Do “Sexting” and “Mash-Up” Belong in the Dictionary?

Lawyers are masters of words! Or something.

Despite evidence to the contrary, such as the trainloads of awful legal writing we all plow through every day, lawyers are in fact professional writers. As one of them, you may find yourself cringing when you hear the new words and phrases that some dictionaries add each year.

Ever wonder why you feel either delighted or horrified when you hear that “man cave” will now have a place in that hallowed tome traditionally given to young students? Just by feeling one way or the other, you are an unknowing participant in a long and bloody war over our language.

Language changes over time, of course. If it didn’t, we’d all still be communicating with grunts, shrieks, and by throwing rocks.[1] Those who publish dictionaries are glad about this, as it necessitates the purchase of new dictionaries.

You do that for a living?!

Lexicographers get to decide what new words will get into next year’s edition, and by doing so must choose where to position themselves in the war between descriptivists, who see their role as merely describing how the language is currently being used, and prescriptivists, who feel their role is to guide the reader on how to speak and write well.

Until the 1960s, prescriptivism dominated. But 1961 brought Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, and the language wars (as part of the larger culture wars) began in earnest. Think of it as the war between lexicographical conservatism vs. progressivism, with prescriptivists seeking to be guardians of the language, which suggests protecting it from harm. Descriptivists see the language as “living” (sound familiar, recovering ex-Con Law students?) and reflecting the development of culture. The language doesn’t need to be protected, they’d say, and a good dictionary is a guide to the language as it is, not as it should be.

Seeking peace in the kingdom

In his terrific Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner[2] attempts to resolve the conflict,[3] or at least find a way around it. You can read the book’s introductory essay on the subject, or, if you’re feeling adventurous, read David Foster Wallace’s Authority and American Usage, an essay/review of the first edition of Garner’s book. It’s classic Wallace, which is to say it’s brilliant, sprawling, a bit maddening, and unforgettable.

The care and feeding of neologisms

Garner concedes that there is sound thinking driving both the prescriptivist and the descriptivist positions. Garner developed a method of balancing the two. This is his “Language Change Index.” It’s a one-to-five scale of the degree of acceptance of new words, phrases, and usages. The stages begin when the new word, phrase, or usage appears:

1) rejected
2) widely shunned
3) widespread but . . .
4) ubiquitous but . . .
5) accepted.

Garner also uses an asterisk to point out what he feels are “invariably inferior words and phrases.” (He just couldn’t stop himself.)

So, what of “sexting” and “mash-up”? Merriam-Webster gets a lot of free publicity when its list of new entries is released annually. A smart bit of marketing, to be sure. But will “sexting” be in use in ten years? Probably not. But how does the continuing decline of bound books in favor of e-books and continually update-able online resources fit into this debate? Put “sexting” in now, take it out later. Simple.

Ultimately, the language can’t be “guarded.” It’s going to change anyway. And dictionaries should track that change, but without chasing silly buzzwords. But everyone who writes should strive to get better, and that’s why Garner’s book does just what its title says, by discussing usage. Because most writing (legal or otherwise) needs some guidance in terms of its usage.


[1] Insert your own joke about the recent political campaigns here.
[2]No, Garner doesn’t pay me to mention him every time I discuss legal writing—it’s just that not mentioning his work would be a dereliction of duty. He did thank me on Twitter once, which was sort of cool.
[3]This is not a usage guide specifically for lawyers. But fear not; he wrote one of those too.

(photo: emoticon smiley on computer keyboard from Shutterstock)

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