Lexicographical apparatus, as Walter Ong recently reminded us in Orality and Literacy, was ‘a very late accretion to language as language’. It was also quite a profitable accretion for at least two classes of language-user: printers and publishers. It still is, to judge by the way dictionaries continue to proliferate. One gets the impression that the dictionary industry has rarely been in finer fettle since the invention of alphabetical order. Looking back over the industry’s history, what is perhaps surprising is how long it took for anyone to realise that the combination of alphabetic sequence and lexical entry provides the book-production party with a winning ticket that outdreams all the Kinnocks-and-Hattersleys. (When will they commission a Dictionary of Ephemeral References? It will come, never fear.) For there is literally no end to the list of potential subjects eligible for the dictionary treatment.
Not until the 17th century did the word dictionary (so my dictionary says) come to be used to mean not just a work listings words and their meanings but also ‘a book of information or reference on any subject or branch of knowledge, the items of which are arranged alphabetically’. So in the 17th century, presumably, the penny had dropped: the expansion of the dictionary business had begun. Today it has colonised most of our leisure pastimes and pursuits, not to mention our more humdrum everyday activities. We live surrounded by dictionaries, and modern civilisation would break down without them. This fact is only superficially concealed, if at all, by the circumstance that not all of our dictionaries are actually called ‘dictionaries’: for instance, that indispensable dictionary of names and numerals we look up every day happens to be called a ‘telephone directory’. But a moment’s reflection makes it clear that the telephone directory in practice qualifies under the description ‘a book of information or reference on any subject or branch of knowledge, the items of which are arranged alphabetically’. Moreover, it employs the canonical dictionary format of lemma and interpretamentum: the subscriber’s name and address is provided with a telephonic meaning in the form of a number.
Fortunately, dictionaries may be not merely instruments of utility but also objects of delight. One recent addition to the ranks which can claim to offer more entertainment value than most is L.G. Pine’s Dictionary of Mottoes. Which householder among us has not had a gas cooker installed and subsequently been overwhelmed by curiosity to know what the motto of the Gas Council is? No need henceforth to waste a telephone call to discover that the Gas Council’s employees do not know. Today we can all look it up in Pine. What is the motto of the Gas Council, did someone say? Three guesses. Not ‘Cookabllity for ever’. Nor ‘Wonderfuel gas’. Nor even ‘Never send one fitter when you can send three.’ Much less probably, it turns out to be In libertate consilium. Editor Pine sternly refuses to translate this as ‘Free advice’ but gives instead ‘Counsel in liberty’. An enigmatic slogan if ever there was. Much clearer is the motto of the Electricity Council, which sounds like a dreadful warning to all dissatisfied customers: ‘The past is but the prologue.’ It takes British Rail to find a motto designed to reassure the great Latin-speaking travelling public: Velociter et securiter. Expecting something equally robust and Classical from the Coal Board, one looks up Pine to discover that, disappointingly, the Coal Board seems to have no motto. It could at least have followed the lead of the 60th Regiment of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, whose motto consists simply of the names of the places most renowned in its history. (Perhaps a list of pit closures for the Coal Board?) Glancing through the pages of Pine’s dictionary affords fascinating glimpses into not only the history of motto-making but the psychology of motto-bearing too. Why, one wonders, does Newquay Urban District Council have a Cornish motto which is either obscene or incomprehensible? (Tight-lipped Pine says darkly, ‘Untranslatable at present’: we look forward with bated breath to future editions.)
So many and varied are the available fields for a modern lexicographer to plunder that we nowadays see signs that the dictionary industry itself is not quite sure what it ought to be at. A case in point is Jonathon Green’s Newspeak dictionary, which falls clumsily between two stools, if not more. The eye-catching 1984 timeliness of the title is sabotaged by a subtitle announcing ‘A Dictionary of Jargon’, which immediately gives the game away. Whatever Orwell’s Newspeak may have been, it was certainly not jargon, which is a perfectly healthy, natural linguistic phenomenon. Jargon is the inevitable outcome of the specialised communicational needs of professionals, who require terms for things and situations which they, as a matter of necessity, have to deal with every day of their lives, but which do not enter into the world of the man on the Clapham omnibus except as occasional ‘technical’ matters. The Newspeak of 1984 was nothing of the sort. Newspeak was a diabolical form of language-planning, aimed at preventing ordinary people from communicating about – or even thinking about – certain ideas deemed dangerous by a prevailing political authority. To conflate these two quite different notions under the title Newspeak betrays philological incompetence of alarming depths, and it is difficult to acquit Green or his publishers on this charge.
