Archive for the ‘lexicography’ Category

Mary Norris’s book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2015, Norton) is part autobiography, part style guide. Norris has been an editor at The New Yorker magazine for many years and her voice can be heard through the text, which makes parts of this book an enjoyment to read, especially when she tells stories about her life. She says in the intro that her book is “for all of you who want to feel better about your grammar” (p. 14), which is an unfortunate dedication since the book goes off the rails when Norris discusses grammar and linguistics. In these sections, Norris doesn’t just make herself look bad, but she also ropes in the rest of the editorial staff at The New Yorker.

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (2015, Norton)

Early on, Norris discusses the importance of dictionaries to editing. She also, however, walks right into a mine field when she discusses her and The New Yorker’s preference for a dictionary published in the 1930s over nearly all others:

If we cannot find something in the Little Red Web [Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 2003], our next resort is Webster’s New International Dictionary (Unabridged), Second Edition, which we call Web II. First published in 1934, it was the Great American Dictionary and is still an object of desire: 3,194 pages long, with leisurely definitions and detailed illustrations. It was supplanted in 1961 by Webster’s Third, whose editors, led by Philip Gove, caused a huge ruckus in the dictionary world by including commonly used words without warning people about which ones would betray their vulgar origins. (p. 18)

Norris is selling Gove and the other editors of Merriam-Webster’s short here. Gove actually wrote that “We must see to it that a mid-twentieth-century dictionary gives evidence of having been written by editors who lived in the twentieth century” (quote from The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner, p. 205) and what Gove did (besides dropping sick burns) was help systematize the way that dictionaries qualified words for their “vulgar” natures. Gove also saw to it that the quotes used to illustrate the meanings of words were neither archaic nor unnatural, i.e. contemporary quotes rather than contrived sentences written by the dictionary makers. But Gove’s actions caused a lot of uptight social commentators to get their knickers in a bunch, as Norris briefly explains:

On the publication of this dictionary, which we call Web 3, a seismic shift occurred between prescriptivists (who tell you what to do) and descriptivists (who describe what people say, without judging it). In March of 1962, The New Yorker, a bastion of prescriptivism, published an essay by Dwight MacDonald [who was not a linguist, nor a language scholar – JM] that attacked the dictionary and its linguistic principles: ‘The objection is not to recording the facts of actual usage. It is to failing to give the information that would enable the reader to decide which usage he wants to adopt.’ (p. 18)

It is no more surprising that Norris sticks by MacDonald’s essay than it is that MacDonald went to The New Yorker to voice his complaint. But romanticizing the fact that Norris and her fellow editors use a dictionary from the 1930s (Webster’s Second) over more modern ones doesn’t look prescriptivist, it looks downright foolish. Norris drives the point home:

Since the great dictionary war of the early sixties, there has been an institutional distrust of Web 3. It’s good for some scientific terms, we say, patronizingly. Its look is a lot cleaner than that of Web II. Lexicology aside, it is just not as beautiful. I would not haul a Web 3 home. You can even tell by the way it is abbreviated in our offices that it is less distinguished: Webster’s Second gets the Roman numeral, as if it were royalty, but Webster’s Third must make do with a plain old Arabic numeral. (p. 19)

This is nonsense. The editors at The New Yorker are prioritizing a dictionary from 1934 because it “enables the reader to decide which usage he wants to adopt”. Think about that for a second. Who in their right mind wants their writing to sound like it was published in 1934? The New Yorker is not a “bastion of prescriptivism”, it is an ancient ruin of unfounded notions about language.

MacDonald can maybe be excused for the incorrect ideas in his article. They were, after all, popular at the time. But Norris doesn’t get off so easy. She wrote her book in the 2010s, well after the ideas in MacDonald and W2 were shown to be incorrect. Think about what she is doing here. She using a 50-year-old article with incorrect ideas about language to defend her use of an 80-year-old dictionary. If your doctor recommended that you start smoking Camels because a commercial in the 1950s said they activate your T-zone, you would find another doctor.

Later in the book, Norris visits the offices of Merriam-Webster and says “These people are having far too much fun to be lexicographers” (p. 29). This is perhaps true, and she might even believe it, but I doubt she likes any of the advice that the MW editors give online or in their videos.

