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the scholar carnered: What Is A Dictionary? Author(s): Jacques Barzun Source: The American Scholar, Vol.

the scholar carnered: What Is A Dictionary? Author(s): Jacques Barzun Source: The American Scholar, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Spring, 1963), pp. 176-181 Published by: The Phi Beta Kappa Society Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41209082 Accessed: 08-04-2019 23:30 UTC

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the scholar cornered

What Is A Dictionary?

This was extraordinary, for more than one

tionary (which I refuse to call W3 as if reason. life Never in my experience has the Edi-

Webster's Third New International Dic-

were too short for words) has been in circu-

torial Board desired to reach a position; it

lation more than a year and has received

respects without effort the individuality of

from the start the kind of critical attention

each member and contributor, and it ex-

that a work of that size and importance de-

pects and relishes diversity. What is even

serves. There have been reviews, descriptive,

more remarkable, none of those present had

admiring and hostile; there have been news-

given the new dictionary more than a casual

paper editorials, including one in the New

glance, yet each one felt that he knew how

York Times which exemplified by parody

the doctrine of the new edition; and

he stood on the issue that the work pre-

sented to the public.

there have been articles in literary and

That astonishing and possibly premature

general magazines, which pointed a moral

concurrence within a group of writers whose

while treating the fundamental question:

work almost invariably exhibits judicial tol-

What is a dictionary? Mr. Dwight Mac-

erance and the scholarly temper defines the

Donald in the New Yorker and Mr. Wilson

Follett in the Atlantic delivered, with

nature and character of the new Webster:

it is undoubtedly the longest political pam-

abundant examples, the most philosophic

phlet ever put together by a party. Its 2662

of the attacks on the new work, and Mr. large pages embody - and often preach by

Bergen Evans, among others, offered re-

suggestion - a dogma that far transcends the

buttal and counterattack. Both sides have

limits of lexicography. I have called it a

written with heat - the heat of indignation

- except when they meant to be freezingly

political dogma because it makes assump-

tions about the people and because it im-

cold with the cold of contempt.

plies a particular view of social intercourse.

All this is gratifying. For it shows that de-

This is indeed why any page of the work

spite the many signs of linguistic indiffer- provokes immediate resistance or assent. No

ence in daily life, some people at least still

one who thinks at all can keep from being a

feel strongly about language and can be partisan. And the explosive charge con-

roused to battle about it. The debate has

tained in the definitions and examples (let

not been confined to print, and it is not

alone the prefatory matter) is reinforced

over; it is very much alive in living rooms,

students' rooms, editorial rooms. When it

by the intellectual theory that under-

lies the political and social views. That

came up as a subject of interest at a meeting

theory is the scientism of the linguists,

which is bound to divide thinking people

of the board of The American Scholar,

everyone present felt that its importance still more sharply into adherents and ene-

warranted notice from one of us, and I was

delegated to express the board's "position."

mies. The issue comes down to this: Are

the products of the human mind (in this


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instance language) to be treated like By this natural means words are stripped of a qual-

objects? The answer Yes means that what-

ever "the people" utter is a "linguistic fact"

ity they have had since the dawn of civiliza-

tion and are reduced to algebraic signs. I

to be recorded, cherished, preferred to any

am not using a figure of speech: it is a

reason or tradition. The new dictionary

mathematical yearning that induces the

might thus be called avant-garde, linguist not to to say invent the term "function word"

surrealist. To which its detractors say: "It is

voluminous, but gives no light."

for preposition, conjunction, auxiliary verb

and the like; just as it is algebraic and not

verbal usage that leads the modern pedant

to insist that we write: "In his The Waste-

No doubt this explanation of the passions

aroused by the new Webster will seem to


/' as if the joining of "his" and

some far-fetched and abstract. How can the

"the" were indispensable to an equation

definition of a simple word such as "of"

that would come out wrong by the omission

betray the political and moral biases I have

of either.

inferred? Quite simply: the populism and

These common examples bring us to the

seien tism of the new lexicon appear to-

gether, for example, in the twenty-first use of

"of," as an alteration of "have" - "I should

of come." This is given as representing, "es-

pecially in written dialogue, a supposed

dialectal or substandard speech." The word "supposed" is laden with prejudice, and one is amazed at the suggestion that this "of" occurs in writing only. Since this usage oc-

curs frequently in speech, as everybody

knows, one is bound to wonder whether its

inclusion in a famous dictionary does not

confer upon it the lexicographer's blessing.

Certainly there is an implied defense of

these of's, who are also the have nots.

So much for democratic feeling. Now to

its concomitant. The previous illustrations

of "of" are each introduced by the designa-

tion: "used as a function word to indi-

questions implied in What is a dictionary?

namely: What is language? What are words?

