Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, will be published by Perigee in July. In the post below Ammon, an expert dictionary reader, explains why you shouldn’t tell someone “to check the dictionary”.
It is no fun to have a linguistic pet peeve unless you can brandish it at people. You cannot complain about folks breaking the rules, or lowering the standards of language, unless you are provided with a steady stream of examples at which you can point and cry ‘aha!’
I have a suspicion that for most self-appointed guardians of the English language, it is glee, rather than consternation that arises whenever they hear or read something that they think is tsk-worthy. For example, many of our Presidents between Eisenhower and the current Bush have pronounced the word ‘nuclear’ in a manner that raises many peoples’ hackles. This has provided untold hours of entertainment and satisfaction, as a great number of people have been afforded the opportunity to shake their head and mutter something about how even the President isn’t speaking right these days.
I’ve realized recently that I would like to have a linguistic pet peeve of my own, something that I can dust off and inject into a conversation when I feel like complaining about something and there is nothing objectionable at hand. The trouble is, although I know a fair number of obscure words in the English language, I am not a scholar of its grammar, which makes it foolish for me to run about correcting others. Furthermore, when I do catch people abusing syntax or vocabulary I’ve found that I’m not particularly bothered by it .
But I see so many people enjoying their bêtes noires that I resolved to find my own. I gave the matter five minutes of thought and came up with something that I hear quite often, and which irks me nicely.
I hate it when people refer to ‘the dictionary’ rather than ‘a dictionary’.
What is this magical dictionary of which people so often speak, and where can I find one? A child is told to ‘go look it up in the dictionary’, an argument is bolstered by claiming ‘that’s what it says in the dictionary’, or someone’s vocabulary choice is assailed with the statement ‘that’s not in the dictionary’.
Granted, if one is referring to some specific book it is entirely appropriate to call it ‘the dictionary’. But when I hear someone say ‘such and such a word is defined in the dictionary as…’ it sounds as if they think that there is only one such book.
A few weeks ago I heard a commentator on National Public Radio earnestly inform his audience that there exists no word in the Spanish dictionary for bipartisan. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had checked every single Spanish dictionary currently published, or if he was under the impression that there only was one Spanish language dictionary (although there is an “official” Spanish dictionary, the DRAE, published by the Real Academia Española, it is certainly not the only one).
Several days later I noticed on the NPR website that they had received letters from listeners who informed them that there is in fact a word in Spanish for bipartisan (bipartisano), but nobody, so far as I could see, had written to complain that there are many Spanish dictionaries, and not just ‘the Spanish dictionary’.
Here was my big chance. I immediately began typing a furious letter to the radio station, fulminating on my keyboard about the number of Spanish dictionaries that existed, and how there really are very few cases in which it is accurate to say ‘the dictionary’. After a few minutes of this activity I became dispirited, and realized that writing a letter was far too passive an activity to satisfy my peeve. I wanted the same radio show to come back on again, so that I could yell some imprecation at the radio, and perhaps turn to someone nearby and say something along the lines of ‘isn’t the state of language dreadful these days?’ But there’s no one here but the dog, and he doesn’t much care.
And I cannot escape the fact that I find people who allow themselves to vent about their linguistic pet peeves in public much more annoying than I find the things they are complaining about. I wanted to take a nap much more than I wanted to go around trying to correct people. There are many things with which I would prefer to occupy my time rather than acting as a human spellcheck.
So as far as I’m concerned you can take the word ‘dictionary’ and throw it in a pot with all the definite and indefinite articles in the world – I won’t complain, I’ll be too busy napping.