By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The popular online resource Dictionary.com just made a huge update, NPR reported. The bulk of the change involved making amendments to existing terms, rather than adding new ones. The role of the dictionary is still hotly contested.
According to NPR, a significant amount of data on Dictionary.com has undergone some renovation. “The digital dictionary announced […] that it updated more than 15,000 entries and added 650 brand-new terms,” the article said. “Many of the revisions deal with language related to identity and topics like race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and health and wellness. It has also updated the entry for ‘addict’ to begin with ‘a person addicted to’ or ‘a habitual user of,’ and made similar tweaks to the definition of ‘alcoholic.'”
The meaning of the terms used in a language is usually a delicate issue for most people, and deciding which definitions should apply to each word is even more delicate. Dictionaries are both descriptive and prescriptive.
The Duality of Dictionaries
What does it mean for a dictionary to be descriptive and prescriptive?
“Prescriptivism, coming from the verb prescribe, is about telling people how they should use language; the do’s and don’t’s of language,” said Dr. Anne Curzan, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. “Descriptivism, from describe, is the process of describing how people actually use the language.”
Dr. Curzan said that linguists often see their jobs as fundamentally descriptive, in that they want to see and study how language works as a human phenomenon. Lexicographers—people who build dictionaries—also see their jobs as descriptive, although they’re also keenly aware that people often open dictionaries to see if they’ll be judged for using a certain word, much less using it in a certain way. In that sense, there’s a prescriptive element to lexicography as well.
“I don’t want to dismiss prescriptivism as something that’s unnatural to the use of language, and sometimes linguists are criticized for doing that. They’ll say descriptivism is the study of language, and then there’s prescriptivism over here, telling people what they should and shouldn’t do,” she said. “Prescriptivism can make people feel really anxious, though, or it can make them [think about how they] feel about their language or the way they use language.”
One frequent point of contention in public discourse relates to whether or not something is a “real” word. Sooner or later, someone decides it would be best to “look it up in the dictionary.”
“In the case of dictionaries, our [assumption that they are] at least partly prescriptive rather than fully descriptive puts dictionary makers in a difficult spot,” Dr. Curzan said. “They’re trying to track what we do and include that in the dictionary.
“Sometimes, though, people get really upset that they’re including ‘illegitimate’ words—words that people understand but maybe they don’t like them or they don’t respect them.”
Dr. Curzan said that dictionary makers often label these types of words as “irregular,” “slang,” “colloquial,” and so on. People take some of these labels very seriously, while others bristle at a word’s inclusion in the dictionary even with a label attached. One famous example occurred when Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged included the word “ain’t” in the early 1960s.
“The dictionary was slammed as being overly permissive, as accelerating the deterioration of the English language; and I’m pretty much quoting from newspaper coverage when I say that,” she said. “The treatment of ‘ain’t’ came under particular scrutiny and people said, ‘It shows approval for the mediocre and comforts the ignorant.’ These comments reveal many people’s expectations that dictionaries won’t just record the language but also exercise judgment—that they’ll ‘set standards’ for the language.”
We all have different beliefs regarding the purpose of a dictionary. Is its purpose to tell us how language is popularly used or how it should be used, that is, whether it should be descriptive or prescriptive, respectively? Keeping those opinions in mind is part of the job for lexicographers, and as the recent update to Dictionary.com shows, language remains both fluid and hotly contested.
Dr. Anne Curzan contributed to this article. Dr. Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a BA in Linguistics from Yale University and an MA and a PhD in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan.