Why Did the Dictionary Change The Rules For “Literally” and “Marriage”?

In 2013, a number of dictionaries altered the entry for “marriage” to include same-sex relationships, as well as altering the entry for “literally” to also include “figurative” meanings.

“Why do dictionaries keep changing the rules? Who can I write to, to express my distaste for their blatant political pressure-bowing?” you might ask.

Well, you can write a letter to yourself, because you have no idea what you’re talking about.

You might currently believe that dictionaries are playbooks by which the rules of English are plainly listed, neatly, and in official proper forms that all other English users must abide by in order to remain within the correct usage. You might believe that dictionaries describe the limited options available to those who wish to use a word, so that when trying to use it properly, users can consult the dictionary for the official ways to spell, pronounce, or the narrow contexts that are permitted for that word to be used.

If the above paragraph describes you and you are not bound by a specific employer/class-mandated style, then your understanding of dictionaries is utterly backwards, and the dictionaries themselves are precisely the sources by which your false philosophies will be thoroughly unraveled.

The stray dog leapt over the fence.

The = dog quantifier, fence quantifier
stray = type of dog
dog = something which leapt over the fence
leapt = something the dog did in relation to the fence
over = technique of leaping employed by the dog
fence = something the dog leapt over

The above is a sentence in bold, followed by a dictionary which makes observations about the sentence. The scope of the dictionary is limited specifically to the sentence, not observations of English itself. The dictionary does not limit the ways in which the sentence is permitted to use the words, but rather observes the pre-existing sentence and offers proposals of what the individual words of the sentence could mean, as interpreted by context.

A dictionary is, at its fundamental core, precisely the above scenario — except observing all of the types of observable content produced by the ordinary common word users. Dictionary researches called Lexicographers examine loads and loads of observable word usage from newspapers, websites, magazines, TV scripts, Facebook, Twitter, novels, video games, and other such forms, to observe how those words are used. Those observations go into a tallying system called a Corpus. The corpus is then analyzed for the greatest number of repeated ways (“often enough”) people have been observed to use words. The words with the highest frequencies of usage, and the ways in which those words are used most frequently, are included in the dictionary.

If the threshold for the stray dog dictionary above were arbitrarily limited to only the most frequent words as most dictionaries are, and since “the” is the only word to appear more than once, “the” might be the only entry in it — and perhaps less useful as a dictionary. Dictionary producers rely on frequency as the primary meter for what is included or excluded, and do so at a threshold in which not every observed usage is listed, but enough usages are listed enough to be helpful to the common reader.

That said, consider a dictionary to be an assistant who summarizes observations of the multitudes of text in existence to provide insight about what a user of a word similar to it might have meant, rather than the ways in which the user of the word failed to conform to the dictionary’s non-existent standards. Word usage outside of a specific style are therefore not correct or incorrect, but merely typical or atypical. The dictionary does not validate a word’s existence, but merely observes when a word’s usage has breached a threshold of “common enough” usage to be included.

Dictionaries are therefore outside of the political spectrum. The entry for “marriage” was altered to include same-sex relationships in the same way that the exclusively different-sex relationship definition found its place there before. “Marriage” was used by the largest numbers of people to describe both different-sex and same-sex relationships but recently has been observed within those same masses that previously established the entry’s former status. Haven’t you ever wondered why the definitions are numbered, and why in that order? Because one has been observed more frequently than the next. The final definition is the lowest frequency of observed usage that still meets the threshold of “often enough” to be included.

The alteration of the entry for “literally” to include “figurative” meanings is the identical method by which “literally” itself even had been understood to mean “actual” circumstances to begin with.

Consider the following scenario:

“Why does Bill always take so many doughnuts from the breakroom table?”
“What do you mean?”
“Whenever we get doughnuts, Bill always takes a bunch of them and the rest of us don’t get many to pick from.”
“Bill buys the doughnuts himself. They are his. He’s sharing the extras.”

The fact that a word appears in a dictionary at all, is by the identical process in which alterations are made to the entries in a dictionary in the first place. To suggest that a word or way to use a word be disallowed into a dictionary for a political reason or otherwise, itself, demonstrates a grossly erroneous understanding of dictionaries in the first place. Bill gets as many doughnuts as he wants because he bought them, and they are his to take. The very fact that any of the other employees had doughnuts at all was because Bill bought them. The fact that a dictionary even had the current “standard” you maintain must be obeyed, is precisely because of being reflective of the widest observed usages.

Prescriptivism does have its place within styles, but like how baseball rules do not govern Sports in general, styles do not govern English. The way certain people use words might be governed, such as by those in the medical or legal fields. Those styles do not govern English itself, but rather specifically those bound by those styles. I have a degree in English and journalism. During my studies, I was tasked with in a severity of pass or fail, in the limited ways in which I was permitted to write a paper, in conflicting ways depending on which class. In journalism classes, we obeyed the rules of the Associated Press Stylebook. In English and literature classes, we obeyed the rules of Strunk & White’s Manual of Style. Each class was bound by its own unique set of styles, but neither of them mandated that English itself was governed by any style at all — because there is no evidence to support such a conclusion.

