I was surprised to see a dictionary end that way. “The End” tends to be associated with fiction, not reference books. Unfortunately though, “The End” is an increasingly relevant phrase in the word of lexicography.
Lexicography, the art of writing dictionaries, is a shrinking profession. With the Internet, almost everything is freely available. Fewer people invest in paper dictionaries, making it increasingly difficult for dictionary companies to stay afloat. Nevertheless, dictionaries are invaluable, now more than ever.
Many consider today to be a turbulent time in America’s history. Alternative facts are the norm, so much so that the Oxford English Dictionary named post-truth (adj. relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs) its word of the year.
Dictionaries existsas a record of language, reminding us of the virtues and faults of the past. They save us from an Orwellian future in which facts can be altered with no consequence. After Donald Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway uttered the phrase “alternative facts,” lookups for the word “fact” spiked, along with sales of George Orwell’s 1984. With the dictionary reminding us what was and fiction warning us of what could be, it is easier to understand what is.
Because of its objectivity, the dictionary is as flexible as it is factual. It isn’t the authority on language. It records language as it’s written. It does not prioritize one dialect over another or impose any idea of “proper” English; though, for the sake of accuracy, it does note non-standard words, spellings and pronunciations. The dictionary is a cheerleader, not a police officer.
“Anybody can adapt English to their own purposes, and that, I think, has frightened some people, because that means that they don’t have control over it,” said Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster and the author of Word by Word: the Secret Life of Dictionaries. “But that’s the whole point: English is completely democratic; it’s completely by the people and for the people.”
In another paradox, the dictionary is as general as it is personal. The same dictionary can be used to learn a whole new language, settle a dispute over pronunciation, or find a new favorite word. “They are a reservoir,” said Manuel Da Luz Gonçalves, a Boston resident who compiled the first Cape Verdean–English dictionary. “If you don’t record the language, it’ll disappear. They are important as keepers of the language.” Gonçalves started compiling the dictionary as interest in the Creole spiked among linguists, tourists and second-generation immigrants. The dictionary’s gift to the language is accessibility. “A culture or language, if it’s only yours, it doesn’t make sense...We’re living in a society that isn’t just you and me, it’s we.”
Control of the language is a tool of power. From the legal requirement of Portuguese in Cape Verde to the more subtle linguistic demands of the classroom, authority stems first from words.
“Words are words to me. It's that simple. I don't like having to censor myself in order to meet society's expectations,” said Carina Layfield, a junior at Boston Latin School.
Every dictionary is its own story. Dictionaries of the same language can reflect completely different groups of people. “Strange as it may seem, some dictionaries do indeed have distinct personalities,” says Jeremy Butterfield, editor of the third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage. “For example, the Chambers dictionary in the UK is seen as quirky and occasionally humorous, while the Oxford English Dictionary is seen as highly intellectual and serious. In my own experience, the character of a dictionary is shaped by two things: the team working on it and the target market.”
In any story, the dictionary included, “The End” also implies a middle and a beginning. The story of the dictionary is the story of us, the human race and our language. Our story is far from over. And so I’d like to think that the dictionary, too, is far from obsolete. The story will continue.