Bad Grammar

Every chapter in Norris’s book starts with a personal story and moves into a topic of English grammar or style. In Chapter 2, titled “That witch!”, Norris discusses relative clauses. She gives some OK advice about how to distinguish whether the clause is restrictive or non-restrictive, but then makes some major mistakes on what to do after that:

If the phrase or clause introduced by a relative pronoun – “that” or “which” – is essential to the meaning of the sentence, “that” is preferred, and it is not separated from its antecedent by a comma. (p. 40)

I suppose Norris means that that is preferred in The New Yorker, but it sounds like she means that is preferred across the English language, which simply isn’t true. Anyone who has spent any time hanging out with the English language would know this. Perhaps she means that that is preferred by people (such as editors at The New Yorker?) who wish they could dictate which relative pronoun should be used in all cases across the English language. Norris then gives us a half-baked explanation of what’s going with that and which in relative clauses:

If people are nervous, they sometimes use “which” when “that” would do. Politicians often say “which” instead of “that”, to sound important. A writer may say “which” instead of “that” – it’s no big deal. It would be much worse to say “that” instead of “which.” Apparently the British use “which” more and do not see anything wrong with it. Americans have agreed to use “that” when the clause is restrictive and to use “which,” set off with commas, when the clause is nonrestrictive. It works pretty well. (p. 41)

What? No. There is so much wrong with this paragraph. First, what the hell does Norris mean by the first two sentences? Is she a professional on spoken English now? The third sentence gives it away – writers don’t “say” things, they write things. But Norris doesn’t realize that she has blurred the line between spoken and written language so much that she’s erased it. This paragraph means that an admittedly prescriptivist editor of written language – who prefers a dictionary from 1934 – can’t tell the obvious difference between spoken and written English and that we are supposed to take for granted her claims about ALL spoken English, based on… something. Another thing that is wrong with this paragraph is that it is demonstrably wrong that Americans have “agreed to use ‘that’” with restrictive relative clauses. This was dictated by copy editors in the beginning of the 20th century! This hope/wish/desire to separate which and that comes from Fowler (1926), who wrote “The two kinds of relative clauses, to one of which that and the other to which which is appropriate, are the defining [restrictive] and the non-defining [non-restrictive]; and if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is practice either of most or of the best writers.” (Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th ed., 2015, edited by J. Butterfield, p. 809) Even Fowler gave up on this that/which nonsense. You would think Norris would recognize this because of her preference for early 20th century English reference works. No one cares about this that/which distinction anymore, if they ever did. It wasn’t just the British who saw nothing wrong with using which in nonrestrictive relative clauses. Americans have also never cared about this when they were speaking naturally*.

Norris also has a chapter on pronouns, in which she wastes four pages (pp. 60-63) blabbering about pronouns before we get to the point of the chapter, i.e. the (supposed) problem of English’s (supposed) lack of a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. The chapter ends with a heartfelt and well written personal story about Norris having to switch the pronouns she used for a family member who transitioned. Norris quite deftly shows how personal our pronouns can be and this part of the chapter is definitely worth reading. What comes before it, however, are a bunch of pronoun howlers.

One of the stranger ones is when Norris claims that “There is only one documented instance of a gender-neutral pronoun springing from actual speech, and that is “yo,” which ‘spontaneously appeared in Baltimore city schools in the early-to-mid 2000s.’ (p. 66) What? Does Norris actually believe this? The research cited on yo is from Stotko and Troyer, but they do not claim that yo is the only documented instance of a gender-neutral pronoun springing from actual speech (Stotko, Elaine M. and Margaret Troyer. 2007. “A New gender-neutral pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland: A preliminary study”. American Speech 82(3): 262–279. https://dx.doi.org/10.1215/00031283-2007-012).

Then Norris drops the bomb:

I hate to say it, but the colloquial use of “their” when you mean “his or her” is just wrong. (p. 69)

Ugh, where to start? Literally right before this sentence, Norris said that having singular you and plural you is fine. But then she says that singular they is not because… reasons? Norris actually tries to claim that the epicene he would be invisible if we didn’t “make such a fuss” about it. Guess what? It isn’t and we do. Does Norris really think that the epicene he is only visible because people complain about it? She has it backwards. The epicene he is complained about because it is so damn visible. And are we really to believe that he would be invisible to Norris? She devoted an entire chapter in her book to pronouns. Also, singular they isn’t colloquial (although I’m willing to bet that the editors of The New Yorker have a different definition of the term “colloquial” – one from the 1930s perhaps). It has been used across all types of texts and registers and first appeared 800 years ago. (Wait, is it possible that singular they SPINGS FROM ACTUAL SPEECH?! Omg you guys!!1!) Basically, if you have a problem with singular they, maybe it’s time to get over it. Or, if you’re going to complain about singular they, maybe you shouldn’t use it in your writing. That’s right, Norris uses singular they in this book:

A notice from the editor, William Shawn, went up on the bulletin board, saying that anyone whose work was not “essential” could go home. Nobody wanted to think they were not essential. (p. 11)


The discussion of pronoun usage gets more convoluted after this. On the very next page (p. 70), after telling us that a writer was wrong for not using the epicene he, Norris says that a The New Yorker staff writer was correct in using singular they. So what the hell is going on here? I don’t know and I’m starting to not care.

