Ryan Ruby has a 3 Quarks Daily piece called The Prescriptivist’s Progress that begins as follows:
This month, two minor controversies revived the specter of the “language wars” and reintroduced the literary internet to the distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism. One began when Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize and readers took to their search engines en masse to look up the word “Kafkaesque,” which had been used by the book’s publishers and reviewers to describe it. Remarking upon the trend, Merriam-Webster noted sourly: “some argue that ‘Kafkaesque’ is so overused that it’s begun to lose its meaning.” A few weeks before, Slate‘s Laura Miller had lodged a similar complaint about the abuse of the word “allegory.” “An entire literary tradition is being forgotten,” she warned, “because writers use the term allegory to mean, like, whatever they want.”
When it comes to semantics, prescriptivists insist that precise rules ought to govern linguistic usage. Without such rules there would be no criteria by which to judge whether a word was being used correctly or incorrectly, and thus no way to fix its meaning. Descriptivists, by contrast, argue that a quick glance at the history of any natural language will show that, whether we like it or not, words are vague and usage changes over time. The meaning of a word is whatever a community of language users understands it to mean at any given moment. In both of the above cases, Merriam-Webster and Miller were flying the flag of prescriptivism, protesting the kind of semantic drift that results from the indiscriminate, over-frequent usages of a word, a drift that has no doubt been exacerbated thanks to the internet itself, which has increased the recorded usages of words and accelerated their circulation.
Ruby goes on to set “Kafkaesque” aside (because it’s “already received ample coverage”) and chase after “allegory”; I’ll let those who care about such things follow him there and, if they like, quibble over metaphor and rhetorical modes. My concern is elsewhere, with the idiotic and near-libelous statement that “Merriam-Webster” is “flying the flag of prescriptivism” and protesting semantic drift. This is idiotic on several counts. In the first place, “Merriam-Webster” is not doing anything at all. One person, presumably an employee of M-W, who writes the Trend Watch column wrote:
Lookups for Kafkaesque spiked dramatically on May 17th after the Man Booker prize for 2016 was awarded to Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian. This work, translated from Korean into English by Debbie Smith, has been described by its British publishers (and by a number of reviewers) as Kafka-esque.
The word derives from the famed Czech novelist Franz Kafka (1883-1924), whose prose became so synonymous with the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the individual in the 20th century that writers began using his name as an adjective a mere 16 years after his death. […]
The word joined a number of other literary eponyms, including Dickensian and Byronic. However, Kafkaesque has seen quite a bit more use than most such words, leading to occasional charges that the word has been watered down and given a lack of specificity due to its overuse.
In the nearly 70 years since his death, we’ve promoted Franz Kafka from a merely great writer to an all-purpose adjective, and that word – Kafkaesque – now gets tossed around with cavalier imprecision, applied to everything from an annoying encounter with a petty bureaucrat to the genocidal horrors of the Third Reich.
—The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), 31 January 1992
That is everything the anonymous M-W employee wrote, plus the final quotation illustrating the “occasional charges that the word has been watered down.” Do you see anything there that smacks of prescriptivism? In the quotation, sure, but the Trend Watch writer is simply reporting on that prescriptivism — saying that some people complain that “the word has been watered down.” To call the Trend Watch piece prescriptivist is like saying a newspaper story reporting on a KKK rally is ipso facto racist; it is not only wrong but insulting, and shows the person who says such a thing to be at best light-minded and at worst someone with no regard for the truth. Furthermore, the quoted passage “some argue that ‘Kafkaesque’ is so overused that it’s begun to lose its meaning” is not Merriam-Webster noting anything, “sourly” or otherwise (seriously, does that sound sour to you?), it is an italicized caption for a picture of Kafka and is the caption-writer’s summary of one of the things the Trend Watch piece is saying (and the main point it’s making, to emphasize what should be obvious, is that a lot of people are looking up the word — that’s why it’s called “Trend Watch”).
This particular case, of course, gets under my skin because Merriam-Webster, one of the great lexicographical firms, is anti-prescriptivist by its very nature, and in fact suffered from the attacks of foolish prescriptivists when its great Third New International Dictionary came out in 1961. Shame on you, Ryan Ruby. Learn to read more carefully, think more clearly, and write more accurately.