If you were looking for snark, the official Twitter feed of a major American-English dictionary might not be the first place you’d look. But, oh boy.
A few days ago, Gabriel Roth of Slate unwisely allowed his inner prescriptivist out for an airing after reading the following tweet from Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Articulating the silent twinge that many editors and writers feel at the sight of descriptivism in action, he wrote:
And then unexpectedly this reply, from the dictionary itself, appeared:
Ouch. Owned. Or – to use the correct spelling of the word in this context – “pwned“. As a rueful Roth wrote later, “I find myself wistfully remembering the days when tweeting at brands was a safe, innocuous pastime”. And other responses to M-W’s intervention have been broadly favourable: the tweet was rude, yes, commenters thought, but also uncompromisingly truthful about the ineluctable nature of language change.
However, scrolling down through M-W’s Twitter feed, it emerges that this is not the only time it’s taken a bold line in such matters. Five days earlier, in similarly lively terms, it made the following observation:
Well, hang on. Yes, “enormity” can indeed mean “great size”, and has done for centuries. But, no, it’s not “fine”: currently, as a word, it’s totally skunked. As we discussed last month, “enormity” is hovering uneasily on the brink of a permanent change in meaning, but is still tending to drag its other meaning of “moral horror” into simple discussions about size. It’s a very tricky word to be employing at the moment; a while ago, for example, we saw fit to remove it from a news story about the heated subject of the Scottish referendum because of its overtone of opprobrium. It’s far from clear that, in these circumstances, a major dictionary should be recommending it quite so breezily. Authorities are looked up to; these things get taken seriously.
As this blog has had occasion to remark before, people don’t require help with informal English. They speak it well. They do not seek the assistance of their editor friends when composing a tweet or posting on Instagram; but they do, sometimes, when updating their CV or writing to a solicitor. What they want is help with formal English: a register whose social significance they grasp, but one in which they perceive themselves not to be fluent.
This is when they turn to the dictionary: to be briefed on the meaning of a legal idiom, or the appropriate use of a word in their own reply: to find out, perhaps, whether “enormity” means what they think it means. But they are doing this at a time where one of the prime objectives of linguistics is the debunking of the prescriptive maxims about language that have been taught during last two centuries. An unsatisfactory dialogue has therefore developed between linguists and the public in which queries about the niceties of formal English are met only with assurances about the validity of informal English. For the last several decades, it seems, lexicographers have been talking about what’s changed in the language while their readers have been asking about what hasn’t.
The spirit behind this objective is democratic to a fault, and the efforts to expose the frailties of formal English are intellectually impeccable. But nonetheless, they are starting to amount to the total deconstruction of a dialect that many people still have no choice but to speak.
The ghosts of Fowler, Strunk and White still haunt the sphere of formal discourse. It is highly commendable that more modern authorities like Merriam-Webster should be getting involved in the conversation about usage. But burning a grumpy prescriptivist on Twitter? Waving off debate about a word in difficult transition? That isn’t advice; it’s advocacy. Roth is right: counsel as blasé as this is just a little too chill for comfort.