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The Moral Implications of Dictionaries
I suppose we all grow unduly annoyed at times with certain cultural foibles which are really quite trivial in comparison with the dire and momentous crises which are rapidly converging upon us. For myself, I freely confess to experiencing a completely unreasonable fury when, each year, the unworthy modern stewards of the Oxford English Dictionary announce which examples of our debased usage are to be sanctioned with the imprimatur of “authentic English.” I fell into a very apoplexy the time I discovered that the word “dis” had been elevated to such status, and nearly broke several pieces of furniture on the occasion that text-messaging acronyms like “OMG” were included. That this is ridiculous behavior for a grown man, I am only too aware, but perhaps there is a word or two to be said in my defense. Let me try to explain.
It seems to be the ruling assumption of the editors at the OED that a dictionary exists merely to record the current vocabulary of any particular time period. They hold its purpose to be distinctly descriptive, rather than prescriptive. To their minds, the lexicographer has nothing to do with questions of which words and phrases should be used; he simply reports which words are in use, and leaves the matter at that. In his selection, he will never prove guilty of committing a “value-judgment,” a phrase that arouses the very same mental horror in the modern academic that the words “heresy” and “atheism” excited in the mind of the medieval schoolman. Behind this assumption seems to lie the more fundamental belief that changes in a language’s prevalent usage are always both innocuous and unavoidable, that the dramatic difference between the prose of, say, Sir Thomas Browne and John Updike is a fact no more to be subject to critical evaluation than the difference between an oak tree and an elm.
It will be instructive to compare such attitudes to the ones expressed by Samuel Johnson in the preface to his famous dictionary – by common consent, the first real dictionary of our language. The contrast could not be more striking:
"I have…attempted a dictionary of the English language, which, while it was employed in the cultivation of every species of literature, has itself been hitherto neglected; suffered to spread, under the direction of chance, into wild exuberance; resigned to the tyranny of time and fashion; and exposed to the corruptions of ignorance, and caprices of innovation.”
To Johnson, the appearance of new words is just as likely as not to signify the effects of ignorance, and to constitute a real corruption in the quality of the language. To simply consent that every popular new coinage should be granted the status of proper English is to submit to a tyranny, the tyranny of popular opinion. The duty of the lexicographer, therefore, is to set his face against this tyranny, and to wage an unremitting battle against the encroachments of ubiquitous bigotry and nonsense. In writing of his task, Johnson informs us that “choice was to be made out of boundless variety,” that “adulterations were to be detected,” and “modes of expression to be rejected or received.” Orthography was to be “settled,” irregular plurals “elucidated,” and the use of foreign derivatives “censored.” In brief, dictionary-making was for Johnson a work of judgment and discrimination, and could not possibly have been otherwise. He was manifestly not trying to describe the language, but improve it. His standard of proper English was derived from the practice of the masters – from the works of Hooker, Bacon, and Milton – and thus was something of an ideal; it was one of his prime objectives in compiling his dictionary to perpetuate that ideal into the future. He was not naïve about the inevitability of a language succumbing to some degree of transformation over time; he acknowledged that “to enchain syllables and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride.” But he no more took these facts as an excuse to desist from his scholarly obligations than the monastic regards the sinfulness of the world as an adequate reason to relent in his devotions:
"It remains that we retard what we cannot repel, that we palliate what we cannot cure. Life may be lengthened by care, though death cannot be ultimately defeated: tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language.”
It is commonplace now to dismiss such opinions as “snobbish” or “reactionary,” and indeed, one hardly ever hears such opinions expressed anymore. And yet it seems obvious to me that in this matter, Johnson is perfectly in the right, and the editors of the OED erroneous. Those who are willing to watch their language mutate willy-nilly over the course of their lifetime little consider the gravity of their offense. It is hardly coincidental that Johnson, the great moralist, took such a keen interest in preserving the integrity of his language, because it is certain that the kind of people we become depends crucially on the kind of language we have at our disposal.
For one, it is silly to suppose that an abundance of new coinages comprise additions to the language, rather than replacements. The vocabulary of any person, even the most articulate, is limited, and as we become accustomed to expressing ourselves through current terms, we slowly lose familiarity with the old. The danger is that, over time, the usage of our generation will grow so different from the usage of previous generations that we will find their works impossibly foreign, as though we essentially speak in another dialect. Anybody who thinks this is an idle concern should spend a week in their local high school; they will find that many of our students struggle with a page of Hawthorne or Chesterton, as much as if it was written in Mandarin Chinese. What this means is that these young people are effectively severed from the wisdom of the past; any sage insight into human conditions, any prudent advice about our conduct in the face of fortune, uttered over fifteen years ago, is largely lost on them. They are deprived of its benefit. And this means they are desperately imprisoned in the prejudices and short-sightedness of their era. Language is undoubtedly conventional, but whose conventions we share makes all the difference. To be permanently cast out of the company of Swift and Keats, of Bishop Butler and Thomas Reid, is a terrible punishment, and one which constricts a young person’s potential for intellectual growth.
