Join Now

Speak of the Dictionary


First, as I was lecturing with Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday, January 5, he paused to admonish the professional audience to read the “front matter” of their dictionaries. He pointed out that in a judicial opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer mistakenly suggested that the first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the “primary” one. In fact, though, that magisterial work of lexicography records the oldest sense first, not necessarily the current main sense. It’s frequently true that the first several definitions of the OED are obsolete or at least archaic.

Other dictionaries list definitions differently, as by putting the predominant meaning in current usage first. You won’t know that if you don’t read the front matter (prefatory essays). Good luck finding this material if you’re using online dictionaries exclusively.

Second at the AALS meeting, Professor Eugene Volokh buttonholed me to say that he takes five minutes from each firstyear class he teaches at UCLA to discuss English usage. He wants his students to become language-conscious by becoming dictionary-conscious. Why is the correct phrase just deserts, not *just desserts? What’s the difference between consist in and consist of, susceptible to and susceptible of? Did the students even notice that the opinion they were assigned to read used the phrases consist in and susceptible of? Did they look up the phrases in a reputable dictionary or usage guide?

“Students need to consult dictionaries!” Volokh insisted. As a lexicographer, I heartily agree. In doing so, you’ll learn nuance, idiom, and even some doctrine.

Let’s say you have a lively interest in dictionaries. What kinds of things will you start noticing?

One example: In days gone by, grammarians and dictionary-writers would illustrate word usage with examples that were homiletic: they contained little moral lessons. In a discussion of nouns, for example, the grammarian Lindley Murray used these examples:

“The boy is studious; that girl is discreet.” (It was 1795.)

“Blessings attend us on every side; be grateful, children of men!”

The idea was for the examples to ennoble the young reader.

Noah Webster, the father of American dictionaries, did much the same. In his 1828 definition of story, he added this note: “There is probably on record no story more interesting than that of Joseph in Genesis.” In the definition of grow, he fabricated this example: “Lax morals may grow from errors in opinion.” And he was apparently no fan of fashion. In the entry for fashion, he contributed this: “Fashion is an inexorable tyrant, and most of the world its willing slaves.”

But the moralistic days of attempted ennoblement have passed us by. No one illustrates this better than Noah Webster’s successors. Today the best-selling of all modern desktop dictionaries, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), actually incorporates amoral messages. Take the verb bogart, meaning either “to bully” or “to hog (something); to use without sharing.” The lexicographers might have illustrated bogarting with any number of items being bogarted. Their choice? “To bogart a joint.”

What are these lexicographers smoking? They could have illustrated the word scene with any number of terms: the literary scene, the theater scene, etc. But instead they made it “the drug scene.”

* * *

Sometimes one wonders why lexicographers miss a word’s core sense. Consider the term ladies’ man (preferably not lady’s man). It’s a term laden with potential dangers (which I intend to avoid). There is, for example, no parallel term: men’s lady just doesn’t exist. (Perhaps femme fatale is the counterpart. But I’d better redirect this discussion.) Here’s the point: Merriam-Webster defines ladies’ man as “a man who shows a marked fondness for the company of women or is esp. attentive to them.” And Webster’s New World College Dictionary closely tracks that idea: “a man very fond of the company of women and very attentive to them.” (Yes, the dictionary-writers look over one another’s shoulder.) In both definitions, the main element is missing: a fond and attentive man could still be so smarmy or oafish as to seem repulsive to women. (Think of the old Jerry Lewis movies.) In truth, a ladies’ man must be not only fond of women but also popular with them. What makes it so hard for lexicographers to say that?

Seemingly the only mainstream dictionary to get this right is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, which defines the term as “a man who enjoys and attracts the company of women.” Ah, “and attracts.” That’s the key. But American Heritage puts the entry under the less logical singular form—lady’s man, as opposed to ladies’ man.

All this shows why it’s so important, if you’re a serious logophile, or word-lover, to consult more than one dictionary.

* * *

Despite spell-checkers, which have a unifying effect on English orthography, variant spellings (formerly called “misspellings”) are making headway in many modern dictionaries. Merriam-Webster now records *idealogy as a variant form of ideology; *miniscule as a variant form of minuscule (the word has nothing to do with the prefix mini-); *rarify as a variant of rarefy; *restauranteur as a variant ofrestaurateur; *sherbert as a variant spelling of sherbet; *supercede as a variant of supersede; and so on. If enough people misspell a word in print—even 10 percent or 15 percent of the time—the mainstream lexicographers tend to record the misspelling as a “variant,” a “nonetymological variant,” or a “secondary variant.” How anodyne those terms sound. Embrace diversity! the lexicographers seem to say. Can *accomodate and *innoculate be far behind?

The mere inclusion of a variant in a dictionary doesn’t mean it’s fit for use: beware, and learn how to consult your dictionary knowledgeably. Again: read the front matter. (Why do so few users do that?) And if you want a dictionary that hasn’t slid down the road to including lots of misspellings as variants, stick to Macmillan’s Webster’s New World College Dictionary or The New Oxford American Dictionary. The Macmillan publication, for example, is fairly straight-talking: it omits any misspelling of *idealogy, labels *minuscule “erroneous,” lists *restauranteur as a variant, labels *sherbert “erroneous”; and ignores *supercede.

Now let me give you a little “front matter” of my own. Did you notice the asterisks before the misspellings listed above? That’s the linguist’s way of noting an error. It’s not a star of recommendation. It’s a variation of what used to be termed an obelus—that is, a mark once used in classic manuscripts and dictionaries to denote that a word or a passage is corrupt or spurious. To obelize is to mark something as somehow erroneous or doubtful. In earlier days, the obelus was a division sign (÷), but modern linguistic texts use the asterisk.

Speaking of the asterisk, there are two instances of sibilance in the word: asterisk, not *asterik. Have you noticed, though, how the second s is seriously in risk of its life? People are omitting it left and right. But it’s decidedly not like the t in often. So let’s sound the battle cry: “Asterisk has no aphthong!” (An aphthong, remember, is a suppressed sound within a word.)

And what does Merriam-Webster do about asterisk? You’ll never believe it: the book records the variant pronunciation, noting that it appears especially in the plural, but it obelizes the mispronunciation with (÷). Here’s how the front matter explains that mark: “The obelus, or division sign, is placed before a pronunciation variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable.” The misspelled and mispronounced *asterik certainly deserves, if not an obelus, at least an asterisk.

Logophilia may not be for everyone. But if you’re hoping to become a lawyer—whose only tools are words—it had better be for you. You’ll fare better.



Vol. 41 No. 6

Bryan Garner BRYAN A. GARNER is distinguished research professor of law at Southern Methodist University and lecturer in law at the University of Texas School of Law. He is editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author of many books, including Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (2012) and Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (2008), both cowritten with Justice Antonin Scalia.

Popular Stories