Mizzled

Roy Harris

  • Longman Dictionary of the English Language by Randolph Quirk
    Longman, 1875 pp, £14.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 582 55511 6
  • The Private Lives of English Words by Louis Heller, Alexander Humez and Malcah Dror
    Routledge, 333 pp, £12.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 7102 0006 4
  • The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson
    Viking, 173 pp, £7.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 7139 1653 2
  • The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots by Joseph Shipley
    Johns Hopkins, 637 pp, $39.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 8018 3004 4
  • A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partidge and Paul Beale
    Routledge, 1400 pp, £45.00, May 1984, ISBN 0 7100 9820 0

On 10 May 1933 an undergraduate at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, wrote in her diary a description of the clothes she was wearing on that sultry summer’s day. The description includes the phrase blue celanese trollies. The diary entry in question was not published until 1984, by which time the diarist, Barbara Pym, had become a cult figure in English literary circles. By that time, too, the words blue celanese trollies needed translation. Neither celanese nor that particular meaning of trolley are to be found in the recent Longman Dictionary (the phrase being roughly equivalent for later generations to blue artificial silk knickers, blue nylon pants or blue synthetic briefs). The passage of time both makes the philologist’s lot, and makes it a difficult one. The chronological hiccough between Barbara Pym’s diary entry and its eventual publication also succeeded in outdating the entry trolley in Partridge, where it is described as a word for underpants in the 1950s, possibly emanating from the Royal Navy. History is a hard taskmaster for lexicographers, if history’s faithful servitors they aim to be. More frustrating still, Miss Pym’s late contribution to our knowledge of the terminology of 20th-century underwear still leaves us without a glimmer of an answer to the question: ‘But why trollies?’

Primitive word magic tends to be replaced in all literate societies by two kinds of fascination. One is a fascination with the question of what makes some verbal Usages ‘right’ and others ‘wrong’. The other is a fascination with words as living repositories of cultural history, present tokens of a debt to the collective past. Sometimes the two strands are intimately – even indecently – entangled: witness the early Greek preoccupation with questions of etymology. Sometimes, too, word magic lingers on clandestinely in odd lexical nooks and crannies, as in Medieval superstitions about naming, or modern inhibitions about swearing. But these are throwbacks to the psychology of a preliterate era. Once words have been finally divested of their supernatural status, their challenge to rational inquiry seems to take only two basic forms: prescriptive and historical. We seek explanations which are either one or the other: if possible, both.

This civilised rejection of word magic gives rise to two quite different skills of lexicography. One is the skill of sounding authoritative and convincing. The other is a skill required for all good storytelling: knowing how to appeal to the imagination. Both qualities are evident in the great wordmen of the Middle Ages, from Isidore of Seville onwards. Unfortunately for modern lexicography, it came of age only in the 19th century, and as a result emerged permanently tainted with the currently fashionable positivist philosophy of science. ‘Getting the facts right’ took priority. Dictionaries came to be seen as mere lists of lexicological ‘facts’, vouched for independently of the lexicographer by attested ‘examples’.

But the positivism was bogus: the examples were always carefully selected. Classic examples of the 19th-century attitude towards lexicography were Murray in England and Emile Littré in France. Neither man was lacking either on the authoritarian or on the imaginative side: but both chose to present themselves, in accordance with the spirit of the age, as mere collectors and arrangers of lexical information. However, the information given reveals immediately the cultural bias of the collectors. They give pride of place to literary usage, and what for them ‘establishes’ a word’s correct employment above all is attestation in the published works of reputable writers.

In 20th-century lexicography, two trends can at present be discerned. One is essentially a continuation of the orthodox 19th-century approach, and it is to this that the new Longman Dictionary of the English Language belongs. Some effort is nowadays felt to be needed to correct the 19th-century imbalance which manifestly favours the written word over the spoken. Longman has utilised the spoken material collected by the Survey of English Usage at University College London. But whether using this material has made all that much difference is another question: for the main data-base for Longman is still the corpus of some thirteen million quotations amassed by Merriam-Webster. So the claim that this dictionary presents ‘a record or inventory of the English language as it is really used in writing and speech’ should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. It is evident that the preponderance of written evidence cannot but produce a somewhat slanted ‘record or inventory of the English language’ when one considers for a moment how much more English is spoken than is ever written. Are there no English words in use today which never appear in print at all? It is difficult to believe that there are not. But Longman does not list them, any more than Murray or Littré would have done. Furthermore, Longman consistently under-represents the diversity of ways of pronouncing English words, both in this country and overseas. Coffee, for example, is recorded as having just one pronunciation, as is pressure, while there is no mention of the regional us with a final voiced sibilant, nor the very common American habit of saying leisure in a way that rhymes it with seizure. All this squares ill with the boast in Longman’s Preface about a ‘wide coverage of variations’ in spoken English.

