I HAVE RELIED ON and have an almost exclusive user of the Merriam-Webster dictionary for a long time—years before I began using the internet. In grade school, I was informed that the important word in a dictionary was not “Webster”—which was public domain and therefore generic and therefore useless as a sign of quality. It was the “Merriam” that assured quality.
I have been getting disgruntled with MW of late, as it seems to have adopted a more lax and more descriptive take on the use of the language. Needless to say, I prefer my dictionaries to be as prescriptive as possible. The BIG break came a few weeks ago:
I started a new job and began my training. Both of my instructors are considerably younger than I am. Like so many occupations, the position is rife with jargon—I really wanted to use nomenclature but it is the less accurate of the two choices here—and there are LOTS of abbreviations.
A prescriptive dictionary is almost entirely mythical, a meme ginned up by the media in the early 1960s and repeated endlessly for fifty years with no fact-checking.
Both instructors consistently referred to common abbreviations as “acronyms.” Well, I did not want to begin my training by correcting my trainers, so I kept my mouth shut. (And the fact that none of the other trainees seemed to notice this discrepancy made me even more reticent.)
Then, on Friday, while researching another subject, I found myself in Merriam-Webster and looked up the word acronym. Here is what I found under their full definition:
1. A word formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term.
Common acronyms include NATO (for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), radar (radio detection and ranging), laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and scuba (self contained underwater breathing apparatus).
2. An abbreviation formed from initial letters.
Common abbreviations include USA (United States of America), FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), and RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America).
The first definition above defines acronym as something distinct from a regular abbreviation, but the second definition above tells us that acronym is synonymous with abbreviation!
So then, why would the editors at Merriam-Webster define a specialized abbreviation as a mere abbreviation, thereby lumping it in with normal abbreviations?
Because so many of the aforementioned young people are misusing the word and Merriam-Webster is going along for the ride without questioning the inclusion of an incorrect meaning—and confusing to those who know the correct meaning—in their pages!
This is what has recently happened to such words as moot (which has long meant debatable and now seems to have a myriad of meanings based on the writer) and scan (to examine closely or to read everything on a page), both of which are misused with cringe-causing regularity by professional scribblers.
The first definition of these words—the old definition, the correct definition—is the one that everyone who knows anything about the English language usually uses when communicating—meaning we could be miscommunicating without realizing it!
Or perhaps I should say that it is the definition that everyone over a certain age who doesn’t work in certain fields that attract young workers has known for decades.
After a parent complained about an elementary school student stumbling across “oral sex” in a classroom dictionary, Menifee Union School District (California) officials pulled their Merriam-Webster dictionaries from all school shelves. “It’s just not age appropriate,” a district representative said. Censorship knows no bounds.
The prescriptive dictionary is an urban legend
But our dictionaries appear to becoming ever more descriptive and our language ever more influenced by such things as hip-hop slang, advertising clichés, the aforementioned jargonization of terms in modern businesses, and other influences that are “corrupting” the language.
And I am not pleased: I prefer authoritative dictionaries that “prescribe” correct usage but note contemporary use (or misuse). That is, like elsewhere, I want to know the rules before I beak them.
So, I did a little research in search of the best prescriptive dictionary available online and free. This led me to an interesting article regarding the definition of and differences between prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries. Titled “Comparing and Arguing About Dictionaries,” by Grant Barrett for The Way With Words website (September 7, 2012), it addresses misconceptions regarding both, especially the former. 1
Prescriptivism versus descriptivism
“Prescriptivism is the assertion and enforcement of a specific set of rules by a person or institution. In dictionaries, prescriptivism means the dictionary explains there are language rules that should be followed and that certain forms or usages should be avoided. Usually these prescriptions and proscriptions are traditional and represent “received wisdom” that has been passed from teacher to pupil for a long time.
Descriptivism in a lexicographical context means that language behaviors and usage of language-users are examined by the editors. A set of characteristics that describe the language are derived from that study and then explained.
Descriptivists sometimes describe prescriptivists as people who use circular logic or beg the question: This rule is the rule because it is the rule. They may also describe them as elitist and snobby.
Prescriptivists sometimes describe descriptivists as people who have no standards and are allowing morons to ruin the language, since, by not exclusively following the examples of those who call themselves grammar experts, we are allowing common people to influence how everyone should speak.
Do prescriptivist dictionaries even exist?
So are there prescriptivist dictionaries? Not really. Dictionaries are based on descriptivist principles (largely using corpora and citation files as their source data) because that’s how dictionaries are made. If reference work is mostly prescriptivist, it is no longer a dictionary. It is a style guide or a usage guide and will be labeled and sold as such. [emphasis added]
Dictionaries do often have usage panels (made of experts who give advice on frequently disputed language matters) and dictionaries do often include usage notes which can contain prescriptivist notions.
But usage notes usually serve to describe common debates and resolve common confusions and not to demand certain linguistic behavior or to excoriate those who practice certain modes of speech or writing.
Prescriptivist usage and style guides do often demand and excoriate, even going so far as to call practitioners of certain speech and writing habits fools, idiots, uneducated, lazy, low-class, or contemptible, sometimes in those exact words.”
A few more observations from experts
“Like our competitors, the editorial staff of the American Heritage Dictionaries crafts definitions based on citational evidence that shows how the word is used. The American Heritage Dictionary is NOT considered a prescriptive dictionary, although, like most cases, it does provide a small amount of prescriptive information.” – Steve Kleinedler, Executive Editor of American Heritage Dictionaries 2
“When the Oxford American Dictionary appeared in 1980, its publicity claimed it ‘lays down the law about usage.’ That’s the last truly prescriptive claim I can recall for any standard dictionary, and of course even at the time it was … exaggerated.” – Jonathan Lighter, editor in chief of the Historical Dictionary Of American Slang 2
“I’ve recently looked at the history of the so-called prescriptive versus descriptive dictionaries. The distinction is almost entirely mythical, a meme ginned up by the media in the early 1960s and repeated endlessly for fifty years with no fact-checking.” – Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary Of The English Language 2
A single source to end all arguments
So, a it looks like I am out of luck wanting to find a prescriptionist dictionary and a source to end all usage arguments. It also looks like I will be more acceptable—though not approving—of the too flexible use of acronym. And I will be using the Free Dictionary as a secondary go-to source henceforth!
So then, I—a prescriptionist—am in error: the use of the word acronym to describe common abbreviations is now sanctioned by the descriptionists in charge of the dictionaries and I could on dictionaries and acronyms even more but why torture you, the reader, heyna?
And without dictionaries, well, where would we be?
1 Note that Mr. Barrett’s article is just under 1,500 words in length; my abridged version above is just over 300 words, so there is lots more to read at the Way With Words site. So, interested readers—and if you are my reader, you’d best be interested—should click on over and read the other 1,200 words.
2 This quote is included in the article “Comparing and Arguing About Dictionaries.”