The so-called scientific doctrine which has

killed grammar and rhetoric in the schools

asserts a number of incompatible things

about language: that it is a system of sounds

used for communication and therefore

changeable at will; that it is a natural enti

which grows and evolves, and therefore f

lows natural, not arbitrary laws. Linguisti

it is clear, is playing at technology as we

as science. It goes on to teach that t

sounds of language can be given symbo

representation in written forms, thanks

which the evolution of both sounds and

forms can be traced over millennia and

across continents; yet the science also hold

that language is speech and speech alon

hence the ways and opinions of writers ha

." The phrase is therefore repeated

no more importance in linguistics tha

twenty times, although the word being de-

fined - "of" - is never repeated but is rep-

ideas have in Marxist materialism: both are

the empty froth carried down the powerful

resented by the sign ~. This is science. In

stream of history. It follows that the English

the same way proper names and adjectives language comprises whatever is intelligible

are never capitalized but carry the indica-

to any group that thinks it is speaking Eng-

tion "usu. cap." This is system. Science and

lish - Puerto Rican children in New York,

system play throughout the work a strongly

native bureaucrats in India or Nigeria,

rhetorical part. They do not save space;

Ozark mountaineers, B.B.G. announcers,

much less do they serve the reader's con-

judges of the United States Supreme Court,

venience. The use of a sign for the word we

and unfortunate idiots with cleft palates.

are interested in is a subtle attack on The

There is undeniable grandeur in this ac-

Word, just as it is a blow struck against the

ceptance of Babel, which strives to emulate

sentence. The dictionary ceases to be a book

for readers interested in words and sen-

tences; it becomes an imitation ~ the tech-

the scientist's acceptance of all phenomena.

And it is indeed true that since the pioneer

work of Henry Sweet, the prototype of Hig-

nical handbooks ^ physics and chemistry.

gins in Shaw's Pygmalion, much has been


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learned as a result of applying the sdentine

hypothesis to speech. But there are diffi-

years without becoming good usage. Ou

Webster itself calls it "now chiefly dial,

culties in the attempt to equate physical

which is, I think, an error. In my experience

events and language, and it is in trying to

the word is colloquial and faintly depre

escape these difficulties that the linguists

ciatory; but why so, when it is formed from

whose theology is embodied in the new

the verb as regularly as "request" or "de

Webster become arbitrary and absurd.

mand," and when it is (or would be) equally

Their scientific detachment deserts them;

convenient? No one can tell. Again, "them"

they begin to champion the underdog lin-

as a demonstrative adjective ("Hand me

guistic forms against the socially approved,

them pliers") is certainly the people's choice

and they show the precariousness of their

It was so as far back as Chaucer, yet th

position by growing abusive and baring

fangs when it is challenged.

majority vote it has obtained in every gen-

eration still leaves it, in Webster's term,

A science obviously cannot admit that


from the outset language is something more

Evidently caprice is at work, a whim of

than speech, and words something more

iron which no scientific observation or dog-

than a device for communication. Words

matic authority can reduce to order. But

are nevertheless anything but neutral sym-

what one concludes from this can take one

bols like numbers. They breed fancies and

in divergent ways: one can become a lin-

sport individual features. Feelings attach guist to or remain sensitive to the varieties of

words, as may be tested by calling a stranger

linguistic experience. The linguist blinds

a harsh name. And the feeling is not in the

word, since the same word in an identical

himself to the truth that language is a very

mixed affair, like art, love, government, his-

tone may be applied to a friend with affec-

tory; which is to say life at its most compre-

tionate intent and be received by him with

hensive. Language indeed comes closest to

being the envelope of life; it is the web,

equanimity. Nor, despite all the new school-

books on Structural English, does clear com- certainly, of conscious life. As such it is not

munication suffice to establish a form of

abstractly detachable, like the segments of

words as part of the language. The latest

physical experience conveniently cut off for

Webster can imply by its hospitableness study to by science. This difference explains

barbarism that there is no such thing as

why it is that the linguist has no sooner

good English, no correctness in grammar,

syntax or diction, yet it is not English to and dictionary than he is forced to mutter

affirmed the folly of a normative grammar

say: "What age have you?" "How much

"substandard" at every other word. In this,

hour is it?" "It makes cold this night." The

to be sure, the linguist is a child of the age:

