What Is a Dictionary?
Last week, usage of the word literally made international headlines. It started when someone commented on the fact that Google’s dictionary lists the hyperbolic definition of literally, which he saw as evidence that “we killed English.” (If you missed it, you can check out Mark Allen’s summary of events.)
From there, many commentators, copyeditors included, railed against Google’s and many others’ dictionary over the inclusion of this old, if controversial, definition.
But there’s a point that those commentators missed:
A dictionary gets its authority from language users.
We look at a dictionary as the ultimate authority on language. “If a dictionary says literally means ‘figuratively,’ then it must be true,” we think. And then we wail because we don’t agree with that definition.
Dictionaries describe language. They observe the words and rules we create and follow. We create the words and meanings. We decide the spellings and usages.
Who is “we”?
It’s not the dictionary editors. It’s not writers and copyeditors. It’s not academics, usage experts, or linguists. “We” is all language users. No one language user has any more authority than any other when it comes to creating and changing language. It’s the ultimate democracy.
A change may start with one person, but if that change is repeated, over and over; if that change is useful and understood; and, most importantly, if that change is repeated some more, it will stay in the language.
And dictionaries will record those changes. They will effectively say, “Here is what you say literally means. Here is how you use it.” They hold up a mirror that reflects all language users, not just the educated ones or the uneducated ones, the traditionalists or the experimenters. Dictionary editors listen to as many of us as they can, using as much evidence as they can.
There’s a lot more evidence available these days.
So how can you trust a dictionary? It’s a bit like finding out there’s no gold backing the dollar. How the heck is there any value in it?
I said at the beginning that a dictionary gets its authority from language users, and that’s true, as far as it goes. A dictionary also gets its authority from how well it does its job. A good dictionary should accurately reflect how language is really used, not just how we wish it were used. It should tell us how we use those words, pointing out when something is vulgar or nonstandard, for example. It should keep up with changes and advise us accordingly.
It should describe our language as accurately as it can, holding up a mirror that captures as many reflections as it can. Dictionary editors’ job is to understand the reflection they see and explain it to us in a way we’ll understand.
You don’t have to like how language works, and you don’t have to use the changes yourself. But as a copyeditor, you may be called on to accept those changes in your author’s writing. Because if it’s an accepted change and it’s not against any house style rules, it’s your author’s choice. Just keep chanting, “It’s not my book. It’s not my book.”
And if you’re tempted to think one change is the end of language as we know it, just remember it wasn’t the dictionaries that made the change.
It was us.