The Breakfast Table

Everyone’s an Expert …

Dear Dennis,

Forgive me if I don’t have much spring in my step this morning. I was just reading the new issue of Harper’s, and started a piece by William Gass in appreciation of the printed book. He makes the usual comments about how wonderful books are, and how an ideal home would have walls full of books, and then I got to this: “Every real book (as opposed to dictionaries, almanacs, and other compilations) is a mind, an imagination, a consciousness.”

Sigh. As a dictionary editor, it is frustrating enough to be thought to be producing interchangeable and useless material, but for a respected writer to regard dictionaries as mere compilations with no mind or imagination behind them is especially bad.

Your user-vs.-expert situation is right on target here. It’s not just my experience; it’s pretty much universal that language is thought to be a subject that anyone can comment on because everyone uses it. Unlike math, medicine, or even some sports, which require deep knowledge to approach, language is wide open. Everyone has a pet peeve, be it a misused word, an unusual pronunciation, or what have you.

For lexicographers, this manifests itself most annoyingly in the poor state of dictionary reviewing. Most new dictionaries are not reviewed in the mainstream press, and even when they are, they are not reviewed by linguists or lexicographers. They are reviewed by writers, on the grounds that people who use the language professionally must be qualified to critique books devoted to it.

As Sidney Landau points out in his excellent book Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography, this is much like assuming that anyone who lives in a house is qualified to be an architecture critic. The result is that when dictionaries are discussed in the press, only the most superficial issues are given attention–the novelty of the new words entered, the number of usage notes, the number of illustrations. Important considerations, such as the quality of the definitions, are ignored. And those writing dictionaries are encouraged by their marketing departments to add ever more flashy features to give the press something to focus on.

I find that much of the time users have a very strong sense of what they like and dislike in language and are unwilling to let any so-called experts influence them. Nor would I necessarily want to; a person’s aesthetic sense is not to be tossed away lightly. But I do wish that they would at least consider what we have to say, since they might learn something on occasion.

Perhaps Mr. Gass, whose own vocabulary is so rich, could also still learn that dictionaries are more than dull compilations. They are even, sometimes, “real books.”