The Elites

by Nov 4, 2013Linguistics1 comment

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 7.29.08 PMThe American Heritage Dictionary advertises its Usage Panel fairly prominently on its web page:

The Usage Panel is a group of nearly 200 prominent scholars, creative writers, journalists, diplomats, and others in occupations requiring mastery of language. The Panelists are surveyed annually to gauge the acceptability of particular usages and grammatical constructions.

But let not that passive, nominalized word “acceptability” obscure what’s really going on here: the question is whether these 200 elites accept the given usages and constructions, not whether they are, in general, according to some impersonal and universal standard, acceptable.

And that is precisely what you and I care about when we use a dictionary: what do the people I want to impress think of the word I’ve chosen here? Do they say “whole ‘nother,” or should I desist given the elites’ recorded antipathy toward such colloq. silliness? Should I spell “judgement” my way, or is that a little too arch. for my readership? What will the admissions board think of me if I write, “Hopefully, I won’t arrive in Boston with little money to speak of”? Will they tsk-tsk me for committing errors in the first and last words of my sentence? Without the AHD usage panel’s advice, I might use a favoured expression which inadvertently makes me sound chiefly Brit.

Though I’m not sure about the diplomats, the numerous writers on the list—and other fine language observers and auteurs—are worth listening to when they give this advice. They have a finely honed ear shaped by many thousands of hours of reading and writing very well English. They know—they just know—when hyphens are needed. Yeah, they learned the “rules” in school but, much more importantly, they know what well-regarded English writers actually do, and they know how those choices communicate meaning to the ever-shrinking group known as the reading public. Language mastery is something you feel in your bones, or no amount of rule-memorizing will help you.

So I can’t really complain about the make up of the usage panel. The eleven Harvard profs on the list belong there. But I do find it very interesting that the liberal, multi-cultural, politically correct crowd that form the list recognizes intuitively (probably not explicitly, given something Steven Pinker has said) that a usage panel is not the place for true inclusiveness. Mechanics, truck drivers, petty criminals, evangelical pastors, and other holders of low-on-the-totem-pole occupations don’t deserve to be represented—never mind that each of those fields has its own jargon that could enrich a truly descriptive dictionary. But these jobs don’t define our cultural high standard, so I actually agree with the usage panel’s exclusivity.

Nonetheless, I still want in. I wanna be on the panel.

So this is my semi-public plea to Steven Pinker, AHD Usage Panel chair: make one token stab at honoring that principle of inclusiveness I’m sure you value. And do it with your own stated criteria of language mastery firmly in mind: choose one good pastor-theologian for your panel. Pastor-theologians use English about as intimately as anyone can in a formal setting. They preach. And every preacher knows viscerally what effects his words bring. He can see responses written all over his audience’s faces. Pastor-theologians can also offer help with theological jargon. And given that .000006% of the market for the AHD are theologians, this is important.

So I’m offering my services, Dr. Pinker. Just search my “Linguistics” category for proof that I get lexicography (and even that I’m a bit obsessive about it). I’ll help you answer the all-important questions: how do English speakers actually use the theological terms in our vocabulary? I won’t sneak theologically conservative definitions in; I’ll let majority rule as a dictionary should.

My name and alma mater (and the status of our accreditation at the time of the conferral of my degrees) can go in excessively small print at the bottom of an obscure page.

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1 Comment
  1. Don Johnson

    I think it would be great if you got in. But as for ‘judgement’ – spelling it any other way just seems so wrong to me. Almost-but-not-quite fingernails on the blackboard wrong. Of course, you know where I am from.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3


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