it. The original objection was that it was wrong because uneducated people used it and good writers didn’t, but that hasn’t been true in decades. Most usage commentators have long since given up their objections to it, and some even point out that avoiding a split infinitive can cause awkwardness or even ambiguity. In his book The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker gives the example The board voted immediately to approve the casino. Which word does immediately modify—voted or approve?

But this hasn’t stopped The Economist from maintaining its opposition to split infinitives. Its style guide says, “Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

I call BS on this. Most usage commentators have moved on, and I suspect that most laypeople either don’t know or don’t care what a split infinitive is. I don’t think I know a single copy editor who’s bothered by them. If you’ve been worrying about splitting infinitives since your high school English teacher beat the fear of them into you, it’s time to let it go. If they’re good enough for Star Trek, they’re good enough for you too.

But just for fun, let’s do a little poll:

Do you find split infinitives annoying?

View Results

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Sorry, Merriam-Webster, but Hot Dogs Are Not Sandwiches

On the Friday before Memorial Day, Merriam-Webster sent out this tweet:

They linked to this post describing ten different kinds of sandwiches and asserted that “yes, the hot dog is one of them.” They say,

We know: the idea that a hot dog is a sandwich is heresy to some of you. But given that the definition of sandwich is “two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling in between,” there is no sensible way around it. If you want a meatball sandwich on a split roll to be a kind of sandwich, then you have to accept that a hot dog is also a kind of sandwich.

Predictably, the internet exploded.

Users took to Twitter with the hashtag #hotdogisnotasandwich to voice their disagreement. Numerous Twitter polls showed that anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of respondents agreed that the hot dog is not a sandwich. Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster’s Emily Brewster went on the podcast Judge John Hodgman to defend Merriam-Webster’s case. Part of her argument is that there’s historical evidence for the sandwich definition: in the early to mid-twentieth century, hot dogs were commonly called “hot dog sandwiches”. Jimmy Kimmel, on the other hand took to his podium to make a more common-sense appeal:

That’s their definition. By my definition, a hot dog is a hot dog. It’s its own thing, with its own specialized bun. If you went in a restaurant and ordered a meat tube sandwich, would that make sense? No! They’d probably call the cops on you. I don’t care what anyone says—a hot dog is not a sandwich. And if hot dogs are sandwiches, then cereal is soup. Chew on that one for a while.

For reference, here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of soup:

1 : a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food

Read broadly, this definition does not exclude cold cereal from being a type of soup. Cereal is a liquid food containing pieces of solid food. It doesn’t have a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base, but the definition doesn’t strictly require that.

But we all know, of course, that cereal isn’t soup. Soup is usually (but not always) served hot, and it’s usually (but again, not always) savory or salty. It’s also usually eaten for lunch or dinner, while cereal is usually eaten for breakfast. But note how hard it is to write a definition that includes all things that are soup and excludes all things that aren’t.

My friend Mike Sakasegawa also noted the difficulty in writing a satisfactory definition of sandwich, saying, “Though it led me to the observation that sandwiches are like porn: you know it when you see it.” I said that this is key: “Just because you can’t write a single definition that includes all sandwiches and excludes all not-sandwiches doesn’t mean that the sandwich-like not-sandwiches are now sandwiches.” And Jesse Sheidlower, a former editor for the Oxford English Dictionary, concurred: “IOW, Lexicographer Fail.”

I wouldn’t put it that way, but, with apologies to my good friends at Merriam-Webster, I do think this is a case of reasoning from the definition. Lexicography’s primary aim is to describe how people use words, and people simply don’t use the word sandwich to refer to hot dogs. If someone said, “I’m making sandwiches—what kind would you like?” and you answered, “Hot dog, please,” they’d probably respond, “No, I’m making sandwiches, not hot dogs.” Whatever the history of the term, hot dogs are not considered sandwiches anymore. Use determines the definition, not the other way around. And definitions are by nature imperfect, unless you want to make them so long and detailed that they become encyclopedia entries.

So how can hot dogs fit the description of a sandwich but not be sandwiches? Easy. I propose that sandwiches are a paraphyletic group. A monophyletic group contains all the descendants of a common ancestor, but a paraphyletic group contains all descendants of a common ancestor with some exceptions. In biology, for example, mammals are a monophyletic group, because they contain all the descendants of the original proto-mammal. Reptiles, on the other hand, are an example of a paraphyletic group—the common ancestor of all reptiles is also the common ancestor of birds and mammals, but birds and mammals are not considered reptiles. Thus a chart showing the phylogenetic tree of reptiles has a couple of scallops cut out to exclude those branches.

