The war on language is metastasizing.
In England it's got so bad that the British Broadcasting people went to the Oxford English Dictionary people the other day and said, "For heaven's sake, can't you do something about 'hopefully'?"
That's like asking Euclid to straighten out the rhombus.
"People become upset about words," observed Joyce Hawkins, the distinguished lexicographer who helped edit the new Oxford American Dictionary. She went on a call-in show during her stay in Washington, and the board was still lit up long after she went off the air.
"It's too bad," she said yesterday, "when a good precise word like 'refute' is used in the general sense of 'reject.' One loses something useful. 'Disinterested' is another: It means unbiased, primarily, but so often it's used simply to mean 'uninterested.'"
She thinks about words the way some people think about food. When she's watching the telly she always keeps a stack of index cards close by so she can jot down an interesting new use of pronunciation of a word. Part of her job as editor of the Oxford American was to read all the works of P. G. Wodehouse, the great comic novelist who gave America the English country house weekend. "He's a marvelous source of evidence because he really did speak both English and American. Oh, there are many Wodehouse references in the Oxford."
References are one great strength of the fabled OED, the 12-volume, 414,825-word dictionary that has been called the greatest scholarly achievement of all time. With references you write a dictionary: collect millions, tons, of index cards, each with a word and a quoted reference showing how it was used. Then put them all together.
It took James Murray and others 28 years, starting in 1878, to put together the OED. They spent six years getting from A to Ant in 352 pages. A generation later an assistant, Henry Bradley, won a certain fame for completing his brilliant 23-page definition of the word "set." As each volume was published it was accepted eagerly into English scholarly, legal and publishing circles.
There are now four supplementary volumes in the making, the third due out next year. Hawkins -- who first attracted attention by compiling a Greek dictionary after graduating from Oxford -- spent nine years on the supplements. She knows her way around the whole Oxford family: the OED and supplements, the Shorter (two volumes), the Concise, its little brother the Pocket, the new Little, the Mini, the encyclopedic Illustrated and the Paperback.
But it's the American, or OAD, that interests her most right now. A London Times Literary Supplement critic takes it over the jumps for its lack of etymologies and for such cursory definitions as "man who seeks the company of women for sexual purposes" for "womanizer," which misses the point, really.
On the other hand, there is OAD's lovely "concave": "curving like the surface of a ball as seen from the inside." The third dimension scorns the second. Sometime try defining a circular staircase without using your hands.
Hawkins defends the book passionately."You have to think about the purpose of a dictionary," she said. "Now, the Concise (in the same ballpark as OAD with 1,360 pages to OAD's 810) was designed for professional people. It uses many special symbols and cross-references, and one can get quite a lot from it if one knows one's way around dictionaries. But the OAD is for people simply interested in a quick and simple definition of a word."
For instance, Concise has "aspirin" as "an analgesic and febrifuge," requiring more hunting unless you know a bit of Latin. OAD says it's a "drug used to relieve pain and reduce fever, a tablet of this."
OAD also has "microchip" and "microfiche" and other new words, from techslang ("glitch") to fairly trendy vernacular ("humongous").
The problem of which words to put in is as old dictionaries and depends on the scope and purpose of the book. Generally, Hawkins remarked, the bigger ones such as the OED include far more slang in the reference quotes, but the changes are much slower. Smaller ones may include words briefly ("air raid warden") in World War II) and drop them in the next edition.
Though the cutting edge of a language is in speech, where slang appears, these new words come into print far more quickly than one might imagine, through plays and movies and newspapers, there to be picked up by the Joyce Hawkinses of the world.
Like all word people, she deplores that mark of the power-seeker, syllable inflation: "combatative" for "combative," "distinctive" for "distinct," and the defacing of those words that become power talismans: "parameters" (often used merely as "limits"), "interface," and even worse, the appearance of those dreadful nouns-on-wheels, "conceptualize," "concretize" and the same "interface" disguised as a verb.
One problem of the lexicographer, she added, is that people are forever coming up and asking, "Say, what's your definition of 'paradigm'?" Or, "Say, what is the difference, after all, between 'cipher' and 'code'?"
"I have one answer," she said briskly. "Go look it up."
Words can try the patience. Words can cause wars. Words can create nifty one-liners (Hawkins, via Dorothy Parker, on the ancient word "quick": "Pedestrians are divided into two classes, the quick and the dead.") Words, miraculously, can make us feel.
What is Joyce Hawkins' favorite word?
She glanced about her hotel room a moment, her eyes settling on the locked and strapped suitcase. "I think 'home' is the nicest. Yes. Home. In all its connotations."