But there is worse. Reality comes to us through language, and its conceptual lenses. The better its condition, the more accurately we perceive the world around us – the more of the world we have with us, so to speak. The more our words are invested with both precision and connotative reverberation (though that sounds somewhat paradoxical), the better able are our minds to grapple onto the world’s multifarious truth. The person who comprehends the words “lavender,” “magenta,” “plum,” and “violet” inhabits a more colorful universe than the one who knows only the word “purple.” And as with the world, so with ourselves; the ideals of human nature which we hold before our minds succeed or fail on the competence of our language to describe those ideals. A depleted or deracinated vocabulary can render only a depleted or deracinated version of what our natures could be, were they perfected. A person familiar with the total meaning of the words “fortitudinous,” “conscientious,” “astute,” or “dignified” has a better notion of what moral potential inheres in our nature than one who can only grasp the meaning of the word “good.” He has a more complete conception of perfected human nature, and thus can imagine a finer ideal towards which to work.
Let me give a specific example of what I have in mind. In the eighteenth century, the word “manly” was in fairly common usage, generally bearing connotations of “dignified,” “forthright,” or “devoid of chicanery,” as in Edmund Burke’s famous line from his Letter to a Noble Lord, “I had no arts but manly arts.” We hardly ever use this adjective any more, and the noun form “manliness” which we occasionally use is taken to refer to such testosterone-driven activities as changing one’s oil or picking bar fights. The notion safeguarded by that old term, that true manliness consists of a contempt for deceit and low-tricks, has been lost, and so has much of that magnanimous, even chivalrous, public conduct which the word once signified; the virtue and the word have disappeared together. One need only attend to our prevalent political rhetoric, plagued as it is with cheap demagoguery and bare-faced fraudulence, to realize what has been squandered.
This is one word; multiply these effects thousands of times over, and one can begin to appreciate the moral devastation occasioned by our linguistic debasement. When one examines the origins of the most recent additions to the OED, one discovers that an inordinate number of these words emerge from our popular culture; that is, from that segment of our discourse where thought is most crude and imprecise. It is purblind folly to suppose that by allowing such shoddy vocabulary to proliferate, we are in no way inhibiting the refinement of our characters.
I have often thought that the thing which severs us most effectively from the learned traditions of the past is the fact that the academic study of language in the modern world is linguistics, a purported science, whereas, for the duration of Western history, the academic study of language was rhetoric, an art. For what is distinctive about a science is that it takes its object of study to be a given set of facts about material reality, but what is distinctive about an art is that it is constituted by the pursuit of some intellectually-conceived ideal. A science leaves things as it finds them, but an art beautifies and ennobles everything it encounters. Accordingly, those who study linguistics aim to catalogue the language, but those who studied rhetoric endeavored to perfect it, and that impulse towards the perfection of language was one with the impulse to perfect habits of dress, rituals of courtship, rules of warfare, exercises of authority, and ceremonies of worship – in short, to perfect the human animal in every facet of his nature. It was one with that frame of mind which construed life as a sort artistic labor, and a good man a kind of virtuoso, whose masterpiece was his soul. It was an impulse that sprung from what Johan Huizinga, in his wonderful book The Waning of the Middle Ages, referred to as “a striving for a higher form of life,” marked by a “passionate desire to dress life in beauty, the refinement of the art of living, the colorful products of a life lived in imitation of an ideal.” It was a vision of things rooted in a conception of man as a “functional concept” (as Alasdair MacIntyre called it), the conception of an intrinsically purposeful being, a creature distinguished by his capacity for rational deliberation, the proper ends of which reached even beyond the grave. It was portion of a beautiful idea. And now it is past.
The indiscretion of the editors at the OED, of little consequence in and of itself, is nonetheless symbolic of the momentous metaphysical and ethical ruination that has been wrought in the modern west. It cannot but remind us bitterly of the rootless, goalless, meaningless parodies of humanity that we have become. And it is on these grounds that I rest my defense for the indignation which I expressed at the outset of this essay. Perhaps, though, no such defense is needed with the readers at FPR, since to those who can appreciate what lovely things have once been in the world, no reminder of our age’s spiritual erosion, however slight or ephemeral, can fail to stir an endless sorrow for all that has been thrown away.
First published in Front Porch Republic.