Below the Beltway

Gene Weingarten
Sunday, April 22, 2001

I recently wrote a list of my personal grievances against the human race, including "idiots who say Feb-you-erry." An alert copy editor at The Washington Post deleted this line, pointing out that according to the dictionary, Feb-you-erry was now an accepted pronunciation. Sure enough, he was right. Sometime in the last few years, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary decided that this particular befouling of the English language was okay.

This was not my first such disappointment. I discovered not long ago that after years of misuse by the ignorant, dictionaries had caved in and were now defining "infer" to be a synonym of "imply," a word that is essentially its opposite. But this Febyouerry thing was too much.

So I called Frederick Mish, the editor of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Mish is a giant of American lexicography, and I did not wish to offend him, so I phrased my question delicately: "What the hell are you doing to the English language, sir, and why should you not be thrashed to within an inch of your life?"

"We are doing nothing to the language," Mish said. "We don't make it happen. We are recording what you are doing to the language."

Then he said something that, if commonly known, would basically reduce every game of Scrabble to a fistfight: A dictionary cannot be used as an authority on proper spelling or word usage. It is simply a record of what people are saying.

"We don't see ourselves holding the line or defending the gates against barbarians."

To me, the dictionary is a friendly old neighborhood; in my youth, I used to wander it for fun. Now I was leafing through it again, only to discover that barbarians had trashed the place. Arctic can be pronounced "artic." Library can be pronounced "liberry."

In some of these cases, the dictionary notes that it is a disputed or controversial pronunciation, but that's like that fine-print warning on a pack of cigarettes. Not a serious deterrent.

The next thing you know, I said to Mish, your dictionary will decide to include the pronunciation "pronounciation."

I heard him flipping pages.

"Well, actually . . ." he said.


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