I’ve been struggling with this essay for a bit, hence the delay (notice I’m not apologizing for being off by a week). I knew I wanted to write about language in some way, but I’ve felt so darn speechless—uh, wordless—given world events.
There’s always a way back from the dark, though. As I aimlessly clicked from one web story to another, I found these words from E. B. White:
A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.”
– E. B. White from an interview with The Paris Review, 1969, via Brain Pickings
I like Mr. White’s thoughts here, expressed over forty years ago. I hate to be mad all the time too. In times like these, don’t forget to follow your curiosity—it’s your lifejacket. Grab it and hang on. In my case, I grabbed onto the 1960 dictionary war.
If you think that’s a stretch, read on.
The last great dictionary war
I’d been pouring back over Mary Norris’s Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, (I’ll try not to reference it in every post from now on, I promise), and in Chapter 1, fittingly called “Spelling is for Weirdos”, she explains the hierarchy of dictionary use at The New Yorker, and how the dictionary war of the early 60s resulted in the magazine sticking with Merriam-Webster’s and the New York Times going with upstart Webster’s New World.
Dictionary war? Ah-ha! Maybe I could write about the secret life of lexicographers (nice people who write dictionaries). I’ve since learned writing about words is a lot less glamorous than I imagined. Kory Stamper from Merriam-Webster explains that “Lexicographers do not sit in sleek conference rooms and make your language.”
Sigh. Oh, well.
But part of me still hopes for a little drama. How did bootylicious make it into the OED? How did that same OED delete thousands words from the English language? (Think about it, thousands of words…GONE. That word on the tip of your tongue? It was deleted.) And how, in 1960, did Webster’s Third New International Dictionary cause the shit to hit the fan?
Here’s how the story goes:
First you need to know that there’s a Webster’s and then there’s a Merriam-Webster’s. Same Webster, different dictionaries.
Noah Webster (1758-1843) is the man Americans have to thank for simplifying and revolutionizing American English. His An American Dictionary of the English Language dropped the “u” in color, changed cheque to check, and replaced plough with plow (and thank goodness for that).
After Webster’s death, the Merriam brothers purchased the rights and unbound sheets of Webster’s dictionary and published An American Dictionary of the English Language (New Revised Edition) in 1847. But, by 1889, the copyright of Webster’s original dictionary expired, and the courts ruled the name Webster was public domain. Webster products began popping up all over the place. In other words, anyone could publish a dictionary and slap the name Webster on the cover.
(FYI, if you want a descendant of Noah Webster’s hard work, you need a Merriam-Webster.)
To stay ahead in the dictionary game meant the Merriam brothers had to release bigger, better dictionaries, which led to Webster’s International Dictionary of the English Language (1890), Webster’s New International Dictionary (1909), and finally Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition (1934). But, then came Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, or Webster’s Third, in 1960.
Let’s just say things did not go well. The dictionary featured no capitalization (united states), defined hundreds of so-called lowbrow words (ain’t), and removed almost all the labels that signaled a word’s substandard origins (“colloquial,” “slang,” “cant,” “erroneous,” and “vulgar.”)
The point the editors of Webster’s Third were trying to make was that a dictionary should not only catalogue language as it should be used (prescriptive) but language as it is actually used (descriptive). That may not seem like a big deal today, but at the time it was radical and editors from coast to coast called for torches and pitchforks. By the way, the word ain’t had been included in many dictionaries already, so picking on Webster’s Third for that was unfair.
Unfortunately, the Webster’s Third debacle had torpedoed Merriam-Webster’s lexicographic hold on the nation. By the 1970s, a rival product, Webster’s New World Dictionary became the choice of New York Times, Associated Press, and others.
So what does that have to do with me?
Any-hoo, thanks to Mary Norris, I rushed downstairs to check on which dictionary I had. I’d never paid much attention to them, really. I thought I had a Webster’s, but I wasn’t sure.
Success! I have Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition, (not the most recent 11th Edition, but still very respectable). It’s called the Little Red Web by the staff at The New Yorker. I also have a Webster Universal Dictionary (1963), which seems to be some sort of British product from Collins. It mysteriously appeared on my shelf at university and once belonged to someone named R.A.V. Lovegrove.
