I remember the moment when I lost my innocence as regards dictionaries. I was a teenager with bookish inclinations (I had been able to read since I was 3 years old), and I was used to being well acquainted with just about every English word I heard or saw in print. But at some point (I no longer remember the context) I encountered, in a clearly respectable source, the word charisma. I had never heard it or seen it. This disturbed me, so I turned to my 1951 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, which I had won as a prize in a high-school essay competition (the only high point in my high-school career; by the age of 16, I was a high school dropout heading for a career as a professional rock musician). And there it wasn’t: no entry between charioteer and charitable. I was shocked. A clearly established and meaningful word that simply wasn’t in the dictionary?
Today in one minute I can do a piece of research that would have taken years in the 1970s: the graph of frequency in thousands of printed books between 1940 and 1990 (courtesy of the Google Ngram Viewer) reveals that charisma and charismatic were quite rare when I was in high school but saw a dramatic increase in frequency between 1955 and 1975:
Although charisma was attested, the editor of the 1951 edition of the Concise Oxford, one E. McIntosh, had not thought it frequent enough to merit inclusion, circa 1950. Later, of course, that judgment was revised (I’m not sure which edition was the first to include the word, but it’s there in the 1991 edition and subsequent ones).
Eventually I began to notice other shortcomings. Various rude Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, unmentionable here but frequently uttered by my coarser school friends when out of the earshot of teachers, were of course just as absent from my dictionary as charisma. Technical terms like cunnilingus and fellatio were also missing, I found (as gamahuche is, even from later editions). Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) was still very recent, and Mr. McIntosh was evidently not prepared to risk introducing dictionary users to words for such taboo practices.
But the failings involved more than just gaps in coverage. The word awful was defined thus: “Inspiring awe; worthy of profound respect; solemnly impressive.” How could this cover The food was absolutely awful ? There was a brief note about a slang meaning, “notable in its kind”; but “The food was absolutely notable in its kind” is not even a rough approximation to the right meaning. And as for how to interpret He looked awfully silly ? Not even a clue to that.
I began to realize that dictionaries cannot necessarily be relied upon to provide an accurate record of what words there currently are, or what they now mean. There must be some other arbiter. And the only thing it could be is the collective wisdom of the community of expert users of the language. Such as me.
For many that truth still hasn’t dawned. Every time a dictionary publisher puts out a press release detailing the words that have been added or dropped from the new edition, the newspapers run stories about it as if election results were being announced. And the portion of the general public that glories in writing indignant letters to the press expressing revulsion and shock write indignant letters to the press expressing revulsion and shock, as if the dictionary were some sort of legislative assembly or licensing authority whose decisions need to be appealed or petitioned against.
Just a few weeks ago Merriam-Webster added cisgender, gender-fluid genderqueer, nonbinary, transphobia, and hundreds of other words to its unabridged dictionary. This inspired a level-headed article on lexicography in The Atlantic, quoting wise words from Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster: “If a word is likely to be encountered by an adult, it’s time for that word to go into the dictionary.” But it also prompted “Marguerite House of the Cody Enterprise in Wyoming to muse on the conjectural (but not Merriam-Webster-adopted) word baconsphere: “I think the time has come to make it official.”
She probably meant this with tongue in cheek; but it’s important that making things official is exactly what dictionaries don’t do. Genderqueer is no more official than baconsphere. It’s just that the editors at Merriam-Webster have decided that adult readers today might encounter the former often enough (at least 10 times so far in The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example) that some of them might do what I recall doing with charisma, and try to look it up.
I didn’t need charisma to be “official”; I just wanted a clue to what the person who used it had meant by it.Return to Top