Democratic Dictionaries: From M to Nutter


Robbie Coltrane as Dr. Samuel Johnson and Rowan Atkinson as Edmund Blackadder, Blackadder the Third, BBC

by Deborah Cameron

The publisher Collins has recently adopted crowd-sourcing as a lexicographical tool, inviting members of the public to propose new words for its online dictionary. Some of their suggestions, like howlerious and crapalicious, are reminiscent of the Blackadder episode where Edmund torments Dr Johnson with a string of absurd neologisms. But Collins seems to be acting on the principle that if you scoop up enough dross you will eventually find some gold. As a company spokesperson explained, “by allowing the public to truly participate, we are ensuring we stay on top of the evolving English language”.

It isn’t just the evolving English language that Collins needs to stay on top of, but also the competition, which increasingly comes not only from other commercial reference-book publishers, but also — and in the long term more alarmingly — from what’s available on the web free of charge. The resources currently on offer include numerous dictionaries, ranging from Wiktionary and, which share the conventional dictionary’s commitment to accurate, comprehensive and balanced coverage, through to the anarchic (strapline: ‘define your world’), which ranks definitions by asking users to vote on them, and otherwise makes no attempt at quality control.

UrbanDictionary is the antithesis of a standard general-purpose dictionary, but its focus on the new and the demotic has made it not only popular, but also influential beyond its immediate audience (for instance, as a favoured source for journalists and pundits reflecting on current trends). Its success highlights some of the weaknesses of traditional lexicography, whose conservatism and elitism persistently cause it to fall short of its own descriptive ideals. The traditional preference for written sources, especially prestigious ones like literary fiction and heavyweight journalism, means that most dictionaries do not represent the everyday usage of most ordinary English-speakers. They are also very slow to incorporate innovations, most of which originate in ordinary speech. In the fast-moving world of online reference publishing, which both permits and demands continuous updating, there are good reasons for commercial publishers to put more effort into keeping up with new trends.

But involving the public has other advantages too. Lexicography is a labour-intensive business: long before the internet age, some publishers realized they could reduce its high cost by supplementing the skilled labour of professionals with the unpaid work of amateurs. In 1879, the makers of what is now the Oxford English Dictionary appealed for volunteers to read through texts looking for examples of particular words and usages. This was not about tapping the wisdom of crowds, but rather about getting the donkey-work done by harnessing people’s willingness to serve — in most cases not by offering their own suggestions, but by following the instructions of the OED’s editors. For Collins, by contrast, ‘allowing the public to truly participate’ seems to be intended at least partly as a ‘democratic’ gesture, making the dictionary seem more open to its users’ observations and opinions. Even reference texts, it seems, must now defer to the populist values that govern Facebook and Twitter, and which also pervade the older media with their endless exhortations to ‘tell us what you think’.

One objection to this might be that what results from it in practice is less a democracy than a tyranny of nutters. Discussions of language have a particularly strong tendency to be dominated by know-nothings, bigots and cranks. But we might also have questions about the principle. Is the pressure to be less elitist and more interactive improving the overall quality of dictionaries, or is it merely increasing their popular appeal at the expense of their value for serious students of language, literature and culture?

Here we might consider the case of the OED, whose authority and influence have always rested on its reputation for impeccable scholarship. It does not just describe current usage, it charts the historical development of words and illustrates their meanings at every stage with quotations from written sources. Its multiple print volumes, which appeared at intervals between 1884 and 1928 (with supplements produced in the 1930s, 70s and 80s), were mainly used in the past by scholars. Today, however, there is a widely-used online version, which is available in most public as well as academic libraries. Its interactive software makes it both easy for non-specialists to use and a wonderful resource for scholarship: searching it can now produce in minutes information that previously took months of effort to compile, like a list of every quotation from Milton or all the words English has borrowed from Japanese. OED Online has become the ‘flagship’ edition, and it is currently benefiting from the first full revision in the OED’s history. Begun in 2000, this project will take years to complete, but in the meantime its results — both new and rewritten entries — are disseminated online via quarterly updates.

