The hip, swinging world of lexicography

Erin McKean

Erin McKean

Words are alive, says Erin McKean in this TED talk below. She is a lexicographer, shares my geeky infatuation with words and will make equally gratuitous use of the bizarre ones.

Here she deplores the dictionary industry, which has been frozen in time. As a dictionary editor she no longer wants to be a

traffic cop

who “lets in the good words and keeps out the bad words.” Instead, she would rather be a


who casts his net into the ocean of English to find what is there.

In another talk, she points out how worldview affects our relationship to language. Noah Webster–the Webster–apparently thought that all languages derive from Chaldean, since Noah–the Noah–spoke Chaldean and, well, he was the only one who survived the flood, wasn’t he?

(Also in that talk: Why “ass hat” is a great word, but not one that will make it into her dictionary. Defined as: Somebody who behaves as though he were wearing his ass as a hat.)

Herewith, the TED talk:

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7 thoughts on “The hip, swinging world of lexicography

  1. Does that make Erin a Cavalier rather than a Roundhead? The Roundhead in me says someone needs to police the dictionary. Chaos will ensue. Scrabble would be impossible. I think I favor fewer words – in a reductionist’s sort of way. Fewer words mean greater simplicity. At the very least, consider the systematic German approach of stringing together words to make additional words (rather than making new words). If we merely put all the words of all the languages in a single dictionary, the combinations for forming a sentence are staggering. But it’s fun to think about.

  2. Erin McKean says, in so many words, that the Dictionary in its present form is hampering the adding of new words to English, and that this is a bad thing. She therefore infers that English doesn’t have enough words.

    English, today, has 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words, giving a grand total of approximately 250,000 words. Since English is thought to have more words than any comparable world language, it would seem that 250,000 English words is quite enough thank you. In fact it is more than enough since, 47,156 of these words are obsolete. So I see no need for more words (Mr Crotchety, from his comment, would appear to concur).

    Think only of your own Economist – a newspaper renowned for its good writing – which uses only words familiar to all, but which it uses superbly well (does not the Economist follow George Orwell’s dictum not to use a long word when a short word will do, given that sesquipedalian words in the Economist are conspicuous by their absence?).

    Several studies (by whom I don’t recall) have established that over the last fifty years, the range of words used in American TV newscasts has been steadily declining, and continues to. Those who write the news obviously know that the vocabulary of the average person is declining, and so write their news bulletins accordingly.

    Given that the quality of written English of most native English-speakers is demonstratively poor (and may be getting poorer still) it might behoove teachers of English, and exemplars of English, to put the emphasis on writing better with the words we now have, rather than learning new ones just to show off.

    • After posting my comment above, I noticed:

      (a) that 171,476 + 47,156 doesn’t come to 250,000 as I’d implied. The 250,000 also includes foreign words which have passed directly into English.

      (b) I used “demonstratively” when I meant “demonstrably”.

  3. Geoffrey Nunberg’s new book, The Years of Talking Dangerously was featured today on Krasny’s NPR show. After listening to Krasny and Nunberg worry about their own use of Ums and Obama’s use of You knows and Folks, I turned it off.

    The tone of linguists, at least the purists in the field, is often snobby. I find myself conflicted by the need to maintain language that is rich and clear with the reality of modern English usage, which can be base and crass but that speaks to the reality of the daily experience.

    Like Ass hat.

  4. Language can be like a too beautiful lover – irresistible but inescapably inconstant.

    To paraphrase – we never really step into the same sentence (language stream) twice. Each (non trivial) word or phrase’s meaning is constantly changing (though sometimes its too slow to see).

    I’ll beg your forgiveness for the following lack of brevity – summaries of two relevant authorities:

    Jonathan McWhorter’s position is that language is just a communication system “that is at all times in the process of becoming a different one.” And the changes doesn’t compromise the fundamental ability to communicate (at least among peers). One of his compelling examples is from Shakespeare. Few modern readers likely understand the intended meaning in Love’s Labor Lost of “with his royal finger thus dally with my excrement.” It’s not nearly as repulsive or Freudian as it sounds to us today. Back then, excrement could mean any outgrowth, like hair, nails, or feathers.

    Sol Steinmetz, in his great book on etymological drift, Semantics Antics, explains why long ago you wouldn’t have wanted to be nice, smart, or handsome but would rather have been a bully, or silly, or sad, and why you would have wanted to be insulted but not to have too many hobbies. Nice originally meant someone who was foolish, ignorant, senseless, or absurd (middle English 1300). Smart for the first 300 years of its use meant causing pain, sharp, cutting, or severe, a sense that survives in the idiom smart as a whip but is now used differently in “whip smart.” Handsome wasn’t complimentary. When coined around 1425, it just meant easily handled; it didn’t have its current positive connotation until 1590. Bully originally meant “darling or sweetheart” and is often found in this sense in Shakespeare. For example, in Henry V, “I love the lovely bully” wasn’t a confession of masochism. Silly in early Middle English meant “happy,” “blissful,” “blessed,” or “fortunate.” Sad in Olde Englishe meant “full,” “satiated,” or “satisfied.” Insult in the 1500s meant the same as exult, which is to “boast,” “brag,” “triumph” in a insolent way. Exult still has a related meaning, but insult has changed substantially. Hobbies in 1375 were ponies, or small horses—a sense that survives in the expression “hobby horse”; it’s via a contraction of this sense that the present-day usage meaning “pastime” developed.

  5. You guys amaze me with your comments. The post was basically just an enzyme that catalyzed a fascinating intellectual reaction.

    Mr Crotchety: There’s something Cavalier about Erin, definitely. I had never contemplated the revolutionary effects on Scrabble of all this, and am now considering becoming an arch-conservative reactionary.

    Phillip Phogg: According to this, English has 600,000 words. (That, ie Wolfram’s Alpha, is a new search engine that all of you should try, by the way. It’s really a calculation engine.)

    I read somewhere that English has about twice the vocabulary of French and German, in part because it actually is a superimposition of the first upon the second. So, for instance, our weird Anglo-Saxon legal habit of putting things in redundancies (“we hate and abominate”, “praise and laud”, etc) comes from the centuries after the Norman Conquest, when Norman lawyers would state everything once in the Saxon and again in the Norman. Probably not true, but a great story.

    Cheri: Feeling conflicted, as you and I do, is what makes us writers. A sensitivity to language is the first requirement for any conflictedness worth writing home about.

    Jag: I had you in mind when listening to Erin. I’ve got McWhorter, and it looks like I also need Steinmetz (= stone mason). Fascinating how these words live and evolve. How ‘handsome’ might have got its present meaning baffles me.

    • Am I the only one who immediately thought of the word dickhead after reading the definition of ass hat? Imagine those two at the office picnic. No, wait. That was a movie.

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