Jose Carillo's Forum


This section features links to interesting, instructive, or thought-provoking readings about the English language and related disciplines. The selections could be anywhere from light and humorous to serious and scholarly, and they range widely from the reading, writing, listening, and speaking disciplines to the teaching and learning of English.

Dictionaries shouldn’t abrogate their authority, but they do so now

Should English dictionaries admit into the lexicon and confer legitimacy to just any word in the pop culture or the Internet, no matter how evanescent or outrageous it might be?

They really shouldn’t as recorders of words and arbiters of their proper usage, says American linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, but now they don’t have much choice because of the relentless production of new coinage by users of English.

In “When a Dictionary Could Outrage,” an article he wrote for the September 23, 2011 of The New York Times, Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, says “the day is long past when any dictionary could circumscribe the ‘official’ language. The boundaries are irremediably blurred — between public and private, formal and casual, high, middle and low.”

Nunberg makes these observations from the perspective of the critical and public outrage that met the publication in 1961 of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which admitted into the lexicon such then-disrespectable words as “litterbug” and “wise up,” accepted the colloquial “ain’t” without condemning it, and illustrated its definitions with quotations from what were then considered disrespectable sources.

That controversy, says Nunberg, was a turning point in American attitudes about language. “It introduced the words ‘prescriptivist’ and ‘descriptivist’ into the cultural conversation, and fixed the battle lines for the ritualized squabble over standards that persists across media old and new,” he explains. “It’s a safe bet that [today] no new dictionary will ever incite a similar uproar, whatever it contains. The dictionary simply doesn’t have the symbolic importance it did a half-century ago, when critics saw the Third as a capitulation to the despised culture of middlebrow, what Dwight Macdonald called the ‘tepid ooze of Midcult’.”

Read Geoffrey Nunberg’s “When a Dictionary Could Outrage” in the The New York Times now!

In “When Quoting Verse, One Must Be Terse,” an article he wrote for the September 8, 2011 issue of The New York Times, the paper’s poetry columnist David Orr calls attention to uncertainties in the copyright law with respect to getting permission to quote from poetry for purposes of reviewing it. “Copyright law is so often a matter of guesswork and loopholes, small print and obscure provisions,” Orr says. “The problem is that a critic who wants to quote a poem in a book has to face a permissions regime that ranges from unpredictable to plain crazy, as I discovered while working on a guidebook to modern poetry for general readers.”

Read David Orr’s “When Quoting Verse, One Must Be Terse” in The New York Times now!

Click to read comments or post a comment

View the complete list of postings in this section
(requires registration to post)

Copyright © 2010 by Aperture Web Development. All rights reserved.

Page best viewed with:

Mozilla FirefoxGoogle Chrome

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional

Page last modified: 26 September, 2011, 11:30 a.m.