By J.F. McKenna
My friend Sam, notorious for sneaking timeless truths under the cover of satirical humor, was quite serious when he railed against the lack of international copyright as the open door to cultural perdition, declaring that it ushered in a mismatch between “an ounce of wholesome literature to a hundred tons of noxious.” Sure, noted Sam Clemens—aka Mark Twain—the nation’s readers “do get cheap books through the absence of International Copyright; and any who will consider the manner thoughtfully will arrive at the conclusion that these cheap books are the costliest purchase that ever a nation made.”
Makes one wonder what Huck Finn’s father, the celebrated Lincoln of our literature, would say about Oxford Dictionaries Online—a digital jargon junction passing itself off as the panjandrum governing linguistic probity. Twain was once quoted as saying that he studied his era’s traditional dictionary often, but could never discover the plot. In the case of ODO, the beloved writer might declare that both plot and characters have been buried beyond rescue.
What has triggered my musing about ODO and Mr. Twain is the appearance of a newspaper article that describes the online depository “as a hot mess of definitions that capture the zeitgeist of today in a baller way.” As the article reports, ODO’s list, “updated four times a year, consists of words that are chosen based on the Oxford Corpus, a database that finds words in various places on the Internet. If a word is used enough and in a variety of places, it’s eligible to appear in the online dictionary.”
Considering the methodology as described, I find myself drawing another Twain quote from the mind’s well: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—‘tis the difference between the lightning-bug and lightning.” Promoting such a verb as mansplain for testosterone-driven condescension, or giving credence to amazeballs as a substitute for writing amazingly good, ODO offers neither lightning nor the lightning-bug; frankly, it just traffics in etymological and cultural blackouts, high-speed delivery of this gobbledygook notwithstanding.
Not too surprisingly, Oxford Dictionaries Online has more than enough eager defenders, underscoring writer George Orwell’s 1946 observation that if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. One fan of oxforddictionaries.com tells the neighboring Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “As computer technology permeates into the mainstream of the culture, it’s going to reflect in the language. We’re sort of hitting a new generation that has values and experiences, and one of the experiences is the Internet, and these words started as slang and have been accepted as mainstream discourse.”
“One of the things that’s changed is in the old days the print process took a really long time for a print dictionary,” an ODO executive adds. “There was also the factor of a print dictionary having limited space. The online dictionary is infinite, so we can publish things faster … and slang spreads faster because of the global nature of the Internet.”
Likewise, miscommunication moves apace. Just ask the general contractor of The Tower of Babel.
Enough said. It’s only fair to let old friend Sam have the last word…or words, from his imaginary 1905 tale “Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes”:
Oh, that worthless, worthless book, that timid book, that shifty book, that uncertain book, that time-serving book, that exasperating book, that unspeakable book, the Unlimited Dictionary! that book with but one object in life: to get in more and shadings of the words than its competitors. With the result that nearly every time it gets done shading a good old useful word it means everything general and nothing in particular.
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He also attends all meetings of the Mark Twain Society of Penn Hills, a small literary gathering near Pittsburgh. Reach him at email@example.com or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna.