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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.

Auuggggggh.

Mish's argument is, essentially, that the English language is susceptible to change every time something enters the vernacular through frequent use; in effect, every yabbo out there has the power to rewrite the language of Shakespeare and Twain. I didn't buy it. So I telephoned Mish's main competitor, Michael Agnes, who edits the Webster's New World Dictionary.

Same result.

"We do not make pronouncements ex cathedra1," he said. "Just as The Washington Post reports crimes, we must evenhandedly report linguistic crimes."

Now he was going too far, bashing my employer. Still, it turns out, even The Post is at the mercy of the dictionary. And so it is that I grabbed that very day's newspaper, where, on the front page, I found this quote from a man who had just witnessed privation in Africa: "I was literally torn apart."

He was literally torn apart? As by lions? Yes, this, too, is now accepted. It's in Agnes's dictionary. Literally may now be used to mean figuratively, which is roughly as accurate as if "happy" were defined as "sad."

What else do these guys have in store for us? What charming new definitions or pronunciations will be countenanced?

Will "piz-ghetti" be okay?

(I checked. It hasn't happened. Yet.)

Agnes found my consternation amusing. Dictionary people aren't really bothered by this sort of thing. They are apparently too busy entertaining themselves by being adorable. "For years, zymurgy was the last word in the dictionary," Agnes reported. "I am happy to say that under my vaunted aegis, with full agreement of my editorial staff, we added 'zzz,' used to suggest the sound of snoring."

Mish and Agnes are unrepentant. "We are a decoding tool," Agnes said mildly. "If people are going to use the word 'irregardless' and others go to the dictionary to find out what it means, we're not helping them if we don't have it in there."

Yeah, yeah. That famous non-word, a favorite of the yabbos, is in there, too.

This gave me an idea. "Irregardless" illustrates that the yabbos can not only corrupt existing words, but also can invent words that will then become a part of the lexicon through frequent use. Frequent use is the key: Mish and Agnes are particularly influenced when these things start finding their way into print, in major American publications such as The Washington Post. Then, by their own arguments, they have no choice but to put them in their books.

So maybe there is a way to hoist these fellers on their own petards2 and, at the same time, have our revenge on all those agneses3 out there who insist on mishing4 up the language.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com.

1. ex cathedra, adv., with the authority that comes from one's rank or office.

2. hoist on one's own petard, adj., destroyed by the very devices with which one meant to destroy others.

3. agnes, n., a person who uses words incorrectly; usu. disparaging.

4. mish, v. to use a word incorrectly until, tragically, this misuse becomes acceptable.

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