What Longman certainly cannot be criticised for is failure to be up-to-date in admitting new words. On the contrary, by 19th-century standards it is a dictionary willing to usher into the language terms which have scarcely served their apprenticeship. It lists, for example, reggae, country and western, punk rock, nuke, cruise missile, sex shop, hypermarket, refusenik and even pre-owned (glossed cautiously as a euphemism for ‘second-hand’). There are, inevitably, some odd omissions: shelf-life is included but not sell-by date, budget account but not economy pack, videocassette recorder but not cassette recorder. Longman lives up less well to its claim to avoid insularity and provide ‘an exceptionally full treatment of significant features of vocabulary, grammar and spelling occurring in non-British English’. For instance, it says nothing about the curious Indian English noun timing, which can hardly escape the notice of the most unobservant British visitor to the subcontinent. Nor does it tell you the difference between a muffin in London and a muffin in New York, or what a lope is in Virginia. The dust-jacket asserts somewhat rashly, ‘American spellings always included’: but they did not manage to include kebob for kebab, or tonite for tonight.

Longman makes a conspicuous effort to distance itself from the kind of latent prescriptivism of which 19th-century lexicography is (rightly) accused. Instead of condemning certain usages outright as incorrect, Longman often contents itself with reporting that these usages are ‘disliked’ by some users, or ‘regarded as’ incorrect. Thus it claims to be ‘descriptive about prescriptivism’. But it does not always quite succeed in this laudable endeavour. The entry on refute lists both the meaning ‘disprove’ and the meaning ‘deny’. It acknowledges the frequency of the latter, but adds: ‘To refute or rebut a statement is, correctly, to “disprove” it, not merely to “deny” it’ – an observation in which the calm mask of lexicographical impartiality slips momentarily to reveal the frown of prescriptivism underneath.

A more subtly pervasive prescriptivism is also in evidence. It emerges in Longman’s use of ostensibly descriptive categorisations such as ‘non-standard’, ‘substandard’, ‘informal’, ‘slang’ and ‘vulgar’, which collectively suggest that the best English vocabulary to use will be that which does not attract any of these critical judgments. This irreproachable vocabulary is presumably the kind of vocabulary nowadays used in speech and writing by upright, well-educated middle-class citizens who have no vices, keep no bad company, pay their taxes, never lose their tempers, never discuss indecorous topics in front of the children, nor elsewhere except in clinically Latinate terms. Is this what some would call ‘Standard English’? The answer is not clear. The entries do not specifically designate individual words or meanings as ‘standard’. Worse still, Longman defines standard used of language as ‘uniform and well established by usage in the speech and writing of educated people and widely regarded as acceptable’: but then paradoxically uses the term ‘non-standard’ to indicate ‘words or meanings that are quite commonly used in standard English but are considered incorrect by many speakers’. How something can simultaneously belong to and not belong to Standard English is a lexicographer’s puzzle which will leave many veteran dictionary-users scratching their heads. What is clear enough in all this, however, is the underlying assumption that subclassifications of English vocabulary are to be determined by criteria derived from the life-style of a certain ‘good’ class of user. The value-judgments implicit in those criteria are then projected as impartial ‘descriptions’ of the linguistic facts. The ghosts of Murray, Littré and Co still lurk within the coloured plastic dust-jackets on display at your international airport bookstall.

The alternative trend in contemporary lexicography is to revert to a style which is unashamedly pre-19th-century. It is, of course, high time that someone called the bluff of the great 19th-century lexicographers, and one thing to be said in favour of the contemporary publishers’ vogue for ‘selective’ and somewhat idiosyncratic dictionaries is just that. Furthermore, it opens up the prospect of reviving lexicography as an art. Only just in time, however. For the computer now threatens to take over the solemn task of collecting and arranging the lexical ‘facts’. Like all dead art forms, creative lexicography will take a lot of reviving. That is apparent from inspection of the current samples on offer.