But hold on a second. No Canadian dictionary? After some fast digging through boxes in my basement, I came up with no less than four junior student Canadian dictionaries bought for my kids in elementary school. High school didn’t require one, I guess. Who needs a dictionary when you can Google a word on your phone?
(I asked one such high school person who lives in my house if he’d ever done such a thing—look up a word on his phone to confirm the spelling—and he claims he hasn’t. Great.)
I will come clean and confess that, while I own a dozen books on writing, grammar and style, I don’t own a desk reference Canadian dictionary. I’ve vowed to get one.
A Google search for which dictionary Canadians use brings up the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, which has roots in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary (OED). There’s also the Gage Canadian Dictionary, which I used in school. I must be a word nerd if I remember that.
My best find by far was this thing called the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DHCP). Never heard of it? Stand by…
The DCHP was first published in 1967 by Gage Ltd. as a companion to Gage Canadian Dictionary. It documents the historical development of Canadian English words by showing “changes in the meanings of words over time, using a series of dated quotations“.
How cool is that!
The first edition of the DCHP (aptly named DCHP-1), is online and free to use. A second edition (DCHP-2), is reportedly under construction at the University of British Columbia. DCHP-1 is unbearably clunky to use and looks terrible, but I beg you to persevere.
Just select Browse Archive and you’ll find:
- Democrat n. a light, two-horse wagon, having springs and two, sometimes three, seats.
- Laker n. a North American char, Cristivomer namaycush, having important commercial value.
- Nipper n. the person responsible for getting equipment and material from the station to the workplace, that is, the spot where the mining operation is being carried out.
Every word in the DCHP is a gem, a complete story in its own right. Every Canadian, and writer who writes Canadian, should know about it. Pass the word.
Sidebar: What’s Canadian English?
So what’s Canadian English? A little of this, a little of that…
In my experience, the one word that places you as either Commonwealth or Republic is colour (color).
- centre, center,
- traveller, traveler
- cheque, check
Plus British words that Canadians don’t tend to use:
- program, programme
- realize, realise
- acknowledgment, acknowledgement
There’s quite a list if you want to go deep. This Wikipedia chart compares spelling of a few English words across the globe so you can see where Canada fits compared with other English speaking nations.
And finally, there are uniquely Canadian words, like:
- toque (you know one when you see one)
- two-four, mickey and twenty-sixer (no comment)
- freezie (orange is best)
- riding (as in electoral district)
- Canuck (of course)
Thanks to a career working for Canadian companies selling products to U.S. markets, I confess I’ve grown accustomed to dropping the “u” in color, and I don’t like to double the “l”.
Canadian dictionary scandals
I haven’t uncovered secret plans to eliminate hundreds of Canadianisms. More digging required. However, I did find out that before World War II, Canadian newspapers used American spellings (what?)–they were just easier for the typesetters. Now, most publications follow Canadian Press (CP) style, which favors Canadian Oxford English.
There was also this dust up about Canada’s national bird, the Gray Jay (American spelling of gray).
So what’s next?
Obviously, you’re now in a position to impress people at parties with dictionary slang:
- OED, the Oxford English Dictionary, you know the one
- Little Red Web (per the The New Yorker), also known as Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary
- Webster’s Third and Webster’s Second, the picked-on third edition and the exalted second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary
- COD, Canadian Oxford Dictionary, go on, impress your friends!
- DCHP, Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, for real Canadian word nerds
- Webster’s New World, or WNW5, used by the New York Times
And you can check out these extra articles and resources about the making and caring of dictionaries:
- Nice summary of the brouhaha over Webster’s Third
- An article about sensationalist dictionary reporting
- Information about Noah Webster
- On why a Canadian dictionary is important, from the Oxford University Press
If you care about language, and, as Mr. White would say, want to “accept the warming rays of the sun”, don’t forget to hold your dictionary close. There’s more good stuff in there than you think. And, hug a lexicographer if you have the chance.
If you’ve heard of any more dictionary wars, word scandals or let me know.