There is no such cabal of experts that pre-ordain the limited ways in which words are permitted to be used in English — but people who create or maintain specific codified styles do. A dictionary may be used as a playbook for the enforcement of a style by those bound by the style, but that is not the actual role of a dictionary. Similarly, if you are taking a class on how to play the spoons as a percussive musical instrument, the lessons learned thereof apply to the musical techniques as graded by the class rather than to the genuine manufacturer’s purpose of spoons.

If you are playing Scrabble, you may opt to employ a specific dictionary as a limited word bank from which you may draw playable tile configurations, and add that proper names, places, abbreviations or “foreign” words are also ineligible for playable moves. If you work for the Associated Press, you have an AP Style Manual to draw from for ways in which you must phrase or otherwise use words in materials you publish under AP’s banner (and if you don’t, your editor will correct them on your behalf and your job may be in danger). If you are in a class, you are bound by the limitations of the specific style prescribed by the classroom. None of these are bound by any rules of English because English is entirely ungoverned with the exception of styles.

English itself has no rules. Dictionaries do not prescribe rules by which users of English must abide. People who insist that dictionaries are the official or only acceptable tome of law by which all users of English without specifying which style by which they are mutually governed, are like a person who gazes into a mirror and when seeing a large zit on their forehead, become upset with the mirror.

Another way that a dictionary is like a newspaper, is that newspapers do not ordain or codify the way a murder must take place, but rather describe how a murder in the past is believed to have transpired. If a basketball match results in a score of 77-112 between two teams, the newspaper does not mandate that all future matches between those teams must result in that score — they merely describe observations of a past event whereas future similar events will also be reported in future editions as the opportunity to observe changes.

A dictionary is also like a hash-tag search on Twitter. If you visit Twitter and search for hashtag #catchgg, you will be presented with a list of ways in which other people have used #catchgg, not a list of the limited ways in which you are only permitted to use #catchgg. In the dictionaries’ case, every word is a hashtag as long as it meets the threshold of observed usage frequency. When you compose a tweet using #catchgg in it, your tweet will go into the body of evidence that the hashtag search on Twitter will bring back for results. A dictionary is reflective of the commoner’s actual usage, rather than a proposed, limited, or restrictive usage. A *style* may propose a limited usage within a set that ensures minimal confusion, but selection of that style is arbitrarily decided by the employer of that style and is limited to those who the style chooser is able to enforce (such as employees of a specific company). There is a medical style, legal style, scientific notation style, MLA style for literary citations, Strunk & White which many American classrooms abide by, and several other styles by which specific those within its reach are bound, but English on the whole, at-large, in general, is not constricted by style or rules.

It may be your personal philosophy to use only words that the general audience would find most readily understood with a minimum of clarifying questions, but that is merely a personal philosophy or strategy — but no single philosophy or strategy governs English usage. The lauded poet ee cummings would be hauled out into the street and beaten for as inefficient and atypical his poetry arrives to the reader, if prescriptivism were the law of the land.

You should perhaps take note that the US has no official language — because English is not governed. Those who propose the US should insist that English be the official language are typically those who believe that English itself is somehow governed — but it isn’t. No dictionary encompasses all of English — only the body of evidence that its own researchers encounter. It would be impossible to impose English as a governed entity without citing a specific playbook by which eligible usage may be scrutinized.

Think about it. A four-year university degree in English is described as a Bachelor of Arts. It is impossible to objectively grade art. If you are taking a class on how to draw, the class might be graded on techniques learned in the class, but does not govern the multitude of other styles of drawing the class didn’t cover. Just because you learned one way to draw in a drawing class, and were graded on how well you could replicate those techniques, you are not therefore a legal expert in what does or does not constitute drawing, nor even for that set of techniques. Your proficiency has application within that class, or within an employment scenario (for instance) by which those techniques are limited in availability for use. Likewise, the way you learned English does not constitute the rules of English.

Hopefully you are now on your way to becoming someone who is stepping in line with the facts as a descriptivist, rather than your former evidenceless prescriptivist roots.

Further Reading:
A student asks a former Oxford English Dictionary researcher about how words get approved by experts to enter a dictionary, but receives a different answer than was bargained for, in “How Words Enter The Language” by Michael Quinion, who is/was a New Words columnist for the Daily Telegraph and penned a third of the entries for Oxford Dictionary of New Words.

The editors of Merriam-Webster tackle the question directly with their article, “How does a word get into a Merriam-Webster dictionary?” noting that the words in their pages speak with “authority without authoritarianism” to clarify.

The current staff of the Oxford English Dictionary, by way of Oxford Press, reiterate Michael Quinion’s experience above with their own entry, “How a new word enters an Oxford dictionary,” virtually mirroring Merriam-Webster’s input.

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