"Whoever lusts after coherence lusts after lies." - Howard Jacobson, Jan. 16, 2015


Three (condensed) entries within a few dozen pages of each other in the 1897 "Century Dictionary":

Hebenon - "supposed to be an error for 'henbane.' " ["Hamlet"]
Insuit - "A word found only in the place cited, and undoubtedly a printer's error." ["All's Well"]
Impeticos - "A nonsense-word put by Shakespeare in the mouth of a fool: perhaps a misprint." ["Twelfth Night"]

Old dictionaries, you see, embraced in the family of words obvious misprints in the Shakespeare folios or the writings of Milton and Dryden.

The lexicographers allowed oddities and archaisms from the King James Bible that never were spoken anywhere but in a church service. Dictionaries include the mumblings of Shakespeare's madmen — the very typos of the mumblings appear in them.

Old dictionaries of English were written for readers. They aspired to hold all of what had been published in English, all of literature. Drayton, in an Elizabethan poem, has need of disastrously, but his meter won't allow it, so he writes disasterly, and in the dictionary it goes, and there it remains, based on that single use, into the 20th century. But the dictionary editors excluded the common words on a million lips relating to copulation: these words had been banished from the literary language, so they need not appear in a dictionary.

What is English now? Where are the tongue's boundary stones in a democratized media in a multi-platform digital world, with a literary culture smashed to fragments and displaced by global popular culture, with privilege and prescriptivism banished, with political tribes armed each with its own definitions to all the words in the shared vocabulary?

In a given day, the smiley-wink-face emoticon probably appears in more English communications than half the words Shakespeare used.

What is an English dictionary today? It would have to be written each dawn; it would list every word used in an English conversation, chat, printing, and journal, anywhere on earth, in the previous 24 hours. The definitions would be whatever the users meant when they spoke or typed. Including all the typos and ignorance, all the halts and errors of language-learners, all the electronic garblation, the cries of ecstasy or pain, and every syllable of the mumblings of all the madmen in the world who thought they were using English.


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