Archive | May, 2014

You can almost look it up

28 May

So “adorkable”* hasn’t quite made the dictionary yet. Nor has “vaguebooking”**. But if you’re worried about that, you can go and vote for their inclusion now at Collins’s new social media initiative, #twictionary. Quickly – last day today.

The idea that lexicographical decisions might be put to public approval is a striking one. As points out, a Twitter-based “vote” for new entries into a major British-English dictionary is obviously vulnerable to pranks and ballot-stuffing. Collins is offering a controlled shortlist of entries rather than inviting open submissions, but even so, the risks are obvious. It is, to say the least, controversial.

But then, new entries into the dictionary always are. Every year, it seems, lexicographers publicise a fresh crop of approved neologisms, to the delight of the media and the anger of traditionalists, and the always-simmering debate over what’s happening to the language boils up again.

Sticklers rage against what they see to be an abdication of judgment in the face of faddishness. Lexicographers defend their position robustly. Dictionaries, they explain, record language rather than defining it: those who compile them are not authority figures or controversialists, just messengers. As Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster writes:

“A reporter suggested this week that adding new words like selfie might be a pitch for the young and the hip – but why not assume instead that such words are entered for the benefit of those people who have never used them? Our target demographic includes all speakers of English.”

But behind the harrumphing grammarians on one side and the (sometimes inflammatory) publicity from dictionary publishers on the other, the debate does reveal an awkward truth about the nature of dictionary lexicography: that it can never be quite as flexible as the language it seeks to describe.

Tom Freeman, The Stroppy Editor, writes approvingly about the American usage guru Bryan Garner’s language change index. As words come, go and mutate, Garner records their acceptability for formal or informal use on a five-point sliding scale, from 1 (Rejected) to 5 (Accepted). On their way up and down the scale, words move through stages 2 (Widely Shunned), 3 (Widespread, But …) and 4 (Ubiquitous, But …). As a system, it’s not without faults. But it does, as The Stroppy Editor says, represent a truth about language change: that it fluctuates; that it progresses slowly over time; that a lot of words hover for years in the awkward border zone between formality and informality.

Dictionaries don’t represent that truth so well. Being “in the dictionary” is a binary state: you’re either in or you’re out. There is no sliding scale. Once an entry is inserted, of course it can be noted as “informal”, “vulgar”, “chiefly US” – anything to indicate qualified acceptability. But when a new word makes its debut, the fact remains that it’s now in the dictionary, and last year it wasn’t. Whether it happens through statistical weight of usage or simply a preference for novelty, it’s hard not to perceive that moment as a watershed.

Garner’s index has no watersheds: all five transitions are gentle. Dictionaries can never emulate it; when it comes to new words, they must put up with being perceived as having jumped straight from stage 1 to stage 5 (even if, perhaps, all they have done is jump from stage 3 to stage 4). The all-or-nothing nature of dictionary inclusion enhances the illusion of endorsement, and it’s that illusion that sets the pitchforks waving.

So maybe that’s the reason Collins has decided to turn to social media?  If you’re going to take the plunge, it might soothe the critics if you can point out that you asked for a show of hands first.

 * Socially awkward in an endearing way

** Posting worrying but cryptic status updates on Facebook as a strategy to gain attention



The robots are coming

8 May

I wish I had the nerve to talk like this to the newsdesk:

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If you’ve ever tried submitting anything to the Internet Movie Database, you may recognise this tone. IMDb is a wiki – that is, an aggregation of user contributions – but it has achieved the status of  a semi-official reference tool at the Tribune, much more so than Wikipedia ever will. And I think that may be because of its fearsome army of robot editors, which intercept and scan everything you submit, and more often than not sling it back like Jason Robards growling “You haven’t got it” to Redford and Hoffman.

No diffident pencilled queries in the margin for IMDb: for example, if you have a couple of pieces of casting information you want to add to a TV show, you’d better have chapter and verse to hand.

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So you say this person was in the show? Here are a list of actors with similar names: it’s easy to get confused. If you’re uncertain, click here and we’ll sort it out for you. Or perhaps you’d just like to give up the whole idea? Choose an option, please. (And by the way, you formatted the request wrongly. It has already been corrected: this is merely a notification.)

That’s the spirit. And if you submit anything as ambitious as a three-line episode summary, you get pulled apart like a rookie screenwriter at a pitch meeting:

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There are misspellings. You have written too much: if you insist on overfiling, we will simply move your piece to a different slot inside the site (delicious). And, my favourite bit of all:

“The following fixes have been applied automatically: ‘…’ has been replaced with ‘.’ in accordance with IMDb rules.”

No judicious exceptions, no stretching a point. Ellipses are just banned, rather like the way all semicolons were excised for some years on the Tribune’s sport section. It’s a rule. And I suspect that “surveilling”, even if spelt correctly, will turn out  to be “not in the dictionary”. I’ll just change it now. They won’t like it.

For the first time in my life, I feel like a writer.


Back your claim

1 May

Paid millions“! That’s interesting:

Picture 53

A huge appearance fee for a reclusive star in an advert largely made up of silence or verbal nonsense: that’s a good light story (or piece of “Joy/Culture”, as the Tribune newslist terms it) for the entertainment page.

Of course, “paid millions” is in quotes, so it’s only a claim and not absolutely definitive, but let’s see what the Hollywood pundit being quoted has to say:

Given his box office pulling power, it’s thought that Oldman would’ve received a handsome fee for his contribution to the project, which is likely one of his easier roles.

And – that’s it. That’s all there is. You can hunt all through the article, but there is no external source for the claim in the headline at all. No third party has offered any view on what it might cost to get Oldman as a spokesman. “It’s thought” means “it’s thought by the reporter who wrote the story”.

Claim quotes are a distinctly British convention whose use is not universally understood in other news cultures so, to be clear – no. This is not what claim quotes are for.  Claim quotes indicate the presence in a story of a newsworthy assertion made by a third party about which the news organisation is reserving judgment. They are not “scare quotes”, used to draw attention to new, unusual or significant phrases. They are not “I give up” quotes, used for indicating a headline writer’s dissatisfaction with his or her own choice of words.  They are not “guess quotes”, used to shamefacedly hint at unsupported speculation. They are for claims. Specifically, claims made by somebody else.

Heaven knows, if you must write the story this way,  it’s not that difficult to do it properly. The bar for claim quotes is not very high. Just phone up any showbiz contact at all – actor, agent, ad executive, or even another media journalist – and invite them to speculate. “What do you think they had to pay Oldman to get him to do this?” “Well, hard to say.” “It could easily have been millions, though, right?” “Yes, I suppose it could.” And there you have your claim: “Oldman’s fee could easily have been millions, according to a leading advertising executive who wished to remain anonymous.”

It’s not exactly going to win a Pulitzer, but it passes the first, basic legitimacy test. If a journalist’s sources are presented honestly, for better or worse, readers are happy to make their own judgment about the strength of the story and credit it more or less accordingly. But if you’re going to speculate about likely news angles arising out of the known facts, you have to run it past someone else first. You can’t be your own source. And you certainly can’t quote yourself in your own headlines.

With thanks to the Memphis bureau, who spotted this one from across the Atlantic