Predictably, the Newspeak dictionary turns out to be a muddle. One does not know whether it is solemnly documenting neologisms, or wringing its lexicographical hands over the sad state into which the English language has sunk. Perhaps it is titillating (shocking?) to discover that English now has the term three-decker to designate the situation in which one man sodomises another man who is engaged in sexual intercourse with a woman. Given that double-decker once designated a type of vehicle used in public transport, the coinage poses some interesting questions. That apart, three-decker is worth an entry, on the ground that it will be news to many who think they have a pretty good command of English. But one can hardly say the same for sticky wicket, glossed by Green as ‘in cricket, a damp, soft wicket, that provides particular problems for a batsman’. (Clearly, Green was never a bowler.) This particular piece of Newspeak is attested by the OED as being in literary usage since 1888.
However, readers who happen to be particularly insensitive to the nuances of current English may find the help Green occasionally gives worth every penny of £9.95. Puzzled by the verb waste, (milit.) ‘to kill’, their furrowed brows may perhaps be smoothed on learning that ‘the implication is of savagery, of “laying waste” to a people and their homes’. For those who need recourse to lexicographical expertise of this order, it will doubtless matter little that Green’s Newspeak dictionary plays fast and loose with such lexicographical tools-of-the-trade as the abbreviations i.e. and e.g.. These abbreviations are correctly glossed in the index. But that makes it only more mind-boggling to follow entries (and there are quite a few) like ‘Tube v. (medic/US) for a patient to die, i.e. “he’s gone down the tubes.” ’ A dictionary in which it is presumed that the users need to have dying explained to them as a process of going down the tubes at the very least raises the question of which side of the Atlantic it was written on or for. But that would be a charitable analysis. One suspects worse. If compilers of dictionaries do not know how to use standard abbreviations, the institutionalisation of illiteracy is not far away. The dictionary industry at least ought to make sure its employees achieve a minimum level of editorial proficiency. Otherwise, they should be given (colloq.) the push, e.g. (indust. rel.) their cards.
‘The perfect use of language is that in which every word carries the meaning that it is intended to, no less and no more.’ This quotation, cited with evident approval in the new Oxford Miniguide to English Usage, sums up just about all the popular misconceptions about language which nowadays make dictionaries sufficiently lucrative for publishers to vie with one another to produce them in all shapes and sizes, and for all pockets in both the sartorial and the pecuniary senses. Life and death on the commercial battlefield make it perfectly understandable that dictionary publishers should propagate these linguistic misconceptions energetically. For if the public ceased to believe in lexical perfection, or at least ceased to believe that it was worth trying to achieve, the financial consequences would be dire. Just as dire as the consequences would be for the toothpaste companies if the public stopped believing in the desirability of dental perfection (nowadays called ‘zero fillings’). Few products can afford to be put on the market with sales talk which does not encourage their purchase: and the dictionary is no exception. ‘Zero mistakes’ is the lexical equivalent of brushing your vocabulary once a day with fluoride.
Horrendous as it may seem to old-fashioned sensibilities to downgrade dictionaries by treating them like goods in a department store, the fact of the matter is that the modern commercialisation of lexicography is something for which the dictionary industry itself is responsible. What is unfortunate is that the war of self-advertisement between rival firms has had to be based on conning the public about the nature of lexicography. Thus, for example, if the consumer consults the Oxford Miniguide entry for the word scabrous, he will be told in no uncertain terms: ‘Scabrous does not mean “scathing, abusive, scurrilous”.’ Or if he looks up other, he will be warned: ‘Other cannot be treated as an adverb.’ (So it is ‘wrong’ to write: ‘It is impossible to refer to them other than very cursorily.’) But suppose the consumer then asks: ‘Why not?’ or ‘Who says so?’ The answer to all such doubting Thomases is given once and for all in the Miniguide Preface: ‘This work... has the authority of the Oxford family of dictionaries behind its recommendations.’ There it is in black and white – the appeal to authority. Buy our product: no other is guaranteed genuine.
The paradoxical (and some might say shameful) aspect of such appeals to authority is that they run flagrantly counter to the basic principles on which modern lexicography was founded. The great lexicographers of the 19th century, including Sir James Murray, without whose work the Oxford family of dictionaries would not exist today, based lexicography upon the concept of objective historical description. They may not always have been faithful to that concept in practice: but at least they paid lip-service to it. The current commercialism of the dictionary war puts an end to all that. It subordinates the descriptive ideal to a prescriptivism which overtly reinstates the obscurantist notion that words have ‘true’ meanings, authoritatively laid down. Hence the importance of buying the right dictionary: you would be wasting your money on a publication which was not authoritative (and putting your children’s education into jeopardy into the bargain).