Foods may not have ancestors in the same sense, but we can still construct a sort of phylogeny of sandwiches. Sandwiches include at least two main groups—those made with slices of bread and those made with a split bun or roll. Hot dogs would normally fall under the split-bun group, but instead they form their own separate category.

Proposed phylogeny of sandwiches

Proposed phylogeny of sandwiches

Note that this sort of model is also quite flexible. Some people might consider gyros or shawarma sandwiches, but I would consider them a type of wrap. Some people might also consider hamburgers sandwiches but not hot dogs. Sloppy joes and loose meat sandwiches may be edge cases, falling somewhere between hamburgers and more traditional split-roll sandwiches. And in some countries, people might also say that the split-bun types aren’t sandwiches, preferring to simply call these rolls.

Wherever you draw the line, the important thing is that you can draw the line. Don’t let the dictionary boss you around, especially on such an important topic as sandwiches.

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Do Usage Debates Make You Nauseous?

Several days ago, the Twitter account for the Chicago Manual of Style tweeted, “If you’re feeling sick, use nauseated rather than nauseous. Despite common usage, whatever is nauseous induces nausea.” The relevant entry in Chicago reads,

Whatever is nauseous induces a feeling of nausea—it makes us feel sick to our stomachs. To feel sick is to be nauseated. The use of nauseous to mean nauseated may be too common to be called error anymore, but strictly speaking it is poor usage. Because of the ambiguity of nauseous, the wisest course may be to stick to the participial adjectives nauseated and nauseating.

Though it seems like a straightforward usage tip, it’s based on some dubious motives and one rather strange assumption about language. It’s true that nauseous once meant causing nausea and that it has more recently acquired the sense of having nausea, but causing nausea wasn’t even the word’s original meaning in English. The word was first recorded in the early 17th century in the sense of inclined to nausea or squeamish. So you were nauseous not if you felt sick at the moment but if you had a sensitive stomach. This sense became obsolete in the late 17th century, supplanted by the causing nausea sense. The latter sense is the one that purists cling to, but it too is going obsolete.

I searched for nauseous in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and looked at the first 100 hits. Of those 100 hits, only one was used in the sense of causing nausea: “the nauseous tints and tinges of corruption.” The rest were all clearly used in the sense of having nausea—“I was nauseous” and “it might make you feel a little nauseous” and so on. Context is key: when nauseous is used with people, it means that they feel sick, but when it’s used with things, it means they’re sickening. And anyway, if nauseous is ambiguous, then every word with multiple meanings is ambiguous, including the word word, which has eleven main definitions as a noun in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate. So where’s this ambiguity that Chicago warns of?

The answer is that there really isn’t any. In this case it’s nothing more than a red herring. Perhaps it’s possible to concoct a sentence that, lacking sufficient context, is truly ambiguous. But the corpus search shows that it just isn’t a problem, and thus fear of ambiguity can’t be the real reason for avoiding nauseous. Warnings of ambiguity are often used not to call attention to a real problem but to signal that a word has at least two senses or uses and that the author does not like one of them. Bryan Garner (the author of the above entry from Chicago), in his Modern American Usage, frequently warns of such “skunked” words and usually recommends avoiding them altogether. This may seem like sensible advice, but it seems to me to be motivated by a sense of jealousy—if the word can’t mean what the advice-giver wants it to mean, then no one can use it.

But the truly strange assumption is that words have meaning that is somehow independent of their usage. If 99 percent of the population uses nauseous in the sense of having nausea, then who’s to say that they’re wrong? Who has the authority to declare this sense “poor usage”? And yet Garner says, rather unequivocally, “Whatever is nauseous induces a feeling of nausea.” How does he know this is what nauseous means? It’s not as if there is some platonic form of words, some objective true meaning from which a word must never stray. After all, language changes, and an earlier form is not necessarily better or truer than a newer one. As Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper recently pointed out on Twitter, stew once meant “whorehouse”, and this sense dates to the 1300s. The food sense arose four hundred years later, in the 1700s. Is this poor usage because it’s a relative upstart supplanting an older established sense? Of course not.

People stopped using nauseous to mean “inclined to nausea” several hundred years ago, and so it no longer means that. Similarly, most people no longer use nauseous to mean “causing nausea”, and so that meaning is waning. In another hundred years, it may be gone altogether. For now, it hangs on, but this doesn’t mean that the newer and overwhelmingly more common sense is poor usage. The new sense is only poor usage inasmuch as someone says it is. In other words, it all comes down to someone’s opinion. As I’ve said before, pronouncements on usage that are based simply on someone’s opinion are ultimately unreliable, and any standard that doesn’t take into account near-universal usage by educated speakers in edited writing is doomed to irrelevance.