The most eye-catching dictionary title for some time is undoubtedly The Private Lives of English Words. If only the contents lived up to it! Alas, the entries say nothing about the private lives of words at all, but are concerned only with their public personae. Perhaps anyone who is naive enough to pay £12.95 for a book with such a title deserves no more than anyone naive enough to buy a Sunday paper on the placard promise of ‘intimate revelations’. Fleet Street’s exclusive stories turn out as often as not to be far from exclusive, and based for the most part on second-hand tittle-tattle. So it is with The Private Lives of English Words. It is difficult to spot a single item of information which could not be culled from standard works of reference available in any good library. Thus, for example, the ‘private life’ of the English word nausea turns out to be an account of its etymological connection with Greek and Latin words for ‘sailor’ and ‘seasickness’. Nor is there much of a confidential nature about the report that the word sandwich can be used metaphorically ‘to refer to something inserted, or sandwiched, between two other things, as a car sandwiched between two others in a parking-lot, or even as a social or business engagement sandwiched into a busy schedule’. More unexpected, perhaps, is the disclosure that chauffeur once meant in French ‘one who makes heat’. (That at least conjures up visions of improbable 17th-century conversations like: ‘Blacksmith, shoe this horse immediately.’ ‘Sorry, no horseshoes today, duchess: the one who makes heat is on strike.’) And it is a somewhat quaint picture of the hordes of Genghis Khan that is evoked by divulging that the word Tartar originally designated a ‘person from Mongolia’. (‘General, there seem to be a large number of persons from Mongolia headed this way.’)

Even when the well-documented public lives of English words offer material for a good piece of lexicographical journalism, the authors of this dull compendium manage to make the story sound deadly boring. Commenting on the noun placebo, for instance, they pass over in silence the very curious matter of its transfer from church service (Placebo domino) to medical prescription, and all they can dredge up to say about its modern use is the tired observation that ‘politicians as well as doctors now offer placebos to the unsuspecting public, in hopes that everyone will think all is well and not ask too many questions.’ How much more fascinating a dictionary it would have been if the compilers had thought fit to find out a few non-public facts about English words – or even include a speculation or two. Did Queen Victoria really believe that mastication and masturbation were synonymous? How many of us at one time thought there was a word pronounced mizzled but spelt misled? And how many other English words have secret split personalities of that kind? A little ‘investigative lexicography’ of this order would at least have justified the gimmicky title.

The more sober-sounding Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words starts with a refreshingly honest declaration by the editor, Bill Bryson. Mr Bryson suggests that the title might more accurately have been ‘A Guide to Everything in English Usage that the Author Wasn’t Entirely Clear about until Quite Recently’. Two points may strike the reader about this interesting claim. One is that, since his dictionary runs to a mere 170 pages, the number of things in English usage that Mr Bryson always was entirely clear about must make him one of the most self-confident users of English of all time. The other is that it is far from obvious when one has looked at the contents of his dictionary that Mr Bryson has very good reason to believe himself entirely clear about many matters of English usage even now. But perhaps that degree of bland assurance is the vital qualification for the modern lexicographer. It is at first sight not evident what other qualifications Mr Bryson possesses. According to the publisher’s blurb, he is ‘the author of one other book and has written extensively for newspapers and magazines’. Apart from that, he has two children, and ‘lives in Virginia Water’. Bravo. What this means, on the face of it, is a new approach to the art of lexicography. You take a professional journalist as an example of someone who must know pretty well all there is to know concerning the English language and ask him if there is anything he is doubtful about. His uncertainties, so the theory goes, must pinpoint the really tricky areas of English usage. You then pay him to resolve the uncertainties himself, and you publish the results.

An interesting idea, but the outcome is disappointing, since it merely highlights random gaps in Mr Bryson’s education. As a guide to that tenuous thread of changing usage which constitutes the English language, Mr Bryson is less than trustworthy. Fulsome, he says, is ‘one of the most frequently misused words in English. The sense that is usually accorded to it – of being copious or lavish or unstinting – is almost the opposite of the word’s dictionary meaning.’ A reader curious to know why Mr Bryson opines thus might perhaps consult the Shorter Oxford, and there find that the first meaning of fulsome attested is ‘abundant, plentiful, full’. This meaning, however, according to the Shorter Oxford, breathed its last in the year 1583. Now, whatever one makes of this official death certificate signed by accredited authorities at Oxford, one thing seems abundantly obvious. The very fact that anyone in the 20th century can condemn this frequent contemporary ‘misuse’ of the word fulsome is itself clear evidence that the old semantic corpse is still alive and kicking. Ironically, the very terms of Bryson’s condemnation undermine the certainty he claims to be announcing.

Sepulchrally prescriptive as the Shorter Oxford may be, Bryson manages to outprescribe it on occasion. For example, he takes the Financial Times to task for the spelling of the verb forego in: ‘West Germans are proving unwilling to forego what many regard as their right to two or three foreign holidays a year.’ This, according to Bryson, is nonsense. Did the presumptuous West Germans suppose they could get in front of their own holiday claims? What the Financial Times really meant was forgo, not forego. This is stern stuff even by the standards of the Shorter Oxford, which recognises forego and forgo as alternative spellings. The ultimate heights of etymological puritanism are scaled in the entry fruition. This word, we are told, ‘has nothing to do with fruit’. Nothing at all? No, asserts Bryson: the sense of ‘ripening’ is ‘based on a misconception’. Perhaps it is the same misconception by which Bryson’s lexicographical potential was brought to fruition by Penguin and the fruits thereof foisted on a gullible public at £7.95 a time.