Chapter 4 – “Between you and me”

This might be the most confusing chapter in terms of grammar. Norris writes:

The most important verb is the verb “to be” in all its glory: am, are, is, were, will be, has been. (p. 84)

So will be and has been are part of the verb BE? Uhh… how? And why isn’t being in that list, or (by Norris’ logic) have been? No one knows.

The rest of this chapter goes from bad to worse. Immediately after this quote, Norris discusses nouns, rather than nouns phrases, even though she uses noun phrases rather than single-word nouns (such as copy editor and my plumber). In a later admission that there are several copulative verbs, Norris says that “It is because these verbs are copulative and not merely transitive that we say something ‘tastes good’ (an adjective), not ‘well’ (an adverb): the verb is throwing the meaning back onto the noun”. What does this mean? Norris is also incorrect when she says that “nouns are modified by adjectives, not adverbs”. Noun phrases are modified by other noun phrases (a no-frills airline, sign language) as well as adverb phrases (the then President, a through road). Those examples from Downing & Locke (2006: 436), but from The New Yorker we have “Danny Hartzell backed a Budget rental truck up to a no-frills apartment building…” from a piece called “Empty Wallets” by George Packer in the July 25, 2011 issue, perhaps edited by Norris. But this isn’t even a matter of modification. In Norris’s example (“Something tastes good”), the adjective phrase good does not modify the noun phrase something, but rather functions as a complement in the sentence. Essentially, the subject (which may be a noun phrase or may be something else) requires a complement when a copulative verb is used. And there is no reason that adverb phrases cannot act as complements after copulative verbs (They’re off!, I am through with you, That is quite all right).

In the following paragraph, Norris writes “One might reasonably ask, if we can use the objective for the subjective, as in ‘It’s me again,’ why can’t we use the subjective for the objective?” But again this is confusing and it’s hard to tell whether Norris believes that me is the subject in her example sentence (hint: it’s not, it’s what some grammars call an extraposed subject, but I can see how Norris would be confused – The New Yorker has proven its ineptitude when it comes to describing sentences of this type. See Downing & Locke 2006: 47–48, 261).

In discussing grammar, Norris also tells stories about working at The New Yorker. It’s hard to describe how shocking some of these are, so I’ll let Norris tell it:

Lu Burke once ridiculed a new copy editor who had come from another publication for taking the hyphen out of “pan-fry.” “But it’s in [Webster’s dictionary],” the novice chirped. “What are you even looking in the dictionary for?” Lu said, and I wish there were a way of styling that sentence so that you could see it getting louder and more incredulous toward the end. She spoke it in a crescendo, like Ralph Kramden, on The Honeymooners, saying, “Because I’ve got a BIG MOUTH!” Without the hyphen, “panfry” looks like “pantry.” “Panfree!” Lu guffawed, and said it again. “Panfree!” The copy editor was just following the rules, but Lu said she had no “word sense.” Lu was especially scornful of unnecessary hyphens in adverbs like “feet first” and “head on.” Of course, “head on” is hyphenated as an adjective in front of a noun – “The editors met in a head-on collision” – but in context there is no way of misreading “The editors clashed head on in the hall.” The novice argued that “head on” was ambiguous without the hyphen. Lu was incredulous. “Head on what?” she howled, over and over, as if it were an uproarious punch line. Eventually, that copy editor went back to where she had come from. “It’s as if I tried to become a nun and failed,” she confided. It did sometimes feel as if we belonged to some strange cloistered order, the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Hyphens. (p. 116)

Some strange cloistered order? Jesus Christ, working at The New Yorker sounds fucking miserable. “Pan-fry” needs a hyphen because, what, the readers of The New Yorker are so fucking dumb that they would think it means “panfree”? Probably not, but what a great excuse for one of the editors to be a total dick to an employee, huh? Hahaha, good times!

Here is the sentence in question, from a 1977 issue of The New Yorker:

“It’s heartening to see that a restaurant in a national park is going to take the time to pan-fry some chicken,” I told Tom.

Whoa! Good thing that hyphen was there or I would’ve thought this guy was taking time to panfree some chicken and WHAT THE FUCK WHY WOULD I THINK THAT.

Incredibly, the hits keep on coming in the next paragraph:

The writer-editor Veronica Geng once physically restrained me from looking in the dictionary for the word “hairpiece,” because she was afraid that the dictionary would make it two words and that I would follow it blindly. As soon as she left the office, I did look it up, and it was two words, but I respected her word sense and left it alone. (p. 117)

Ok, now respect the word sense of writers who use(d) singular they.