I recently overheard an exchange in a bookshop between the sales assistant and a customer who had come in to buy a dictionary. The customer insisted that since the dictionary was a present for a foreign teacher of English ‘whose livelihood depended on it’, it was of the greatest importance that regardless of cost she should have a dictionary of the utmost reliability. ‘Madam,’ announced the sales assistant in solemn pulpit tones, ‘the reliability of this dictionary is unquestionable.’ I do not blame the sales assistant. Doubtless, like many other people, he had been educated to believe that the firm whose wares he was promoting had some special infallibility where the meanings of words were concerned. After all, it could hardly be a coincidence that the same firm published the biggest best-seller of all time, the Bible.
Prescriptivism in lexicography, however, takes many forms. Some are more subtle and some more blatant. An interesting mixture of the two pervades the recently published Volume Two of the Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English. This is devoted to ‘phrase, clause and sentence idioms’ and is ostensibly addressed to ‘the foreign student’, unlike the Oxford Miniguide, which confines itself to ‘certain limited areas’ where (surprise, surprise) even among native speakers of English ‘there arises uncertainty, difficulty or disagreement.’ The foreign student, inevitably, is even less inclined than the native speaker to question the authority of a prestigious lexicographical publishing house. How dare he? He can hardly afford to raise an eyebrow on being told that you cannot say in English, ‘The bill should be footed by the state,’ or that there is no such expression as ‘to make a showing’. If I am inclined to tell him that this information is actually incorrect, why should he believe me?
This touches upon an even more delicate question concerning the socio-economics of current lexicography. There is a balance which publishers need to strike between being ‘authoritative’ and being ‘with-it’. The dialectic of the marketplace, combined with the tradition of English dictionary-compilation, made it inevitable that the challenge to the lexicographical Establishment should come from those who offered a more up-to-date product. Marketing a dictionary suspected of being hopelessly behind the times would be just as unviable a proposition as selling the abacus to a computer-hungry population. This means that even a publishing house relying on its ‘authoritative’ reputation has to make a few lexicographical concessions to modern attitudes. These concessions are nowhere more clearly seen than in the treatment of ‘indecent’ expressions. It is now more than a decade since the editor of the OED took the traumatic decision to include the verb fuck in the Supplement. The Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English continues this bold policy by registering expressions like up yours (surprisingly glossed as ‘be quiet’) and get knotted.
The hedge is that expressions like get knotted are listed in the dictionary as ‘taboo’. This is a misleading fudge for ‘not in decent usage’, and it allows the lexicographer to make precisely those concessions to trendy permissiveness which financial prudence dictates. But they are minor concessions. Search high and low, you will still find remarkably little acknowledgment of the existence of English idioms which refer explicitly to certain bodily functions and sexual practices, well-known though such idioms may be. The irony here is that prescriptivism hides disingenuously behind the skirts of descriptivist practice. The expressions registered are limited to those attested in ‘reputable’ sources. The sources used in Current Idiomatic English include BBC radio programmes from 1967 to 1978, ITV programmes of 1967 and 1974-8, the Daily Mirror, the Guardian, the Observer and the published works of ‘popular’ writers. Inspection of the list reveals a complacently bourgeois view of what counts as ‘popular’. The ‘popular’ writers are people like Arnold Wesker, H.E. Bates, Kingsley Amis and William Golding. Needless to say, the idioms which the BBC, the newspapers and the ‘popular’ writers are free to indulge in are those which pass the cultural censorship which dictionary-makers themselves exercise. So there is no breaking out of the prescriptive circle. What we see is an attempt to camouflage the prescriptivism by admitting more recent ‘authorities’ to the canon. But the old question remains: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who authorises the authorities? And this is a question to which it pays different publishers to provide different answers for the purchasing public.
It is a relief to turn to Kenneth Hudson’s Dictionary of the Teenage Revolution and find the following anti-prescriptivist credo in the Introduction: ‘To record and interpret this language demands an unconventional type of dictionary, with fuller and more discursive entries and the complete avoidance of such irrelevant labels as “slang”, “taboo” and “obscene”, which made some sense fifty or a hundred years ago, but very little today. They no longer correspond to the way in which a large part of the British people think and behave.’ Brave words.
The avoidance of ‘irrelevant’ labels, however, does not suffice to banish prescriptivism from the Teenage Revolution dictionary. It creeps in under other subtle and not-so-subtle guises. For instance, we are told that in the UK the verb waste meaning ‘to beat up’ is used ‘only by those elements in society for whom beatings up are an exciting and inevitable fact of life’: clearly a verb one would not wish to be caught using. The mask of impartiality slips even further in the entry for elitist, where we find that the word has become ‘a term of abuse among left-wingers and militant feminists. In “Librarianship is notorious for its elitist approach towards woman workers” (Spare Rib, April 1975), all that is really meant is that women librarians are less likely to get the top jobs.’ Really?
