Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Why the Merriam-Webster Dictionary should not appeal to you

In my last post in which I criticised the Speak Good English Movement for using the word 'collaterals' to mean 'books on grammar', a friend of mine informed me that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has this as one of its definitions: 'informational materials (such as brochures and fact sheets) used in selling a product or service to a prospective customer or buyer'. It may be a little far-fetched to extend that definition to 'grammar books'. Further, this preposterous definition is only found in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and absolutely nowhere else, at least at the present time. And it's certainly not a definition accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) or the constantly updated Oxford Dictionary Online (ODO).

There are very good reasons why you should not consult the Merriam-Webster and I'm not talking about the reasons I gave in this blog post I published a few months ago: Don't buy a Webster's Dictionary! That blog post deals with what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has to say about a small area in English usage which, as I have demonstrated, is incorrect. What I'm questioning in this article is Merriam-Webster Dictionary's lexicographical reliability. I'm not only talking about the dictionary's comment on usage. I'm going to the heart of the dictionary - lexicography itself.

Supposing someone says, 'The police have decided to appeal John with theft', will you say that he is using the word 'appeal' incorrectly? But the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online also defines 'appeal' as 'to charge with a crime: accuse'. That is one of the definitions for the word given in that dictionary without any qualification.

New words are coined and old words are given new meanings every few seconds but a responsible dictionary must ensure that such words and meanings continue in currency and they are not just a momentary spark of creativity that fizzles out after a short time. John Simpson, the former Chief Editor of the OED explains in his very interesting book The Word Detective the rules the OED imposes on its lexicographers to ensure that we do not get the kind of wonky definitions we are sure to find in a less reliable dictionary. If your mother-in-law calls a grammar book a 'collateral', you cannot include it in your dictionary as a proper English definition for the word. Even if a word is widely used, some words are only fashionable for a season and only in a particular region. Such a word should not be included without some qualification.

Why does the Merriam-Webster Dictionary define 'appeal' in this way? Let's look at this particular definition in the Merriam-Webster:

I have a lot to say about the first definition but I won't cloud the issue before us. Let's just look at the second definition which is what I'm interested in for the purpose of this blog post. If we treat the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a reliable dictionary, 'The police have decided to appeal John with theft' should be acceptable usage today,  But I'm sure everyone will agree with me that this is just plain wrong. Why then does the dictionary give this definition?

We see in Shakespeare's Richard II the following:
Tell me, moreover, hast thou sounded him,
If he appeal the duke on ancient malice
Here, Richard is asking John of Gaunt if Henry Bolingbroke's accusation of the Duke of Norfolk of treason is based on a personal vendetta. 'Appeal' in the quotation actually means 'accuse'.

Does this make Merriam-Webster right in having that definition for the word 'appeal'? Of course not. A reliable dictionary must assess the currency of a word or its meaning. Is the meaning now obsolete?

Yes, the use of 'appeal' to mean 'accuse' is obsolete. Any good dictionary should tell you that. There is one more problem with Merriam-Webster's definition. By defining it in that way, it will lead its readers not just to use the word in that sense today but also to use it with the preposition 'with'. The correct preposition is 'of', as can be seen in the example from T. Keightley: 'They came before the king... and appealed of treason the Archbishop of York.'

I hope my readers can see now how unreliable the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is, I only picked the word 'appeal' because I wanted to pick a word at random and what better choice is there than to use a word that is in the title of my blog post?  I'm sure it is equally unreliable in its other definitions. Where Merriam-Webster departs from the OED in its definition, only a fool will cling to the definition found in Merriam-Webster.

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