And if you’re wondering why The New Yorker still writes “teen-ager”:

Not everyone at The New Yorker is devoted to the diaeresis [the two little dots that The New Yorker – and only The New Yorker – places over the word cooperate]. Some have wondered why it’s still hanging around. Style does change sometimes. […]

Lu Burke used to pester the style editor Hobie Weekes, who had been at the magazine since 1928, to get rid of the diaeresis. Like Mr. Hyphen, Lu was a modern independent-minded reader, and she didn’t need to have her vowels micromanaged. Once, in the elevator, Weekes seemed to be weakening. He told her he was on the verge of changing that style and would be sending out a memo soon. And then he died.

This was in 1978. No one has had the nerve to raise the subject since. (pp. 123–124)

Kee-rist, I’m surprised they don’t write “base-ball” and “to-morrow” and “bull-shit”.

A chapter about pencil sharpening. Seriously.

Chapter 10 (“Ballad of a Pencil Junkie”) is some sort of dime store pencil porn as Norris describes pencils in such detail that only an actual pencil would find it interesting. I kept thinking that I would rather have pencils in my eyes, but then I came across the best line in the entire book:

David Rees specializes in the artisanal sharpening of No. 2 pencils: for a fee (at first, it was fifteen dollars, but like everything else, the price of sharpening pencils has gone up), he will hand-sharpen your pencil and return it to you (along with the shavings), its point sheathed in vinyl tubing. (p. 182)



The New Yorker hardly needs help in showing people that it has a very tenuous grasp of English grammar [links to LangLog and Arnold Zwicky]. They demonstrate that in their pages whenever the topic of grammar comes up). Apparently, decades of publishing some of the greatest writers has not helped anyone at the magazine to learn how English grammar works. Unfortunately, Norris’s book does nothing to help The New Yorker’s reputation when it comes to grammar. On top of that, some of the stories she tells about working at The New Yorker are pretty horrifying. If you are able to separate or skip over the discussions of grammar, this book may be enjoyable for you. It’s an easy read, but I couldn’t force myself to like it.



* Not to mention Norris doesn’t even follow her own advice –

p. 15: “It is one of those words which defy the old “i before e except after c” rule”

p. 54: “The piece also had numbers in it – that is, numerals – which I instinctively didn’t touch”

And she quotes A. A. Milne doing it: “If the English language had been properly organized … there would be a word which meant both ‘he’ and ‘she’” (p. 64)

And Henry James: “Poor Catherine was conscious of her freshness; it gave her a feeling about the future which rather added to the weight upon her mind.” (p. 143)

And Mark Twain: “It was what I thought when I stood before ‘The Last Supper’ and heard men apostrophizing wonders and beauties and perfections which had faded out of the picture and gone a hundred years before they were born.” (pp. 147-48)

You could argue that these are all old/dead writers and that no one should write like that anymore, but again, The New Yorker magazine, as well as the author of Between You & Me, prefers to use a dictionary from 193fucking4.

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As the authors state in their foreword (pp. xii-xiii):

This book represents an attempt to defang the slang and crack the code. In writing this, we tried to think back to when we were new to Washington and wishing, like wandering tourists lost in a foreign city, that we had a handy all-in-one-place phrasebook.

I would say they have largely accomplished this. Dog Whistles, Walk-backs & Washington Handshakes is an up-to-date glossary of American political terms. I think that people interested in language and politics would find this book enjoying for a few reasons. First, the book is well referenced (always a plus). The authors are not trying to discover the first known use of some political code word, but rather to show that politicians from all sides use this type of language and that you are likely to come across it in tomorrow’s newspaper or news broadcast. So their references mostly come from very recent sources, which is refreshing. The foreword and introduction make nuanced points about language and slang, and the authors back up these points with references to reputable sources.

Dog Whistles has appeal for people who follow American politics, since although they are likely to already know some of the terms in here, they will probably find some they don’t know or haven’t thought about. That’s because the book isn’t just made up of eye-catching terms such as Overton window and San Fransisco values. Readers will appreciate the care that the authors have taken to explain each term. For example, here is the entry for the seemingly innocent term bold (p. 40):

Bold: A politician’s most common description of their own or their party’s proposals. It manages to be a punchy, optimistic-sounding break with conventional thinking and deliberately vague all at once.

Image copyright ForeEdge and University Press of New England

Image copyright ForeEdge and University Press of New England

But the book is not just for language and politics heads. In the introduction (p. ix), the authors recognize the problem that people who do not closely follow politics might have when reading about or listening to their representatives:

For most of the population – let’s call them “regular, normal people” – time spent listening to legislation, operatives, and journalists thrash over public policy on cable or a website can often result in something close to a fugue state, induced by the repeated use of words and phrases that have little if any connection to life as it is lived on planet Earth.

Later (p. 129), the authors explain the importance of their glossary by saying that:

Knowing the meanings of such specialized political terms can help cut through spin meant to obscure what’s really going on in a campaign. When politicians use the cliché, “The only poll that counts is the one on Election Day,” they really mean, “I wouldn’t win if the election were held today.”

