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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: Its real purpose

by Brenda Looper | May 31, 2023 at 3:18 a.m.
Brenda Looper

People may think I exaggerate the effects of politics on our lives. And yet, it's so hard to find an area where it hasn't stuck its grimy fingers. It's worse than toddlers with jam hands. At least you can wash the jam hands.

I was reminded of this the other day while reading a post on The Laughing Librarian, a Facebook group to which I belong (because I'm a nerd and I love words ... duh), using Merriam-Webster post screenshots to explain the concept of expletive infixation. The post defines that as "the linguistic term for profanity inserted into a word for emphasis," for example, abso-bleeping-lutely (insert your favorite cuss word in place of "bleeping" ... I tend toward "freakin'").

The first comment I saw was: "I wouldn't use Merriam-Webster as a source--they define Female as anyone who doesn't feel like a male. Thereby losing the scientific term for half the population (let alone the animal kingdom)."

Sigh. So many things wrong with that.

The apparent definition that bothers this person is "having a gender identity that is the opposite of male." We won't even get into the chromosonal variances that can result in someone having extra or absent sex chromosomes and being born intersex (having ambiguous sexual anatomy that doesn't fit binary notions; often the parents of a child born intersex choose surgical intervention to assign a gender). And as one of the definitions of female is one who gives birth, that makes the male seahorse problematic.

But that's not the point. The point is that, yet again, people are misunderstanding the purpose of a dictionary. They don't assign definitions; rather, they record how words are used at a given point in time.

The Oxford English Dictionary's approach is primarily historical, while other dictionaries focus on how words are used now. As the OED says on its website: "You'll still find present-day meanings in the OED, but you'll also find the history of individual words, and of the language--traced through 3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books."

For a word nerd, that's like catnip. Pardon my drool.

Samuel Johnson, compiler of the 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, was probably one of the first to articulate the mission of dictionaries. According to the British Library, "A group of London booksellers first commissioned Johnson's dictionary, as they hoped that a book of this kind would help stabilise the rules governing the English language.

"In the preface to the book, Johnson explains how he had found the language to be 'copious without order, and energetick without rules.' In his view, English was in desperate need of some discipline: 'wherever I turned my view ... there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated.' However, in the process of compiling the dictionary, Johnson recognised that language is impossible to fix because of its constantly changing nature, and that his role was to record the language of the day, rather than to form it."

In the eight years it took to compile and catalog 40,000 words, Johnson recognized that new words, phrases, usages and definitions were constantly being added (remember that "terrific" and "awesome" once had very different meanings). Plus English, as the joke goes, likes to accost other languages in dark alleys and rifle through their pockets for loose words.

Merriam-Webster keeps a close eye on trends, but the fact that its social media team sometimes like to troll people who use words outrageously wrong has given the impression to some that it has political preferences. As a dictionary, that's not the case.

"If we define a word," it notes on its Words at Play blog, "it does not mean that we have approved or sanctioned it. The role of the dictionary is to record use of a language, not to regulate it.

"If we do not offer a definition for a word, or a sense, this does not necessarily mean that the word is not real. Some words are omitted because they are too obscure or specialized, or too new (and do not yet have a solidified meaning), or simply are as yet unknown to us. Just as inclusion in a dictionary does not confer status upon a word, exclusion from this book does not remove it.

"If a word has multiple senses, the first one is not the most important one. It is also not the most 'correct' one. The senses of each word are organized in one of two possible ways: beginning with the oldest known sense or the most common one. ..."

If you want to accuse Merriam-Webster of having an agenda, it does, but it's simply to record how words are used, not necessarily how they should be used.

I know. How dare!!!!

I can't wait for the day when politics won't infect abso-freakin'-lutely everything. Words are my refuge, as they are for many others, and having people impart political meanings to definitions with which they don't agree is frustrating.

Their issue isn't with the dictionary. It's with time and language moving on.

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at Read her blog at

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