Words, or Linguistic Quagmires

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by Brian Manning

"A rose is a rose is a rose." - Gertrude Stein

Words: they are everywhere. Conversations, texts, mutterings, speeches, emails, treatises, colloquialisms, essays, signs, etc.—all brought forth through words. There is perhaps nothing as linked to the ephemeral world of thought than words, as evidenced by the fact that if human life were to cease this instant, this world would fall nearly silent, and the alien archeologists of tomorrow would find only minute evidence of the how we truly lived.

Dictionary pages

With language binding the world as it does, is it any wonder that many of the questions we receive on the Telephone Reference line here at the Enoch Pratt Free Library are concerned with words and language? A random sampling of questions dealing with language runs the gamut:

  • "Does this sentence sound grammatically correct?"
  • "How should I address a Doctor and his wife in this letter?"
  • "Can you tell me what this German word means?"
  • "What is the rule for using parentheses within parentheses?"
  • "How is ______ spelled?"

This last question is probably one of the most frequent and popular.

For this reason, one of the most utilized tools in the Telephone Reference office is the American Heritage Dictionary, which helps locate the "correct" spelling, application, and pronunciation of words. We also have the Oxford English Dictionary, also known as the OED (I like to say that it’s a good day when I get to refer to the OED for questions of etymology.)

James Gleick’s book, The InformationAh, the comfort that comes with turning to a dictionary as an irrefutable and sagacious source for putting to rest our befuddlement with words... or so I thought, until I read a chapter in James Gleick’s book The Information entitled "Two Wordbooks." Here, Mr. Gleick points out that the job of lexicographers and editors of dictionaries—as they themselves adhere to—is not to be the "arbitrator and exemplar" of a word’s usage and spelling, but rather to try and show a snapshot of the fluidity of language, and how words are being spelled and used by the public in general. Hence why the fish "maccarel" has thirty different spellings in the OED—Mr. Gleick explains that the lexicographers and editors would:

never declare these alternatives to be wrong: misspellings. They do not wish to declare their choice of spelling for the headword, mackerel, to be ‘correct.’ They emphasize that they examine the evidence and choose ‘the most common current spelling’....They know that no matter how often and how firmly they disclaim a prescriptive authority, a reader will turn to the dictionary to find out how a word should be spelled. (70)

Reading this passage sent chills down my spine, because it showed that even in the world of precise definitions, the ground is not solid and is capable of shifting. But isn’t this what makes language so interesting and vibrant—its ability to change? However, as long as there are questions about words and their spellings and meanings, I think it’s safe to say that we will continue to put our faith in the tenacity and educated guesses of lexicographers, and continue to turn to dictionaries as credible sources of such information.
The following are some of the more interesting language questions I’ve received while manning the Telephone Reference line:

  • How do you spell the name "Delilah," etc.? (Names especially do not have pre-ordained set spellings. We can only refer to the most popular spellings.)
  • How do you spell "Fallschirmjager?" (A WWII German paratrooper)
  • How do you pronounce "Habakkuk"?
  • What does the Hebrew word "Moshia" mean? ("Savior")
  • What is the correct spelling of "kryptonite?" (There’s an irony searching for the correct spelling for a fictional element, no?)

If you are interested in learning more about dictionaries, here are some other suggested readings:

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