I am all for educating people about the intricacies of language, especially when that means explaining the ways that politicians use words and phrases to trick people.
I am, however, not sure that all of the terms deserve being placed in this book. I feel like a glossary should include words that are at least nominally used by a group of people. But in their attempt to be current, the authors have included phrases such as hardship porn. This is a phrase coined by Frank Bruni of the New York Times and it only returns two hits on Google News – the July 2015 article in which Bruni coined it and an October 2015 book review in the Missoula Independent. However influential Frank Bruni is, this term has not caught on yet.

This is really nitpicking though (something us academics excel at, thankyouverymuch). I really found this book enjoyable. If you like politics, language, or both, you will probably enjoy it too. You can check out the interactive website here: http://dogwhistlebook.com/ and even suggest you own term.




McCutcheon, Chuck and David Mark. 2014. Dog Whistles, Walk-backs & Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech. ForeEdge: New Hampshire.

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I assumed that the term dynamic duo must come out of comics. Comic book creators have long been coming up with alliterative epithets for their characters. Superman is the “Big Blue Boy Scout”, Supergirl is the “Maid of Might”, Batman is the “Caped Crusader”, Silver Surfer is the “Sentinel of the Spaceways”, Flash is the “Scarlet Speedster”, Wonder Woman is the “Amazing Amazon”, Spider-man is spectacular, the Avengers are (also) amazing, and the Four are fantastic. You get the point.

But having been around the etymological block a few times, I know that everything in language is older than you think it is. So I thought the phrase dynamic duo might come out of some earlier work. Perhaps it was reappropriated by comic book authors to describe the Dark Knight and the Boy Wonder.

Various dictionaries, however, claim that dynamic duo comes from the famous 1960s Batman TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward, including NTC’s Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions by Richard Spears and the Dictionary of American Slang by Kipfer and Chapman. The Batman TV series premiered in 1966, or 25 years after Robin was created. I found it hard to believe that it would have taken writers that long to come up with dynamic duo, so I decided to dig a little deeper.

Using Google Books, I found a volume of the Michigan Alumnus which includes the phrase. This was written in 1954:

The Michigan Alumnus - Google Books - Dynamic duo_small

So dynamic duo predates the Batman TV show. But when was it first applied to Batman and Robin? For that we have to dive into the comics.

On October 31, 1940, DC Comics published a story called “The Case of the Joker’s Crime Circus” in BATMAN #4. The story was written by Bill Finger and featured Bob Kane, George Roussos and Jerry Robinson on art. On page 7, we see the first time Batman and Robin are referred to as the dynamic duo:


Of course, the term has moved out of the comics and can be applied to any “very special pair of people or things” (Spears 2000). And it may still be true that the Batman TV show is responsible for popularizing the term. But it warms my comic book loving heart to know that Bill Finger came up with dynamic duo.

Holy exciting etymology, Batman! It’s time to update our Bat-tionaries!





Spears, Richard. 2000. NTC’s Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions 3rd Edition. NTC Publishing Group: New York.http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2477414.NTC_s_Dictionary_of_American_Slang_and_Colloquial_Expressions

Kipfer, Barbara Ann and Robert L. Chapman. 2007. Dictionary of American Slang 4th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2417989.Dictionary_of_American_Slang

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James Gleick has a recent article in the New York Times about Autocorrect (“Auto Crrect Ths!” – Aug. 4, 2012), that bane of impatient texters and Tweeters everywhere. Besides recounting some of the more hilarious and embarrassing autocorrections made, he very poignantly tells how Autocorrect works and how it is advancing as computers get better at making predictions.

But in the second to last paragraph, he missteps. He writes:

One more thing to worry about: the better Autocorrect gets, the more we will come to rely on it. It’s happening already. People who yesterday unlearned arithmetic will soon forget how to spell. One by one we are outsourcing our mental functions to the global prosthetic brain.

I don’t know whether Mr. Gleick’s writing was the victim of an editor trying to save space, but that seems unlikely since there’s room on the internet for a bit of qualification, which is what could save these statements from being common cases of declinism. Let me explain.

“People who yesterday unlearned arithmetic” probably refers to the use of calculators. But I would hesitate to say that the power and ubiquity of modern calculators has caused people to unlearn arithmetic. Let’s take a simple equation such as 4 x 4. Anyone conducting such an equation on a calculator knows the arithmetic behind it. If they put it in and the answer comes back as 0 or 8 or 1 or even 20, they are more than likely to realize something went wrong, namely they pressed the minus or plus button instead of the multiplication button. Likewise they know the arithmetic behind 231 x 47.06.

