Wednesday, June 23, 2004

I've been arguing about language with Billie in a comments thread, though it started in real life. As is so often the case, it started with Alanis Morrissette. Now I have nothing against the woman, but that damn song of hers is full of things that are not ironic except in the loosest sense of the word. Billie, chivalrous soul that he is, leapt to her defense, citing the sixth definition found in my massive unabridged dictionary, since the cable modem was out at the time, which included "surprising or unexpected." Later when he went home and we took the argument online, he cited infoplease.com's fifth definition "an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected", and the sixth, "the incongruity of this."

I won't try to sum the whole thing up. It's here if you really care. Suffice it to say that we very quickly found ourselves in a deep structure conflict, where the conflict was ultimately in our assumptions as much as in our conclusions. For instance, we have very different attitudes about the dictionary. It'd be a sidetrip on a dangerous road to give voice to how Billie views the dictionary, but I'm finding it very interesting to try and articulate my own, so that's what I'll stick to.

Language is a river through diverse landscapes, not even as simple a thing as a lake, but dictionaries do their best to treat it like a swimming pool, all smooth edges and clear water. At their best, they're a snapshot of the way the language is used at a given moment in history, and as such are very useful. At their worst, they're an attempt to nail fire to a log, and just about as safe.

When we speak or write, we conjure words from behind some curtain in a process that no one really understands. For the many thousands of years in which dictionaries did not exist, this was a fuzzy, haphazard process, and the meaning of words depended entirely on how they were used. Saelig is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning, variously, "blessed", "holy", or "sacred". We don't know this because we found an Anglo-Saxon dictionary, we know this because it's used to describe saints, churches, and other places we intuit to have been holy to the people using the word. The same word in modern English, "silly", has a slightly different meaning.

Sometimes when we're dealing with dead languages, there's hardly any context at all. For instance, at one point in Beowulf, Grendel is described as ____ing across the swamp toward the great hall. What is ____? Damned if I know, but it shows up one other time in the Anglo-Saxon literature that survives, describing a group of clouds moving quickly across the horizon in the evening. Clear? Not particularly. But evocative as hell.

Language is a tool for messing with other people's heads, and words are tiny evocative units, used to conjure pictures, tug at the heartstrings, bring anger to the surface, or whatever we need them to do. They derive the power to do this from the ways in which we hear them used throughout our lives. "Fuck!" has a lot more emotional weight to my parents than to me because they've heard it almost exclusively in highly emotional circumstances, while I hear it just about every fucking day. "Bloody" sounds pretentious to me because I only heard it on PBS when I was a kid, but to a Brit, I've been told, it sounds course. Very different emotional loads.

Gone are the days when dictionaries stood as prescriptive edifices telling us the correct way to use our language. Editors today recognize that the ultimate arbiters of a language are its users, not themselves. That's how we get words like orientate. A good dictionary will, if space allows, address these sorts of issues, such as in the American Heritage's usage note for "utilize", which points out that, while "many occurrences of utilize could be replaced by use with no loss to anything but pretentiousness", there is a legitimate and very specific meaning which would be lost if we completely purge it from our vocabulary. But that's not the point, really.

The point is that a dictionary is really just a tool for finding out how language is used by its community. If we're curious about how to use a word, the dictionary tells us what everybody else is doing. But not every use is created equal. To go back to "ironic", it's true that a lot of people use it so casually anymore that it might as well be a synonym for "surprising". Of course, a lot of people say "literally" when they mean exactly the opposite.

So, yes, when Alanis says that a black fly in her chardonnay is ironic, it might be considered surprising (if you've never found a black fly in white wine before, and are an incurable optimist). It might even be considered inappropriate, though I can't really imagine why, since fruit flies feed on yeast, and are therefore attracted to the smell of fermenting fruit. So if ironic means unexpected and incongruous, and incongruous means inappropriate, and you've limited your worldview to only include the best possible outcome, therefore ignoring the existence of flies that might land in your wine, then calling that outcome "ironic" could technically be considered correct.

But you'd be modeling your language use on the sloppy end of the scale, and why do that if you know better?

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