system of words and ideas that constitutes a

"incorrect" being a horrid, undemocratic

language has quirks of its own and remains

term, he replaces it by "substandard," which

a mystery. It looks as if it could be changed

at will; it looks as if it followed natural

laws - vowel shifts, slurrings, inversion and

is fraternal and scientific. This is the formula

by which we have turned in the poor in ex-

change for the underprivileged and back-

substitution of consonants, et cetera; it looks

as if logic had no hand in its alterations; it

looks as if reasoning were at work making

forms alike and introducing distinctions; it

looks as if mere repetition in use warranted

ward countries for undeveloped areas. But little is changed in fact. There is a

norm, a standard, in the languages of civi-

lized nations, for the same reason that there

are manners and customs. The difficulty of

a word or a form; it looks as if convenience

were an irresistible cause of change - all of

these are true and all false. The merest

ascertaining at any moment what is right in

these modes of action does not abolish the

idea of Tightness, any more than the vari-

ability of manners abolishes manners them-

glance at history proves and disproves each

of these propositions. "Invite" as a noun

selves. Many people neglect to say "please"

has been in use for two hundred and fifty

and "thank you," but their omission does


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not constitute a new absence of norm; it

only defines their boorishness. And this per-

ception is not limited to the last effete rep- resentatives of a dying civilization, or books

of etiquette would not be the perennial best

sellers that they are. One of the chief vices of

the new Webster is that it flouts the strong

impulse toward Tightness that animates the very masses whom the lexicographer means

to flatter by his laxity charged with con-


To be charitable as well as fair we must

For it is this translation of reality into

realism that undermines both formality and

form in the use of language. In the novels

of Sinclair Lewis, whose ear for the demotic

was remarkable, phonetic renderings often replace words and phrases; Babbitt is made

to say: "Zizesaying." Similarly, when the

new Webster seeks examples of adjectival

"them" it quotes the novels of educated

writers - Helen Eustis and Ellen Glasgow.

The whole nineteenth century, the whole

Romantic revolution in poetry, lies behind

the accelerated deformation of words which

ask whether the new lexicography is not in

the new linguist thinks he discovered by

fact responding to contemporary tendencies

scientific methods. At one end of the span,

in ourselves, rather than imparting to us the

Wordsworth and Victor Hugo democratize

results of objective research. Take the as-

literature by adapting the tone, diction and

sumption that speech is primary. The prop-

osition is obviously true historically, but end, is Lewis Carroll, Mallarmé and Joyce put

subjects of street ballads, and at the other

it true as a social fact after three thousand

the quietus to syntax and usage by punning

and distorting and confusing the words of

years of written literature? It was surely not

self-evident at the beginnings of lexicogra-

the tribe.

phy, which was undertaken by and for the

In this task of demolition they were aided

literate. Anyone who uses words by profes-

by the engineers and tradesmen who were

sion knows how important it is to preserve

forging new words out of half-understood

language from confusion through misuse. A

writer's or an orator's difficulties come from

Greek and Latin roots to denote processes

and products. The litter of "telephone,"

the inadequacies of the audience as much as

"Kodak," and their kind continues to in-

from those of the tongue he uses. And when

crease, adding acronyms and portmanteaus

literature has slowly clarified his medium for him, the good writer feels that he has

(for example, Unicef and Puritron) in

shapes and in numbers that will soon re-

entered into a contract with all his prede-

quire a separate glossary, a second volume of

cessors not to debase the coinage they have bequeathed to him. This view might still prevail if modern

literature itself had not first become impa- question we started with: What is a diction-

grasp what the modern answer is to the

Even before that point is reached, we


tient, "realistic," and tried with ever greater

ary? As Webster's Third New International

fidelity to reproduce the vocables of the

shows, a dictionary is a heterogeneous

marketplace. The playwright has always

list of vocables, abbreviations, acronyms,

done this by fits and starts, yet without in-

ready-made phrases, trade and proper

fluencing the learned's notion of language.

names, which have been selected on current

It was Scott and the novel descended from

him that introduced first "dial" and then

populist-scientific principles as constituting

"the language." Such a dictionary is cer-

"colloq" and finally "vulg," to a point

tainly not a list of the words generally

where one must keep Partridge's Dictionary spoken by speakers of English. DNOC is not

of Slang by one's side and learn thieves'

a word, nor does it stand for a spoken por-

cant to appreciate the highest forms of the

tion of the language, since it represents

new in prose or poetry. From the moment

"dinitro-ortho-cresol," which is unspeakable.

that reality is equated with the average, sci-

The so-called dictionary is thus in part a

ence and democracy and linguistic devalua-

tion form a single cultural tendency.

manual of formulas; in part a handbook for

editors, scientists and other professionals.