Mr. Gleick writes implies that the efficiency of calculators has caused people to rely too much on them. But this is backwards. The more difficult that calculations get, the more arithmetical knowledge a user is likely to have. Relying on a machine to tell me the square root of 144 doesn’t necessarily mean I “unlearned” arithmetic. It only means that I trust the calculator to give me the correct answer to the equation I gave it. If I trust that I pressed the buttons in the right order, the answer I am given will be sufficient for me, even if I do not know how to work out the equation on pen and paper. I doubt any mathematicians out there are worried about “unlearning” arithmetic because of the power of their calculators. Rather, they’re probably more worried about how to enter the equations correctly. And just like I know 8 is not the answer to 4 x 4, they probably know x = 45 is not the answer to x2 + 2x – 4 = 0.

Taking the analogy to language, we see the same thing. Not being able to spell quixotic, but knowing that chaotic is not the word I’m looking for, does not mean that I have lost the ability to spell. It merely means that I have enough trust in my Autocorrect to suggest the correct word I’m looking for. If it throws something else at me, I’ll consult a dictionary.

If the Autocorrect cannot give me the correct word I’m looking for because it is a recent coinage, there may not be a standard spelling yet, in which case I am able to disregard any suggestions. I’ll spell the word as I want and trust the reader to understand it. Ya dig?

None of the infamous stories of Autocorrect turning normal language into gibberish involve someone who didn’t know how to spell. None of them end with someone pleading for the correct spelling of whatever word Autocorrect mangled. As Autocorrect gets better, people will just learn to trust its suggestions more with words that are difficult to spell. This doesn’t mean we have lost the ability to spell. Spelling in English is a tour de force in memorization because the spelling of English words is a notorious mess. If all I can remember is that the word I’m looking for has a q and an x in it, does it really mean I have unlearned how to spell or that I have just forgotten the exact spelling of quixotic and am willing to trust Autocorrect’s suggestion?

Learning arithmetic is learning a system. Once you know how 2 x 2 works, you can multiply any numbers. The English spelling system is nowhere near a system like arithmetic, so the analogy Mr. Gleick used doesn’t really work for this reason either. But there is one thing that spelling and arithmetic have in common when it comes to computers. Calculators and Autocorrect are only beneficial to those who already have at least a basic understanding of arithmetic and spelling. The advance of Autocorrect will have the same effect on people’s ability to spell as the advance of calculators did on people’s ability to do arithmetic, which was not really any at all.

By the way, I once looked up took (meaning the past tense of take) in a dictionary because after writing it I was sure that wasn’t the way to spell it. And that’s my memory getting worse, not my Autocorrect unlearning me.

[Update – Aug. 6, 2012] If our spelling really does go down the drain, it should at least make this kind of spelling bee more interesting (if only it were true).

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Over on Change.org, there is a petition to change the definition of marriage to “reflect the reality that there is only one kind of marriage — one between two loving adults, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

This petition highlights a few fascinating things about dictionaries and the power of lexicographers. There are, however, a few things to understand before we get into the harmless drudgery of what’s at stake here.

First, many dictionaries these days are written using a corpus, or a large data bank of texts. The words in the texts are tagged for their part of speech (noun, verb, etc.) to make the corpus more easily searchable. Lexicographers then use the corpora to not only help them define a word, but also (and this is key) to help them rank the different senses of each word’s definition. The more often a sense of a word is used, the higher it will be in the list. This is why Macmillan lists the “financial institution” sense of bank before the “raised area of land along the side of a river” sense.

That’s a very broad way to define what lexicographers do. If you want to know more, I recommend checking out Kory Stamper’s excellent blog, Harmless Drudgery. She is a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster and her posts are a joy to read. What’s important to know is that lexicographers try to be as impartial as possible and they use computers to help them with this. As Ms. Stamper notes in a post full of advice for budding lexicographers, “The number one rule of lexicography is you never, ever intentionally insert yourself into your defining. Your goal as a lexicographer is to write a definition that accurately and concisely conveys how a word is used without distracting the reader with humor.” Or, in this case, malice.

Second, the petition says that “Currently Dictionary.com has two separate definitions for the word marriage — one for heterosexual marriage, and one for same-sex marriage.” That’s not entirely true. Dictionary.com has at least ten definitions for marriage. What the petition is referencing is the two senses of the first definition of marriage. Here’s the screenshot:

Third, the definitions in Dictionary.com come from both “experienced lexicographers” and over fifteen “trusted and established sources including Random House and Harper Collins.” According to them, they are “the world’s largest and most authoritative online dictionary.”* The definition for marriage does not say which dictionary it is pulled from, so I think it’s safe to assume that the lexicographers at Dictionary.com wrote it. It doesn’t really matter, as this post is about lexicography as a whole.