Going online has transformed the OED from a niche product for academics into something more accessible and more attractive to non-specialists. In itself that is doubtless a good thing; but some would argue that the pursuit of popularity has changed the OED’s priorities in ways that are more problematic. In its eagerness to serve a larger and more diverse user-group, there is a risk that it might cease to serve the more specialized needs of its original core constituency.

The original plan for revision was to work through the alphabet systematically (starting at M rather than A, so lexicographers would have time to get into their stride before confronting the challenge of the oldest material). But as OED Online’s popularity grew, entries that were attracting large numbers of hits were prioritized for revision out of sequence. This might seem like a minor change in policy, but it points to a more fundamental shift in institutional culture, insofar as it subordinates the editors’ professional judgment to the preferences of users (which can be monitored online in ways that were previously impossible). For some academics, the new approach is a step too far in the direction of public engagement and democratic accountability. It potentially propels entries to the head of the revision queue which are frequently consulted for very trivial reasons (like the perennial interest of schoolchildren in looking up dirty words). It also means that you can no longer tell from its position in the alphabet whether you are seeing a revised entry written in 2012, or an original one written 100 or more years earlier. For casual users that is neither here nor there, but for serious scholars it is crucial information. (In response to their concerns, the press has now undertaken to make it clearer, though not to return to the original policy.)

From OED Online

Frequent updating is another feature of online reference works that has costs as well as benefits. What we might like to think of as a definitive source becomes a shape-shifting hybrid which is hard to keep track of. OED Online was originally a digitized version of the most recent print edition, known as OED2 because it combined the first edition with the content of later supplements. OED2 was itself a patchwork of entries compiled over many decades. But regular updating to incorporate revisions has made OED Online even more heterogeneous, and also more unstable than its predecessor. It changes every three months, and whatever has been replaced or removed cannot easily be reconstructed or retrieved.

The revised version, once completed, will be more unified and more up-to-date: overall it will be a better dictionary than OED2. But something of value may still be lost if the latter disappears without a trace. Dictionaries, after all, are repositories of cultural as well as linguistic information. Their definitions of words, and the quotations they use to illustrate them, are a rich source of evidence about the views of the society that made and used them.

The OED’s original definition of catamite, for instance — ‘a boy kept for unnatural purposes ’— presupposes that readers understand what ‘unnatural’ means in this context, and as such is revealing about contemporary sexual attitudes. Canoe, another early entry, distinguished the ‘rude craft in which uncivilized people go upon the water’ from the ‘small light boat or skiff’ used by ‘civilized’ oarsmen (‘most savages’, the entry noted, ‘use paddles instead of oars’). No one could regret the expulsion of such definitions from a 21st century dictionary, but we should not erase the evidence that they were once considered unremarkable. That should be preserved for future cultural historians, and as a record of the history of the OED itself.

Most dictionaries do not share the OED’s concern with history: rather they aim to describe current usage, which (as Collins points out) is constantly evolving. But there is more to keeping up with it than just racing to document new words as they appear. That may be a popular pursuit (witness the media’s coverage of the ‘word of the year’, or the success of Susie Dent’s Language Report), but what it tells us about current linguistic and social trends is invariably superficial, and sometimes misleading.

Often, the innovations that attract most attention tell us more about the preoccupations and the verbal techniques of the media than they do about the usage of any wider linguistic community. Sea-kitten, for instance, coined in 2009 by the media-savvy animal rights group PETA as a conscience-stirring synonym for fish, has made no impact since, though the hype at the time made it a ‘word of the year’ contender. Oxford’s lexicographers showed better judgment by choosing unfriend. It too is a media invention, but at least it is actively used by large numbers of people. Other neologisms like bromance and staycation are understood but rarely used outside the media bubble where they originated — which suggests they will be almost as ephemeral as sea-kitten.

New words are not in any case the only or the most sensitive indicator of where a language or a culture is going. A lot of lexical evolution occurs through more gradual and subtle shifts in the uses and meanings of existing words. Tracking these is a job best done using the methods developed by experts, not by consulting public opinion. If that’s elitist, so be it: in this field of endeavour as in so many others, what’s popular, or profitable, isn’t always the same as what’s good.

About the Author:

Deborah Cameron teaches linguistics – including grammar – at Oxford University. Her book Verbal Hygiene is published by Routledge.