Robert Hartwell Fiske indites yet another indictment of that frightful thing, the Modern Dictionary. You know: bad words oust good, decline of literacy, what are we coming to. The usual. I wouldn’t bother you with it except that it inspired a sensible post over at CalPundit, who is one of those rare people able to simultaneously regret a change and accept the pointlessness of further whining:

I would certainly vote against “alright,” for example, but am willing to concede my decades-long battle against it because, after all, it’s been a decades-long battle and I seem to have lost

And the comment section is full of good healthy debate (in which, needless to say, I could not resist participating). Thanks for the link, Jeremy!


  1. The strange thing is that monolingual dictionaries developed originally as list of tough or little used words and their definitions. But along the way to today, they’ve taken on two opposed burdens: (for the prescriptivists) proper usage and (for the descriptivists (a record of the synchronoic state of the language). This just naturally leads to squabbles.

  2. There was a *hilarious* standup routine by Paul Provenza on the subject of bad words ousting good ones in the dictionary. My favorite bit was this:
    The word “dictionary” is in the dictionary! Couldn’t they at least make it fun for the rest of us? “Dictionary: (n); what are you, some kind of moron? See also: THE COVER.”

  3. I will woman the barricades against “alright” until they pry my Strunk & White from my cold, dead hands. I have shamed my own mother for writing that word in a letter to me (less nasty than you might think, because she always brags about winning the statewide school spelling bee championship when she was eleven, or some insane thing. My own chance ever at a spelling bee, I was tossed off in the easy rounds because I spelled “f-a-v-o-u-r”. Too much Dickens).

  4. Hey, I misspelled Christmas in a spelling bee. Oh, the humiliation.

  5. MoIrA — you should have held your ground — I was knocked off in an early round for “c-i-v-i-l-i-s-a-t-i-o-n” but remonstrated with the judges til they were forced to admit it was indeed an acceptable variant spelling. (I had brought Webster’s New Collegiate along with me, which listed British spellings; the Random House they were using apparently did not.)

  6. I sort of get the annoyance when words are used “wrong” and thus change their meaning, when you know the “right” meaning only lots of other people don’t, but it’s not like that’s a new phenomenon (and I don’t think prescriptive dictionaries had a chance to prevent it either). I only wish, then I probably wouldn’t have ended up with having to memorize all those lists of “false friends” in French classes in high school, only because a few centuries ago apparently the majority of Germans couldn’t keep the meanings of their imported French words straight, or something. 😛
    I mean sometimes it annoys me to no end how real English words are used for other stuff in German (or fake but English sounding words are made up), but after a few years trying to resist words like “Handy” for “cell phone” I’ve just given up. I would have liked it better if the German word had turned out to be “Mobilfon” or even if “cell phone” would have been imported, but alas that wasn’t the case. So now I have to live with “Handy”, though honestly I still find this recent trend in German to just take English verbs and conjugate them like German ones grating. I can’t help it, I think “ich habe die Datei downgeloadet” which is now listed in German dictionaries is sort of grating on the ears, and I still hope that the German equivalent “herunterladen” will be resilient and win their current “competition” though I’m afraid “download” may have the advantage that it is also the more common noun for the process (“der Download”). But then I’m also still resisting the new verb “simsen” (for “to send an SMS”) and still say “eine SMS schicken” but the shorter verb is becoming more common, so I guess soon I’ll be among the dinosaurs with that as well and eventually break down. Sigh.

  7. i completly agree. Thanks for helping me with my english project with this made some very good points.

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