Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Wingnut, But Not Moonbat, Added to the Dictionary.

From the PD via Plunderbund we learn that "wing nut" meaning "one who advocates extreme measures or changes : radical" will be added to the next edition of the Merriam Webster dictionary, and already appears online. No such entry, as of this year, for "moonbat."

This is sorta kinda fitting and sorta kinda not, given that Merriam-Webster is the leading liberal redoubt in the usage wars.

The what? You ask.

The language usage wars. In this age of hyper-politicization of everything, there are opposing camps even in an activity as dry and academic as writing dictionaries. In a review of Bryan Garner's1 A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, David Foster Wallace2 ledes:

    Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of US lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near-Lewinskian scale?
    For instance, did you know that some modern dictionaries are notoriously liberal and others notoriously conservative, and that certain conservative dictionaries were actually conceived and designed as corrective responses to the "corruption" and "permissiveness" of certain liberal dictionaries?

    * * *
    Did you know that US lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?

So Merriam Webster, being the most liberal, subscribes to a "descriptionist" methodology. Their mission is (supposedly) to catalog all the words people use and all the meanings they attach to those words. The conservative dictionaries -- the very conservatively named American Heritage Dictionary being something of the, well Heritage Foundation to Webster's Brookings in this field -- is prescriptivist. That is, they tell the rest of us what the language is, no arguments, and how anything outside the hard covers of AHD is simply wrong.

Example: While Merriam-Webster is adding a number of internet-derived words like malware and webinar, American Heritage has yet to include "blog." Gotta be painful for the Pajamas Media crowd.

As for the definition itself, I dissent. If Merriam-Webster really wants to be the descriptionists bible, they should pay closer attention to how people use the words. "Wing nut" is used consistently to denote an extreme conservative, not simply a radical of either wing. The counterpart for conservative derision of fringe lefties is "moonbat."3 Including4 a definition for wing nut without the fringe dweller across the aisle is simply wrong, descriptively speaking.5

1Yes, this Bryan Garner. It's somewhat ironic he apparently so opposes substantive footnotes given that one of the truly abject raves of his book -- and one worthy of a jacket quote, at least according to the publishers -- includes 80 footnotes over 56 pages of text as reproduced in the collection Consider the Lobster.

2My favorite living writer of both fiction and non-fiction and an enduring influence upon my own writing. For instance, I won't say that the blog would never include footnotes were it not for DFW, but his use of the device both as a writing tool and as a means for making meta points about language has certainly pushed me in an influence/homage/cheap imitation (depending on how you want to look at it) sort of way.

3Or if you are Matt Naugle and are describing anyone to the left of, say, Newt Gingrich, the term is "socialist." But whaddya expect from a wing nut?

4More accurately, expanding the existing definition vis-a-vis wing nut since the word already existed as denoting a piece of hardware.

5Which is a problem with the whole descriptivists project -- it's simply impossible to capture every construct and change of nuance, meaning at some point you choose and with that make the sorts of value judgments that descriptivists supposedly oppose. For more, see Foster's essay.

2 comments:

chellpenz said...

"Which is a problem with the whole descriptivists project -- it's simply impossible to capture every construct and change of nuance, meaning at some point you choose and with that make the sorts of value judgments that descriptivists supposedly oppose."

I don't think they (we) try to capture EVERY way a word can be used, but it is a push against saying, "This is how it must be used." There is something freakish about the need to control language, especially other people's language, that descrips. sense. Perhaps at the end of every series of definitions for a particular word, the last entry should be "& etc."

Modern Esquire said...

Damn you and your footnotes, Pho! :)