The Breakfast Table

Dueling Dictionaries

Dear Dennis,

I may have spoken too soon in my earlier message. After I wrote it I went back and finished the William Gass piece and found a curious volte-face near the end: “I have rarely paged through one of my dictionaries (a decent household will have a dozen) without my eye lighting, along the way, on words more beautiful than a found fall leaf …”

So he does appreciate dictionaries after all, even if he somehow thinks that they simply spring into existence with no help from editors.

You are of course right that people who use things, be they books or kitchens, have a real stake in how they decide to use them. The poor ink-stained wretches working in the new Condé Nast building in New York know that the building is an architectural disaster, and Herbert Muschamp’s glowing review of it in the Times won’t change that. But it would be nice if a user’s needs coincided with the expressed purpose of an item. Thus even if dictionaries were used chiefly as booster seats, it would behoove a reviewer to address their real purpose. An office building that functions poorly as an office building but looks impressive should be criticized, just as a dictionary that has impressive photos and presses flowers well but has poor definitions and etymologies should be criticized.

Speaking of criticizing dictionaries, it seems we have a difference of opinion about the Encarta dictionary. For once the newspapers got things right, and largely because they bothered to call lexicographers for opinions. This wasn’t a case of misinterpretation–the book has very severe problems, which were barely touched on even in the harsher newspaper reviews (which, in any event, are unlikely to have much effect on Encarta’s sales). I’m very fond of Anne Soukhanov, professionally and personally, but I think she realizes the flaws of the work. Still, the book is another one out there without “Webster’s” in the title! You’re quite correct that most people view that word as a generic for “dictionary” (although it is defined in at least one–I put the definition in the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary a few years back). There are no trademark worries–the Supreme Court ruled that “Webster” was generic as far back as 1911–but there are real marketing concerns. On the one hand, many people think that “Webster” means “dictionary,” and thus any good dictionary must have “Webster” in the title. On the other, you want to differentiate your dictionary from your similarly named competitors. Nothing is more frustrating than spending an hour on the phone with a journalist and then seeing an article with your competitor’s name in place of your own.

I’d very much like to talk about the implications of new technologies on the study of language, but right now I have to run–my 5-week-old daughter needs some attention. I’ll try to get in an extra message tonight.

Till then,