Friday, March 20, 2015

Erin McKean on how dictionaries work

Lexicographer Erin McKean, interviewed for The Chicago Manual of Style ’s Shop Talk:

I’d love for dictionary entries to be used as you’d use the technical specs for some piece of equipment. In the same way that you’d check whether the washing machine you want to buy has the right cubic capacity for your household, you’d look up a word to check whether it had the right denotation, range of use, tone, literary allusions, or what-have-you for your intended use. The role of the dictionary is to help you decide on the right word for you, not to rule whether something is or isn’t a word.

I truly believe that if something is used as a word, it’s a word. The rest is just bookkeeping.
Related posts
Erin McKean talks (Why isn’t asshat in the dictionary?)
A “wheelchair dude” in our Macs

comments: 3

Geo-B said...

Well, there are certain machines, like cameras and musical instruments, which are meant to be used precisely for what they weren't meant to be used. You're making art if you're pushing the camera to its outer edges, you're making music if you stretch what people think your ax can achieve. A dictionary? Just as we're constantly redefining music and art, I take its advice as a suggestion at best.

Zhoen said...

Amen. Unless playing scrabble with other people.

Have you been over to Strong Language yet?

Michael Leddy said...

George, your advice is well taken. I’d put it alongside John McPhee’s advice about searching the dictionary.

Zhoen, no, I had not seen that site. The tags alone are hilarious. The post on “feelthy” brand names reminds me of the undue hilarity my wife and I used to find in the idea of Pepperidge Farm Shiitake Soup.