Now that we have an idea about how dictionaries are written and what’s going on at Dictionary.com, we can see the curious nature of the petition. Dictionaries do not tell society how words are defined, rather, for the most part, it is the other way around. If you want to be pedantic about it, you could say that society and dictionaries inform each other. (Let’s not get into the whole prescriptive/descriptive nature and history of dictionary, ok?) So at first the petitioner would seem to be mistaken.

And yet, he has a point. Here’s why.

The difference between a male/female marriage and a male/male or female/female marriage is just that: plus or minus a few letters on either side of the slash mark. No dictionary would list separate senses for marriages between Caucasians and African-Americans or for those between a blue-eyed and green-eyed people, so why bother splitting the definition in terms of gender?

There is also the fact that dictionaries do have some authority. People could defend what’s currently in Dictionary.com’s definition of marriage by saying that it merely reflects the lexicographers’ research into how the word is used (which may be based on a corpus). But with over 100,000 signatures on the petition, dictionaries clearly mean more to people than just a reflection of how we use words. In fact, Stephen Colbert – no stranger to defining words – mentioned this issue on his show in 2009 when he noted that Merriam-Webster’s had included the “same-sex” sense of marriage in a 2003 update to its dictionary. When lexicographers define words, people notice (after six years).

On the other hand, 100,000 speakers of English equates to anywhere from 0.03% to 0.005% of the total population of English speakers worldwide (wildly speculative numbers based on Ethnologue’s estimate of primary speakers to Britannica’s estimate of total speakers). Either way, that’s nowhere near a majority. We should be happy the “same-sex” version of marriage is in there at all.

And then there’s the fact that native speakers do not need a dictionary to define marriage for them. If I told another native speaker over the age of fourteen that Adam and Steve got married, they would understand what I meant and, depending on their political bent, view this as, well, however they wanted to.

But this points out the dilemma that lexicographers face. In my mind, putting the “same-sex” sense of marriage second does not amount to a “brush off” or “blurb” as the petition would have us believe. I wouldn’t accuse lexicographers of doing either for any word in a dictionary, but I would assume they had a good reason to separate the two meanings; namely, the separate but similar (not equal) uses of the word. And yet, some people would take offense because the state of marriage right now is a hot button issue in the United States. Lexicographers are like referees in at least one way: someone is always going to hate them.

The lexicographers for Dictionary.com were most likely well aware that some people may take offense to how they defined marriage, but what were they supposed to do?

Here’s how some other dictionaries handled marriage:

    Macmillan left gender out of the definition, saying just “the relationship between two people who are husband and wife.”

    Merriam-Webster is in the same boat as Dictionary.com, separating the senses in a very similar way.

    The American Heritage Dictionary included the “same-sex” sense in the first sense with an explanation of it being only “in some jurisdictions”

    Oxford English Dictionary included a note to how the term is “sometimes used” today (screen shot below, since it’s behind a pay wall):

Would any of these satisfy everyone? More importantly, do we really want our lexicographers using politics to define words? Haven’t they got enough on their desks already?

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Collins Dictionary defines marriage in the first sense as “the state of being married; relation between spouses; married life; wedlock; matrimony.” It makes you wonder why Dictionary.com didn’t didn’t use that definition and call it a day.




*My apologies to the lexicographers and word smiths who just spit their drink all over their computer screen. That “most authoritative” part was apparently not a joke. Now, let’s all pick our jaws up off the floor and go back up to where we were.

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Besides being a great song on a great album (Leave Home), “Suzy is a Headbanger” by the Ramones also has a very interesting line:

Suzy is a headbanger,
Her mother is a geek.

These lyrics puzzled me because they didn’t really make any sense. It wasn’t until I read the term “feed the geek” in Babel No More by Michael Erard (review forthcoming) that I decided to look into it. It turns out, the reason the lyrics didn’t make sense to me was because I was thinking of geek in its contemporary sense, the one Macmillan defines as “n. Someone who is boring, especially because they seem to be interested only in computers.” Even more recently, as we all know, the term has become to mean something like enthusiast or to describe a particular way of practicing some activity (as in geek sex). But since “Suzy” was written around 1976, those are obviously not the intended meanings.

The problem is, I’m having a hard time believing that Joey Ramone meant the other, older sense of the word. I looked at multiple dictionaries, but all of them basically defined this sense as “n. A carnival performer whose show consists of bizarre acts, such as biting the head off a live chicken.” Mmm! Mothers bring your daughters, fathers brings your sons!

So what’s going on? Did he really mean to sing geek? If he didn’t mean that Suzy’s mom is a circus freak and he couldn’t have meant that she’s a computer nerd, what did he mean? The song obviously portrays Suzy in a positive light, so was he doing something like Bob Dylan did in his song “Ballad of a Thin Man” and questioning what we think of as normalcy?

