Duck Duck Book

38 – the official dictionary
11.10.2006, 8:38 pm
Filed under: language

The official dictionary of unofficial English : a crunk omnibus for thrillionaires and bampots for the Ecozoic Age / Grant Barrett.
New York : McGraw-Hill, c2006.
[MCL call number: 423.1 B274o 2006; two copies, no holds]

When you studied English in grade school, no doubt you were taught rules that illuminated the difference between the parts of speech, how to enforce the agreement between subject and object, and so on. Not all of those rules make sense if you examine them closely, but the main idea is that they are based in the way that English actually functions, the way English speakers use the language to express themselves. Modern dictionaries tend to work this way too; they carefully describe the meanings of words based on the authority of demonstrated usage. That is, the dictionary compiler includes definitions found in the language that people actually employ in their lives.

The problem is that making a dictionary is slow work; while creating new words, and new meanings for old words, happens as quickly as people can speak. Barrett’s rather slim dictionary includes only definitions he was unable to find in more established dictionaries — but here’s the funny thing: many of the words and phrases he includes can be documented awfully far back in the past:

  • buffet flat “a speakeasy or other unregulated or illegal entertainment establishment that sells alcohol, usually located in an apartment or home” — 1911
  • soup bunch “a bundle of vegetables and herbs used in the preparation of a soup — 1883
  • lumberjill ” a female lumberjack” — 1937

It’s not that I think the mainstream dictionaries are slacking off (in fact, I am kind of addicted to checking the list of new words that are added to the Oxford English Dictionary every three months, and some weird shit shows up there), but I do wonder how some of these words slipped through the cracks. Who expects that the noun “eco-roof,” or the verb “to gleek” would not be included in at least one major mainstream dictionary?

Barrett’s definitions are clear and eloquent, and the dictionary portion of the book is well laid out and easy to read. Barrett’s introduction explains a great deal about how dictionaries are usually made, and how this one was created. Another introductory chapter, “Changing English,” discusses some of the major forces for language change — especially the language of soldiers and military personnel, and the kind of plate tectonics that happens in places where communities speak more than one language simultaneously. The book would be a useful reference, if you needed that, but it also makes an interesting conversation piece.


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