So go ahead and use nauseous. The “having nausea” sense is now thoroughly established, and it seems silly to avoid a perfectly good word just because a few peevers dislike it. Even if you stick to the more traditional “causing nausea” sense, you’re unlikely to confuse anyone, because context will make the meaning clear. Just be careful about people who make unsupported claims about language.

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The Enormity of a Usage Problem

Recently on Twitter, Mark Allen wrote, “Despite once being synonyms, ‘enormity’ and ‘enormousness’ are different. Try to keep ‘enormity’ for something evil or outrageous.” I’ll admit right off that this usage problem interests me because I didn’t learn about the distinction until a few years ago. To me, they’re completely synonymous, and the idea of using enormity to mean “an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act” and not “the quality or state of being huge”, as Merriam-Webster defines it, seems almost quaint.

Of course, such usage advice presupposes that people are using the two words synonymously; if they weren’t, there’d be no reason to tell them to keep the words separate, so the assertion that they’re different is really an exhortation to make them different. Given that, I had to wonder how different they really are. I turned to Mark Davies Corpus of Contemporary American English to get an idea of how often enormity is used in the sense of great size rather than outrageousness or immorality. I looked at the first hundred results from the keyword-in-context option, which randomly samples the corpus, and tried to determine which of the four Merriam-Webster definitions was being used. For reference, here are the four definitions:

1 : an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act <the enormities of state power — Susan Sontag> <other enormities too juvenile to mention — Richard Freedman>
2 : the quality or state of being immoderate, monstrous, or outrageous; especially : great wickedness <the enormity of the crimes committed during the Third Reich — G. A. Craig>
3 : the quality or state of being huge : immensity <the inconceivable enormity of the universe>
4 : a quality of momentous importance or impact <the enormity of the decision>>

In some cases it was a tough call; for instance, when someone writes about the enormity of poverty in India, enormity has a negative connotation, but it doesn’t seem right to substitute a word like monstrousness or wickedness. It seems that the author simply means the size of the problem. I tried to use my best judgement based on the context the corpus provides, but in some cases I weaseled out by assigning a particular use to two definitions. Here’s my count:

1: 1
2: 19
2/3: 3
3: 67
3/4: 1
4: 9

By far the most common use is in the sense of “enormousness”; the supposedly correct senses of great wickedness (definitions 1 and 2) are used just under a quarter of the time. So why did Mr. Allen say that enormity and enormousness were once synonyms? Even the Oxford English Dictionary marks the “enormousness” sense as obsolete and says, “Recent examples might perh. be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect.” Perhaps? It’s clear from the evidence that it’s still quite common—about three times as common as the prescribed “monstrous wickedness” sense.

It’s true that the sense of immoderateness or wickedness came along before the sense of great size. The first uses as recorded in the OED are in the sense of “a breach of law or morality” (1477), “deviation from moral or legal rectitude” (1480), “something that is abnormal” (a1513), and “divergence from a normal standard or type” (a1538). The sense of “excess in magnitude”—the one that the OED marks as obsolete and incorrect—didn’t come along until 1792. In all these senses the etymology is clear: the word comes from enorm, meaning “out of the norm”.

As is to be expected, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has an excellent entry on the topic. It notes that many of the uses of enormity considered objectionable carry shades of meaning or connotations not shown by enormousness:

Quite often enormity will be used to suggest a size that is beyond normal bounds, a size that is unexpectedly great. Hence the notion of monstrousness may creep in, but without the notion of wickedness. . . .

In many instances the notion of great size is colored by aspects of the first sense of enormity as defined in Webster’s Second. One common figurative use blends together notions of immoderateness, excess, and monstrousness to suggest a size that is daunting or overwhelming.

Indeed, it’s the blending of senses that made it hard to categorize some of the uses that I came across in COCA. Enormousness does not seem to be a fitting replacement for those blended or intermediate senses, and, as MWDEU notes, it’s never been a popular word anyway. Interestingly, MWDEU also notes that “the reasons for stigmatizing the size sense of enormity are not known.” Perhaps it became rare in the 1800s, when the OED marked it obsolete, and the rule was created before the sense enjoyed a resurgence in the twentieth century. Whatever the reason, I don’t think it makes much sense to condemn the more widely used sense of a word just because it’s newer or was rare at some point in the past. MWDEU sensibly concludes, “We have seen that there is no clear basis for the ‘rule’ at all. We suggest that you follow the writers rather than the critics: writers use enormity with a richness and subtlety that the critics have failed to take account of. The stigmatized sense is entirely standard and has been for more than a century and a half.”

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