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For the under-read it is also a semi-encyclo-

cated to speak well and write correctly?

pedia which has an entry for "dialectical

cultivated in the use of English words and

materialism," and one for "fermaťs grammatical princi- forms?" No linguist ever an-

ple," in which it is careful to decapi talize

swers such impertinent questions. The

Fermat at the head of the entry structuralist and re- keeps saying that whatever

capitalize him within, adding the date of

his death.

choice and arrangement of words is "effec-

tive" is or will be good speech. The lexi-

This new-style dictionary of the English cographer, who eagerly records as alterna-

language includes many foreign words other

tive meanings of a word the misconceptions

than those that have been naturalized into

of the illiterate, repeats that any meaning

English - the unpronounceable oeuvre, can for be attached to any sound, so why fuss

example. In such cases, which are relatively

as long as we manage to "communicate."

numerous, popular approval does not seem

But effectiveness is never gauged or defined,

to function as the guardian at the gates.

and the loss of distinctions, of precision, of

But then profession and performance are elegance is never brought within the scope

hard to match in a book so strangely con-

of "communication." It is mere taste - aes-

ceived. I have shown that the criterion of

thetics no less.

spoken usage - "language is speech" - breaks

This willful neglect puts language in a

down at the point where the thousands of

unique position, alien to science, art and

many-syllabled scientific compounds irrupt

nature too. We shore up the hills and con-

and overrun the page. The same criterion

tain the flooding streams, but we let language

is disregarded in the pronunciations offered

rip, recognizing nothing as error. The lexi-

after such words as are, in fact, spoken. For

cographer would not tolerate error in the

these pronunciations, given in a factitious scientific vocabulary: use "absorb" for "ad-

phonetic alphabet, are widely deviated from

sorb" and he will pounce on you; no use

by speakers of English. From Virginia pleading to that the two words are so much

Texas, millions of people regularly pro-

alike. But use "connive" for "contrive,"

duce in common words sounds that are un-

and he will applaud - the language is grow-

known to this "international" dictionary of

ing! It's alive and evolving! Growth ap-

"the English language." The pronunciations

that it does give are consequently an arbi-

trary norm for which observable reality

gives dubious warrant.

parently means making two words do

the work of one: "fortuitous" and "for-

tunate"; "precipitous" and "precipitate";

"disinterested" and "uninterested"; "in-

On the plane of observation itself, this

fer" and "imply"; "companion" and

composite glossary is equally questionable

"cohort"; "complete" and "fulsome";

in its reports. It grows garrulous about

"ain't," saying: "though disapproved mentary" by and "elemental" - in short, a

"difference" and "differential"; "ele-

many and more common in less educated

later Webster could probably cut in half

speech, used orally in most parts of the U. S.

the abundance of the old English vocabu-

by many cultivated speakers, esp. in the

lary and no one would feel the differential.

phrase ain't I." This statement goes counter

The social forces and private emotions

not only to my experience but also to that

of a dozen "more educated" people whom I

that promote this general decay, misnamed

growth or evolution, are not peculiar to the

have asked. Except in the jocular mode,

English language and were not invented by

"ain't" is never used by those Webster calls

the science-proud partisans of linguistic

cultivated. And one is brought up short by

anarchy. English has in fact resisted longer

the introduction of these categories. Do they

than other modern European languages,

not violate the scientific-populist scheme?

such as French, perhaps because English

More or less educated to do what? - culti-

was more elastic and hybrid to begin with.

vated in what respect? Could it be "edu- I cannot hope to give here a full view of


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the influences that have been undoing

a part in the impoverishment that our

the work of the lettered generations. guage The discloses about our life.

triumph of the written word at the expense

Webster's Third New International Dic-

of oral traditions; the enlargement of the

tionary of the English Language is thus the

electorate; the establishment of public

representation between covers of a cultural

schools for all; the spread of specialism with

revolution. From its tendentious title - the

its attendant jargons; the new pride work of being the neither Webster's nor interna-

common man, which makes him tional, a pedant; and only now and then a dictionary

the learned ignorance of technicians and

- to its silly systems and petty pedantries,

the book is a faithful record of our emo-

tradesmen; the singular ideals and conven- tions developed by the press; the tional gigantic weaknesses and intellectual disarray.

growth of advertising keeping pace with

It should contribute mightily to that health-

that of industry; the corresponding revolt

ful annihilation of a way of thought and

against standardization, which incites every-

feeling, to that tabula rasa from which new

one to be "himself" by defying good cultural man- movements spring. Meanwhile the

book belongs in every "cultivated" reader's

ners, to be "creative" by distorting language,

and to flout the machine by revelling in

library of humor. I did not read every page,

symbol and metaphor - all these things but at least and once in every page that I read I

more that could be pointed to have laughed. played


Jacques Barzun

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