How Webster’s Screwed Up

How an editor who hated the word “radical,” became a radical.

David Skinner, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #348

Take radical, which when it means awesome or excellent (sometimes followed by dude) is labeled slang in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dictionary. But radical may also be used “extravagantly” in a context like semiconductor technology to describe a development that is exciting but not quite earth-shattering. Would that be slang or standard? And what about radical in politics, where it is sometimes considered a smear word? Its meaning there is perfectly standard, but is it slang or inappropriate or offensive when used in phrases such as radical right and radical Islam?

The common failing of usage labels is that they tend to be too categorical. The latest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary says high tech is informal, and it’s certainly less formal than high technology, but high tech is so common it would not seem out of place in a White House address. Usage labels have also been sometimes used to mark off words that dictionary editors don’t personally like.

Radical happened to be a word that Philip Gove didn’t like. Gove was the editor of Webster’s Third Unabridged, the so-called permissive dictionary which was published in 1961. He was often accused of being radical, not least because he had adopted a new system of usage labels.

Less “Slang,” More “Nonstandard”

He was of the nonjudgmental school. He minimized the slang label and adopted such clinical terms as substandard and nonstandard to describe what older dictionaries had called vulgar, erroneous, jocular, facetious, incorrect, and so on. All such editorializing Gove thought to be unscholarly and prejudicial. And the last thing he wanted Webster’s Third to be was a record of his personal prejudices. But those older heavyhanded labels could also be quite helpful for suggesting varying levels of acceptability and appropriateness. The older labels expressed judgments that were becoming harder to make as the language became less formal.

The End of “Colloquial”

Gove also reacted to the new informality by dropping the colloquial label, which had long been used in dictionaries to describe language that is more appropriate in speech than in writing. The colloquialism pow, used to imitate the sound of a punch but rarely used in writing (unless you’re writing a comic book), went entirely unlabeled in Webster’s Third. This turn against colloquial, combined with the dictionary’s general refusal to offer firm opinions, upset many people. You might say it drove them nuts, yet another highly informal word that bore no label such as colloquial or informal in Webster’s Third.

Webster’s Third can sometimes be a very helpful dictionary, especially if you’re looking for examples of a given word in action. Crazy, which is cross-referenced under nuts, contains several quotations from such excellent sources as National Geographic and the novelist Shelby Foote, and a load of verbal illustrations to capture numerous senses including “wildly enthusiastic” in “crazy about new cars” and “intensely so” in “crazy mean neighbors.” The latter usage was labeled slang—it was not safe for work, except in jocular sidebar, which still seems about right.

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