Look it up in the Dictionary

(Warning: the following blog contains colourful language.)

‘Look it up in the dictionary!’

We’ve all said it. We’ve all done it. But have we ever really considered this act in all its lunacy? How is the dictionary the umpire in fights between people deciding on how to use ‘hopefully’ or ‘all right’ and ‘alright’?

It seems like somewhat of a copout to say that just because someone didn’t write it in the big English instruction manual you can’t do it or it doesn’t exist. That would be like saying you can’t use condoms as water balloons because it’s not written on the packet. I mean, you can perfectly well, most people won’t know until it smacks them in the face, and you will be discouraged from talking to children. But you can do it perfectly well. Throughout every level of education, we are constantly told to unbiasedly dissect each text or argument, except dictionaries. Isn’t that kind of fucked? Is the Dictionary, in fact, the new bible of traditionalists with a Costco sized chip on their shoulder? Who writes that shit anyway? Does the ghost of English present experience divine conception once a year and lay each new revised edition of the Merriam-Webster, Macquarie, and Cambridge dictionaries? Obviously, dictionaries are written by people, but by whom? Are they, like, princes or something?

Take a look at my personal favourite, the Oxford English Dictionary. It was mainly written by an English professor (which one might expect) and an American who sent his contributions from a lunatic asylum because he shot a man while also having delusions that he was being abducted, taken to Turkey, and forced to sexually assault children (be honest, that was a tad unexpected). Despite W.C. Minor’s batshittedness, he was tremendously clever, don’t get me wrong, but he was just one of these people who decided what everything meant and how to use it based on the text corpus at the time. Dictionary editors do this even now.

It’s a hard-not-life for a dictionary editor because they have to choose if a word is going to stay (like bailout as a noun, added 2008-2009) or fall from common usage (like getting jiggy, added fucking NEVER). Most dictionary editors are actually very open-minded when it comes to new words. They love to find out about new words, search to see how often they are used, and monitor them from the bushes like Angelina Jolie creepily watching Elle Fanning grow up in Maleficent. In fact, it has been proven that the less one knows about linguistics/languages and the more random debris retained up their anus the more inclined one is to grammar-nazism/word-traditionalism (citation required).

Why should ‘hashtag’, ‘friend’ (as a verb), and ‘YOLO’ be any less of a word just because some ancient British twat didn’t write it in his plays or sonnets? (I actually love Shakespeare. It’s all said from a place of love, I swear.) As a translator and linguistics lecturer, I love nothing more than to learn a new word or way to use an old word. I think it requires a tremendous amount of courage, creativity, and poise to come up with words like ‘gentleman sausage’ as a word for ‘penis’ and verbifying ‘pluto’ meaning ‘to downgrade or devalue something’. That’s clever! By using these words, we show our adaptability, our love of the language, our wonder at this absolutely awe-inspiring language we use without thinking everyday. Rather than reeling ourselves back in with the dictionary we should see it for what it is; it is a delayed compendium or journal of our living language, written by fallible humans just trying to keep up. As a result, it will always lag behind. By using words not in the dictionary or in a way that is not listed in the dictionary, we in no way pluto other esteemed words in the dictionary, so CTFO.

By Blair

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