Here the old doctrine of ‘true’ meanings raises its ugly head once again. The sentence ‘Librarianship is notorious for its elitist approach towards women workers’ is, apparently, just an abusive and contentious way of saying: ‘Women librarians are less likely to get the top jobs.’ The appeal to what is ‘really meant’ merely disguises prescriptivism as semantic analysis. People ought to say what they ‘really mean’: i.e. what the lexicographer tells them they ought to have meant. What this brand of prescriptivism simply suppresses is the possibility that someone who wanted to say just that women librarians are less likely to get the top jobs might have used the sentence ‘Women librarians are less likely to get the top jobs,’ but instead said, ‘Librarianship is notorious for its elitist approach towards women workers,’ in order, precisely, to say that librarianship is notorious for its elitist approach to women workers.
In a different linguistic league altogether is Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Catch-Phrases, first published in 1977 and now reprinted in paperback. Some of Partridge’s entries display a combination of sociolinguistic acumen and detailed documentation which it would be difficult to beat. Take, for instance, his ‘peel me a grape,’ which cites Joseph T. Shipley as the source for the following information: ‘ ...first spoken by Mae West in her play Diamond Lil, which opened in New York on 9 April, 1928 ... Diamond Lil is a member of the demi-monde who affects the manners (as she understands them) of the haut monde – the height of pseudo-sophistication.’ This gives with admirable economy the essential background for understanding the point of the famous line when the actress, after ‘a frantic and enraged admirer has slammed out,’ turns to her negro maid with a shrug and says: ‘Beulah, peel me a grape.’ Nor can one fault Partridge’s interpretation of the phrase as: ‘coolly dismissive of a display of hysterical fuss’. In the space of this half a column, we learn quite a lot about language and the way it works.
In Partridge, what linguists dress up as ‘etymology’ is revealed naked as social history. Without Partridge, what grammarian a hundred years hence would have discovered that ‘Pore ole thing – she’ll ’ave ter go’ was originally a reference to Frankie Howerd’s accompanist? (Their research will accordingly be circumscribed to discovering who on earth Frankie Howerd was. At least it will stop them from fastening on the retrospectively more plausible hypothesis that the saying originated as a Parliamentary commonplace of the late 1990s.) Or who would have guessed that the famous catch-phrase ‘Feed the brute,’ well known as a supposedly traditional piece of advice to women desirous of attracting or retaining the attention of a particular male, originated in Punch in 1886? Or that ‘just part of the service’ is the descendant of an Austin Reed advertising slogan in the 1930s? Or that ‘more than somewhat’ we owe to Damon Runyon and the popularity of his newspaper columns during the 1920s?
Better still, Partridge is a master teller of philological mystery tales. Who, for instance, was the Betty Martin of ‘all my eye and Betty Martin’? She dates back at least to 1785. But was she, as one theory holds, a notorious 18th-century ex-actress whose first name was in fact Grace? Or was she the tutelary goddess of Crete, Britomartis? (‘All my eye and Betty Martin’, on this view, is simply Anglicised Latin: o, mihi, Britomartis). Or was she a transvestite corruption of the blessed St Martin of Tours (beate Martine)?
It is all the more disappointing to find that someone with Partridge’s flair for lexicography could not, apparently, make any further headway with explaining what a catch-phrase is than to say, tautologically, that it is ‘a phrase that has caught on’. Could he do no better than that? More intriguingly, if not, why not? I suspect the answer is that lexicography inculcates in its practitioners a kind of Ashmolitis or collector’s myopia. This is the dictionary-maker’s occupational disease. Fascination with the lexical specimens, their variety and their history predominates to the eventual preclusion of analysis. In this respect, modern lexicography is the last refuge of that mania for amassing curiosities and odd tit-bits of information which for so many centuries in Europe passed for ‘polite’ learning.
The pity is that the catch-phrase is in its own right a linguistic phenomenon of extraordinary interest, even though modern linguistics ignores it. For the catch-phrase represents one reversion in literate culture to that pre-literate or ‘primary oral’ mentality which seeks to formularise. The repetition of the formula, with its variants, is the basic mechanism used for such divergent purposes as passing on knowledge, exhibiting social solidarity, shaping collective attitudes and prescribing appropriate behaviour. Partridge’s dictionary contains material of which he never suspected the unique value: there is a thesis waiting to be written on it, and it will be a thesis worth writing. It would be a crime to let such material remain buried among the minor appendices to the lexicography of modern English. This is one collection of linguistic debris churned out by the dictionary business which is worth salvaging.