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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Words at Work

"Equivalating?"  I looked at my daughter dubiously.  "Is that even a word?"

"It is now." she claimed, and promptly ensured that its definition as she used it would be properly enshrined in the library of congress.

Of course we know, dictionaries don't work that way.  There are editors who decide what goes in, and what the definitions of words are.  Right.  Wrong. I worked alongside a dictionary editor for a number of years.  Yes, the editors "decided" what words needed to go into it,  but that was a pretty simple decision based on objective rules: evidence of use.  The more a word was used, the more likely it was to appear.  As to meaning, the way a word is used defines its meaning.  The editors wrote the definition based on how the word was used.  So, no, editors didn't decide what a word means, or how it is spelled.  The users of words do that (unless you live in France).

Awful wasn't always equivalated with wretched.  At one point in time, it meant (and still does) awe inspiring.

Extensive debates on the definition of a term in a standards document isn't all that useful.  It's especially a waste if this is an existing term, with an existing, well understood meaning.  You will do little to clarify your standard if you don't use the commonly accepted definition, rather than rely on nuanced meaning in your carefully crafted definitions.

'When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'I always pay it extra.'

We've been down this pathway before.  It wasn't that productive or meaningful then, and it resolves little now.

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