Stefan Fatsis is Wrong

This post by Stefan Fatsis is remarkably dumb. Let me explain why.

When people disagree with dictionary-makers’ decisions about which words belong in a given dictionary, here’s what Fatsis says they do: they “panic.” They “grouse.” They “bemoan.” They “howl.” They “tsk-tsk.” He imagines them saying “Think of the children!” — presumably in a squeaky voice. Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t we, Stefan?

So for Fatsis any criticism of such choices is simply absurd, period. Why? Because “evolution of culture”! Because “language changes with time”! Disagreement with the dictionary makers is “manufactured” — by whom he doesn’t say — and “trumped up” — he doesn’t assign a perpetrator there either. Shadowy forces, setting themselves against “evolution of culture”! Who do they think they are?

Basically, Fatsis is making a “wrong side of history” argument: The evolution of culture rolls inexorably on — oppose it not, lest ye be crushed beneath its mighty wheels! But that’s just silly. These lexicographers are not, like Napoleon marching through Jena, embodiments of the Weltgeist. They are people making a product for sale. Those who might buy and use that product have every right to form opinions about its contents, and to argue for those opinions. Isn’t there more than enough passive consumerism in the world already?

Fatsis thinks it’s self-evidently ridiculous for people to want the word “acorn” in a children’s dictionary in preference to the word “broadband,” largely because he thinks such people have no status to question their lexicographical overlords, who embody “evolution of culture,” but also because he says we live in a world where kids simply use computers more than they play outside, “like it or not.” Here he’s just failing to understand that children’s dictionaries are tools that parents and teachers employ in child-rearing: debates over what forms those tools should take cannot be resolved by appealing to the current status of lexicographers’ self-description. Lexicography can be descriptivist; child-rearing cannot. It’s perfectly reasonable to want children to learn more nature-words and not to worry so much about how many internet-words they pick up.

This is reasonable in part because the relation between world and word is not unidirectional. People don’t use dictionaries only to discover the meanings of words they have encountered elsewhere; sometimes by browsing through dictionaries we discover that there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in our philosophies. Even acorns.

So, Stefan Fatsis, enough of your panicking, howling, grousing, bemoaning, and tsk-tsking. Think of the children!