Joseph Shipley’s The Origins of English Words is quite a different kettle of lexical fish: but ‘kettle’ is the word. Anything caught swimming in the Indo-European ocean has been thrown into the pot. The result is an etymological stew which defies culinary description. If the title itself is meant to be descriptive, it is a misleading description: for in this book we learn very little about the origins of English words, even though we are told a great deal about their remote antecedents. The mistake is rather like calling a work of reference concerned mainly with Continental prehistory ‘The Origins of English Society’.

What distinguishes Dr Shipley’s book as lexicography in the present company is the author’s manifest philological erudition. However, it shares one major defect with the unfortunate publishers’ ventures mentioned above: it lacks any clear sense of purpose. No one seems to have thought through the reasons for publishing such a dictionary in the first place. Consequently, it ends up as a hotchpotch. It is arranged alphabetically by Indo-European roots, and in the end its erudition and curious eclecticism are self-defeating. One can discover, for example, the exact date when the word tangent made its first appearance as a mathematical term in English, but nothing at all about the word tangerine. Furthermore, the entries range from those which are extravagantly padded with items of banal non-information (‘As the fictional detective Ellery Queen blandly observed, a puzzle troubles you only when you don’t have the answer’) to those that are cryptic to the point of being puzzles in themselves (‘nau I: fatigued. Scand. narwhal, from the pallid colour. Yiddish, Russ. nudnyi: tiresome; nudnik. Gc. need “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” ’). In short, it chickens out of attempting to be a genuine tool of academic scholarship, where it would indeed be found wanting, but at the same time it is too top-heavy with philological ‘facts’ to tap the popular appeal of wordlore.

It is ironic that by current standards nothing looks less lexicographically unconventional than Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Partridge’s contribution to the study of English vocabulary, for which, unlike Murray, he conspicuously failed to get a knighthood, used to be a matter of controversy. This particular dictionary of his was at one time confined to a ‘reserved’ list at the Bodleian Library: as if undergraduates reading English might perhaps be corrupted by consulting it. (He did, after all, make so bold as to include the word fuck some thirty years before the editors of the OED deigned to acknowledge the existence of that ancient English verb.) It is true that Partridge had no philological training to speak of. But ‘the word king’, as Edmund Wilson once called him, did not need it. The title is itself a linguistic masterpiece. Academically, it throws down the gauntlet to the orthodox lexicographical establishment, represented by Murray’s successors at Oxford, while at the same time conveying to any layman exactly what can be expected from its contents.

Partridge’s current editor and former collaborator does not, however, treat the great man’s views as gospel. In his Introduction Paul Beale points out that, coming from New Zealand, Partridge sometimes made the mistake of thinking that certain words and phrases were specific to Australia and New Zealand when in fact they had a wider currency in the English-speaking world. He does not in any case accept Partridge as an unquestionable authority on Australian English, observing that his acquaintance with Australian vocabulary after about 1920 was not first-hand.

When Partridge died in 1979, he left unpublished material for some five thousand entries: these have been incorporated into this new edition, which brings together in one volume the original 1937 dictionary, together with the 1961 Addenda and new entries contributed by Paul Beale. There is also a new Appendix containing short articles on particular types of slang, and including a chart showing the historical development of the signalling alphabet (‘C for Charlie’ etc). All in all, it is a publication of which Partridge would have been proud. It may seem to some regrettable that it makes no attempt to deal with such important areas of development in contemporary slang as skate-boarding and Citizens’ Band radio, and it is pretty thin, too, on American and immigrant British usage, but perhaps all these will find their place in a future edition. As it is, this compilation stands already as the major reference work for anyone interested in studying those areas of living English idiom which have for one reason or another failed to obtain the sanction of social respectability. Nonetheless, to treat Partridge’s dictionary as a one-man-band mini-supplement to the OED would be to misconstrue its author’s art.

Although the format of Partridge’s lexicography does not break away from the established 19th-century formula, the spirit of it does. He was no grim collector of facts for facts’ sake. Indeed, by 19th-century standards he did not collect nearly enough facts, and too often did not bother to check them. He was interested only in interesting words: that is to say, those which stimulated his own intellectual curiosity. In this, his wordmanship harks back beyond the modern concept of lexicographical ‘science’ to the great Medieval tradition.