Do You Know Who Decides What’s in the Dictionary?

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“A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic,” according to the dictionary. “A lexicographer” is a noun that means “a dictionary writer; a harmless drudge.”

Although the concept of a dictionary dates back to ancient civilizations, Robert Cawdrey published the first English dictionary in 1604.

Throughout the decades that followed, several more dictionaries were published by individual writers who chose what to include and remove.

They not only described words, but they also openly displayed their authors’ views, such as Ambrose Bierce’s and Samuel Johnson’s definitions of “dictionary” and “lexicographer,” respectively.

Many of those dictionaries quickly became obsolete after their authors died. One 19th-century dictionary, however, had a unique fate. Noah Webster, an American lawyer and writer, published “An American Dictionary of the English Language” in 1828 with the lofty goal of providing the United States with its own personal model of the English language.

He believed that as a newly independent country, the United States needed its own distinct model of English to express its independence from the United Kingdom. Webster’s dictionary attempted to clarify and formalise the American way of speaking.

Most dictionaries in Webster’s time were prescriptive, dictating how words could be used rather than documenting how people actually used language in everyday life.

Critics accused Webster of polluting the English language when he broke the conference and included slang phrases in his dictionary.

He argued, however, that these phrases captured “local variations” of language, which were an important part of what made American English unique.

He also felt that spelling rules were overly complicated and that we should always write the way we communicate as much as possible. Nonetheless, Webster’s personal views influenced the words he used and the way he explained them.

He didn’t accept slang phrases from Black cultures because he didn’t think they were right. “Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible,” he added while defining “woman.” Noah Webster had become a household name by the time he died.

Brothers George and Charles Merriam bought the rights to Webster’s Dictionary after seeing it as a lucrative business opportunity. The Merriams collaborated with Webster’s son-in-law to create a brand new, updated edition. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary was established on this date.

Today, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary begins to address an inconsistency in Webster’s goal: he wanted to represent the entire country, but he based his work on only one person’s opinion: his own.

Every re-creation of the dictionary since Webster’s death has been curated by a group of language experts rather than a single authority.

Along with a word in the dictionary, the current expectations are that it has “widespread, sustained, and meaningful use.”

This clearly includes profanities, which were previously usually omitted from dictionaries. Racial slurs still meet the criteria for inclusion, but others argue that combining them with them legitimises them.

Dictionaries don’t only introduce new words; they also redefine old ones to reflect changing perceptions and usage patterns.

“A married woman whose will, in the judgement of the law, is subject to the will of her husband: for which reason a wife is said to have no will,” according to a 1736 dictionary.

The term “wife” is now described as “a female partner in a marriage.”

The Merriam-Webster word of the year for 2019 was “they.”

The term has been in widespread use for hundreds of years, but it has only recently acquired a new recognised meaning as a pronoun for one person whose gender identity is Non Binary.

The question of the phrases should be included in dictionaries affects all of us: when our phrases and meanings are included, they are validated; if they aren’t, they— and we— are marginalised.

Today, lexicographers have broadened phrase sourcing to include dictionary users, tracking which phrases are most frequently searched and adding them to the dictionary.

‘Who decides what goes into the dictionary, then?’

More than ever before, the response is: we do. Every day, we all create our own language.

When a group of people adopts a word or redefines another, the phrases and definitions are reflected in our dictionaries.


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