Fiddlesticks and Lexicography
What do you do if you’re not sure what a word means? Wait for it… You look it up in The Dictionary. So far we’re together, right? This is chicken-crossed-the-road-to-get-to-the-other-side level stuff.
But what if The Dictionary disagrees with The Dictionary? I looked up fiddlesticks the other day (long story), and this is what I found:
Merriam-Webster: “nonsense—used as interj.”
American Heritage: “Interj. Used to express mild annoyance or impatience.”
The two dictionaries agree that fiddlesticks is an interjection, but their two definitions are clearly not the same.
I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard anyone use fiddlesticks the way Merriam-Webster defines it; I’ve heard only the sense given by the AHD. You accidentally drop the box of nails ten feet off the step ladder into the mud and, especially if you’re a conservative Christian and therefore have a comparatively limited available lexicon of annoyance interjections, you say, “Aw, fiddlesticks!”
One guess: maybe this difference between dictionaries reflects regional variation—maybe English-speakers outside the US go with those upstarts Merriam and Webster (who do they think they are!?), while the rest of us remain true to our American Heritage. But I don’t know.
I do know that fiddlesticks provides a small example of an important truth: dictionaries are imperfect tools made by (highly trained, generally reliable, but limited) people. The dictionary can be wrong. Not capital-R wrong, just wrong for your situation. In some cases, the dictionary you hold might lead you astray. If I say “fiddlesticks” and you think I’m telling my scattered nails they’re nonsensical, you misunderstand me. You can say I’m wrong and point triumphantly to Merriam-Webster, but I’ll just whip out my trusty AHD (I always take it with me on stepladders) and we’ll be back where we started.
Dictionaries are actually not the ultimate court of appeal for what a word means. Dictionaries are merely records of careful reading and listening. They’re asking, “What do people typically mean when they use fiddlesticks?” So a great deal depends on this question: to whom are they listening? There is no law in the Bible that English-speakers in Florida and English-speakers in Minnesota—or in Singapore (where English is an official language)—must mean precisely the same thing by fiddlesticks. Regional variation (and that’s just one reason for lexical variation) is one of the things that makes language interesting. You say soda, I say pop.
You disagree? Then we’ll have to settle this the old-fashioned way: my dictionary’s bigger than your dictionary!