Friday, December 13, 2019

Winning The Dictionary Wars

Image result for dictionary images

The Bloods and Crips.

The Middle East.

Yankees and Red Sox.

Over the decades, some battles and rivalries have persisted that leave us calling their confrontations wars.  Well, a new book talks not of gang wars, religious-nation wars, or even sports franchise competitions, but of big bad dictionaries battling for supremacy.

America declared its “linguistic independence from the mother country,” according to The Dictionary Wars:  The American Fight over the English Language, by Peter Martin, when the Americanized English dictionary by Noah Webster was published in 1828.  (An American Dictionary of the English Language).

America had separated itself from Britain, first by force, then economically.  Culturally, Americana are ready to seek independence as well.  The dictionary helped with our nation ‘s intellectual emancipation, distancing us from the stifling influence of the British arts.

There were really two dictionary wars.  First, for the Webster version of the dictionary to supplant the British dictionary.  Second, for Webster’s edition to stave off competition from other. dictionaries, including ones by Joseph Emerson Worcester, Noah Porter, and Funk & Wagnalls.  Now the competition is from online dictionaries.

I quote the book’s preface:

“This book is about the turbulent birth pangs of the American language and the American dictionary.  The word wars in its title spotlights the militancy that characterized the development of the English language in America, the contests for dictionary supremacy between American lexicographers in the nineteenth century and the keen international rivalry between Britain and America that soiled  relations between the two countries regarding the use of the English language during the early years of American nationhood.

“The dictionary battlefields in these “wars” were mainly in the United States, whether after the American Revolution, the English language was fought over with bitterness scarcely imaginable or understood in Britain.  These wars not only pitted lexicographers against each other but also drew into the conflict America’s earliest internationally known authors, its first colleges, state legislatures, newspapers, publishers, libraries, and individual citizens all over the rapidly expanding nation.  It was a civil war over words that illuminates America’s search to identify and know itself.  It was about a defining hunger for knowledge of the language and how to use it, about English linguistic heritage and domination and the way that Americans, restless to come out from its shadows, dealt with it.  It was also a war between American reformers versus American traditionalists, between the growth of populist democracy and the defenders of traditional value and manners associated with elegance and refinement.”

Let’s face it, we need a reliable dictionary to tell us who we are, based on the words we use and should use.  We are bigger than Ebonics, Spanglish, Netspeak, or Brooklynese.  Words matter, from spelling, and definition, to pronunciation.  Dictionaries need to be authoritative, and though many of them co-exist today and do now, Americans require a single source to tell us what’s legit.

We are nearing the two-century honorary point for the Noah Webster-created dictionary.  How will you celebrate?

"To cope with the conflict between hope and reality, our culture should teach us good integration skills, prompting us to accept with a little more grace what is imperfect in ourselves – and then, by extension, in others. We should be gently reminded that no one we can love will ever satisfy us completely – but that this is never a reason to hate them either. We should move away from the naivety and cruelty of splitting people into the camps of the awful and the wondrous, to the mature wisdom of integrating them into the large collective of the ‘good enough.”
— Alain de Botton, On the Tendency to Love and Hate Excessively

The Weird World of English
Did you know that over half of all Japanese words come from Chinese?  This and other fun facts can be found in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue:  The Untold History of English by John McWhorter.

The book explains how English came to be. Here’s the Cliff Notes:

“Round One is when Danish and Norwegian Vikings start invading in 787.  They speak Old Norse, a close relative of Old English, and sprinkle around their versions of words we already have, so that today we have both skirts and shirts, dikes and ditches.  Plus lots of other words, like happy and their and get.

“Round Two:  more words from the Norman French after William the Conqueror takes over ‘England’ in 1066.  For the next three centuries, French is the language of government, the arts, and learning voila, scads of new words, like army, apparel, and logic.

“Round Three:  Latin.  When England falls into the Hundred Year’s War with France English became the ruling language once more, and English writers start grabbing up Latin terms from classical authors – abrogate and so on.”

The book goes on to say modern English grammar is weird. It certainly is, perhaps because it borrows from so many other languages, including:  Dutch, German, Swedish, Yiddish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelander – as well as French, Spanish, and Frisian.

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2019. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America.

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