Sunday, March 22, 2015

Kurt Vonnegut reviews Random House Dictionary (1968)

Many sections caught my attention in Kurt Vonnegut's 1968 review of Random House Dictionary of the English Language in New York Times.

On looking for secret and taboo words in dictionary as a child
If my emphasis on dirty words so early in this review seems childish, I can only replay that I, as a child, would never have started going through unabridged dictionaries if I hadn't suspected that there were dirty words hidden in there, where only grownups were supposed to find them. I always ended the searches feeling hot and stuffy inside, and looking at the queer illustrations--at the trammel wheel, the arbalest, and the dugong.
Ttrendsetters and use of  prescriptive and descriptive dictionary:
[Prof. Robert] Scholes replied judiciously that [Richard] Yates should get the second edition of the "Merriam- Webster," which was prescriptive rather than descriptive. Prescriptive, as nearly as I could tell, was like an honest cop, and descriptive was like a boozed-up war buddy from Mobile, Ala. Yates said he would get the tough one; but, my goodness, he doesn't need official instructions in English any more than he needs training wheels on his bicycle. As Scholes said later, Yates is the sort of man lexicographers read in order to discover what pretty new things the language is up to.
Right in the next paragraph, Vonnegut tells which words to look to know whether you dictionary takes a prescriptivist or descriptivist approach:
 To find out in a rush whether a dictionary is prescriptive or descriptive, you look up ain't and like. I learned this trick of horseback logomachy from reviews of the "Merriam-Webster" third edition. And here is the rundown on ain't: the "Merriam-Webster" first edition says that it is colloquial or illiterate, the second says it is dialect or illiterate, and the third says that ain't is, "though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, used orally. . .by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase ain't I." I submit that this nation is so uniformly populated by parvenus with the heebie-jeebies that the phrase ain't I is heard about as frequently as the mating cry of the heath hen.

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