Sunday, September 09, 2007

When do we look up words?

Me, I'm a pretty heavy dictionary user ... I look up words to see if there's some meaning I don't have a handle on even when it's not immediately relevant, or wondering if there's some etymological wrinkle, or just to see when the word is first attested, whatever. You just don't know what you might learn about language, history, technology. And that's pure pleasurable curiosity, since my work with language doesn't involve words in any serious way.

With the most famous generation of American lexicographers since Noah Webster — the good-god-almighty dictionary people like Ben Zimmer, Erin McKean, Jesse Sheidlower — you read their stuff and know they love words like Montgomery Burns loves gold bullion. I figure they wear out paper dictionaries faster than toothbrushes.

Contrast that with William Safire — he makes his living off of talking about words, but seems to be very choosy about when he touches a dictionary. As noted before (search 'Safire'), I started blogging in part to vent about Safire's amateurish meanderings. And I learned, as the bumper sticker has it: "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." But, as Elvis Costello said so well, "Oh, I used to be disgusted, and now I try to be amused".* Amused but curious: One of his constant blunders is failing to look up the words he's discussing in the dictionary. Why, then, of all columns, does he start out "Redact this" today with:
When with-it users of language need a word to describe a suddenly increasing activity, we either create a new one — a neologism like blog, a borrowing like au courant — or we dust off a somewhat-related old word and give it a whole new meaning.
First off, for the kids, with-it means 'up-to-date' or something. He actually had his assistant look up redact in OED, to pull a citation from 1432? Then, the meaning has changed, and he doesn't raise hell about it? What makes this change OK when a gazillion others aren't?

OK, maybe I don't care that much.
I'm bored
I'm the chairman of the bored
— Iggy Pop

* In honor of his affection for threadbare platitudes, I thought about constructing this post entirely out of cliches from beyond his cultural realm. Too hard. My average writing time per post is now up to about 2 minutes, 45 seconds, way too high.


Anonymous said...

Once again, if you want a really direct and stark contrast, consider Safire and Jan Freeman's column today, here. It's topical (baseball), gets at two kinds of structural points cleanly and clearly (verb valence and stress clash), relies on serious expert advice (Zwicky, Liberman), etc.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Hmph. Are these the same Brits who say "agree a contract"? They've got a lot of nerve.

Wishydig said...

I was thinking the same thing about Safire's piece. With the added note that he picks one older meaning of redact as the 'original' with the apparent agenda of illustrating semantic narrowing. Even though the word has done some generalizing and some shifting: both denotative and connotative and...well--he painted his usual incomplete picture.

I was thinking of a post then I thought surely there's a language issue out there more interesting and surprising than Safire's myopia.

Jan said...

Jan said:

Glad you liked the Word column, anonymous, but it isn't really about baseball; the editors were reaching a bit when they called it "Yankees win." But to good effect, I now see!