You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel
To be such a freak ?”
And you say, “Impossible”
As he hands you a bone.

– Bob Dylan, Ballad of the Thin Man

Or did geek have a meaning specific to punks in New York (or punks anywhere) in the 1970s?

There was a 70s Australian punk band in Perth called the Geeks, but knowing what I know about punk rockers, they tend to relish in classifying themselves as the outcasts. It’s a way to welcome someone in and strengthen group identity (The Ramones chant, “Gabba! Gabba! We accept you, we accept you! One of us!” perfectly encapsulates this notion). So were they saying that Suzy’s mom was one of them?

Besides the Perth band, I couldn’t find any connection of geek to the 1970s punk rock scene, so I decided to look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English. If geek was being used by the punks in the 70s, I assumed it was also being used by at least the music journalists as well. I just hoped it was being used in the same way. There were two hits for “geek.[nn1]” in the 1970s, both being the carnival kind of geek. The 1980s is where things start to change since there are five hits – two carnival geeks, two nerd geeks, and one I’m not really sure of (it’s hard to tell from the bit context). After that, the usage really takes off with thirty-three hits in the 1990s and 104 hits in the 2000s.

This still hasn’t answered my question, however. Certainly another word besides geek would fit there just as easily, especially if you’re rhyming it with “ooh ooh wee.” But there’s the catch. I want to conclude that Joey was speaking positively of Suzy’s mother, but that’s not realistic. Joey was most likely using geek to describe a disapproving mother.

Wordnik, which is a great site, lists one definition of geek as “n. An unfashionable or socially undesirable person.” Today there might be wide agreement on which type of person is a geek (because we’re all so cool, you know, man?), but what’s interesting is that in “Suzy is a Headbanger” we have a counter-culture band, who by no means owned the majority stake of Cool, using geek to insult a member of another group. But the reason he’s doing so is that he sees Suzy’s mother as being judgmental, which is not a trait often attributed to geeks. So there’s a disconnect between the connotations of the two meanings of geek, which suggests the term was in flux. Notice also that insulting someone else by calling them a geek is simultaneously an attempt to prove one’s cool, but that’s beside the point.

I think geek is a great case of how quickly words can change their meanings, something linguistics call “semantic shift.” It’s also a simple example of what linguistics mean when they say, “We’re not sure.” Words are tricky things to pin down, especially when they are ones that are used infrequently. Add to that someone using the word in a novel way (or at least with a slightly different meaning) and things get even trickier. Had Joey’s meaning taken off, we might today be using geek to describe older people who disapprove of the younger generation’s activities. Geek then would have a decidedly uncool meaning. Instead, being a geek is an aspiration since it means not only enthusiasm, but knowledge and mastership of a certain area. The success of this meaning of geek, of course, is obviously due to the success of computers and the success of geek as an adjective to be applied to any and all activities. In this way, later in Babel No More, Michael Erard can write, “Indeed, boasting about the languages one has studied or can speak is a display of geek machismo,” and everyone understands the meaning.

As a side note, for those interested in linguistics, semantic shift, or the etymology of contemptuous words, I recommend checking out Slate.com’s new podcast Lexicon Valley. They have two episodes and both are excellent. What’s even better, and even more pertinent to this article, is that in the second episode, entitled “The Other F-Word,” you get to hear linguist Arnold Zwicky reference Pansy Division. What a headbanger.

[Update – July 24, 2012] The Oxford Dictionaries blog has written twice about geek. The most recent post compares the collocates of geek to nerd in their corpus, while the older post explains the transformation in the meaning of geek. Sadly, there is no mention of the Ramones. Maybe it’s time for them to update their corpus?

Here are the posts:
Embrace Your Geekness – July 13, 2012
Are You Calling Me a Geek? Why, *Thank You* – March 4, 2011




*These are a few of my favorite things.

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The American Heritage Dictionary has a very cool site which “invites you to create a self-portrait using your words.” It’s called You Are Your Words and what you do is upload a picture, then a document (or link to Twitter or Facebook), and the site will turn your picture in something like this:

Pretty cool, huh? I am totes setting this as my new gravatar (I was getting tired of that stuffed horse anyways.*)

Before you get started, a few words to the wise. First, the final step allows you to choose a color, font, and contrast. These things matter in making your picture look right, so take your time playing around with them. I could only get the black text on white background to work, but maybe that was because of the photo. Also, for me, the texts that worked best were Marker and One Days.

Second, this site is kind of addictive, so have fun not getting any work done today.

By the way, the text I used was my earlier post, “Introducing the Ancient Healing Art of Japanese Eyeball Poking.” It was my wife’s suggestion. She said it reflects who I am because I’m stupid. So I added that to the text. Thanks, honey.

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