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When does ‘wrong’ become ‘right’?

People can go a bit funny when I tell them I edit dictionaries for a living. They get nervous and hesitant, as if they’re expecting me to leap on them at any moment, mock their use of grammar, laugh cruelly at their mispronunciations, and pour scorn on their woefully limited vocabulary.

But nothing could be further from the truth. I’m certainly not a member of the grammar police. And neither are my fellow lexicographers. Of course, there are those of us who still shudder over an errant apostrophe, or a ‘less’ lurking where there should be a ‘fewer’. But, as a breed, we’re far less likely to get distressed over the stretching of the more obscure rules of grammar or the entry of slang and textspeak into everyday language than the average man on the street.

This may come as a surprise. Lots of people think that it’s our job to get irate about misspellings and misuses, to be the fierce and fiery defenders of the English Language, smiting the transgressors of proper and acceptable usage. But that’s not actually what we’re here for.

As the compilers of dictionaries, our job is to record the language as we see it being used today. The mantra we tend to intone on this subject is that dictionaries are ‘descriptive rather than prescriptive’: we aim to describe what’s actually going on in English rather than prescribe how it should be used.

You see, language change is our lifeblood. If the English language was fixed and static, bound by unbreakable rules and preserved in linguistic aspic, we’d be out of a job. We could just create one definitive dictionary, and that would be it. No revision, no new words, and no more work for lexicographers.

But, luckily for us, English isn’t like that. It’s a living thing. Meanings expand and mutate, loanwords are constantly adopted, so-called rules are stretched and twisted. All of which makes the role of a lexicographer far more exciting than that of a starchy pedagogue who does nothing but lay down strict unbending rules.

Power to the people

But this way, surely, anarchy lies (I hear you cry)! If there are no fixed meanings, then doesn’t that make the whole concept of a dictionary pointless? Anyone could just decide that ‘cat’ actually means ‘a small iced bun topped with glacé cherries’, and be done with it. Madness!

Madness, indeed. Of course words have meanings – meanings distinct enough that we can set them down in print and confidently say that this is what most people mean when they say. . . Language works by agreement of the masses. It’s the original people power – a word means something because enough people use it to mean that thing. By extension, if enough people start using a word in a different way, or ignoring a particular rule, then meanings and uses can change. And it’s our job to watch that happening, and record it.

So, if enough people began to use ‘cat’ to mean a delicious sweet baked treat, then that would be what we’d put in the dictionary. Now, it’s very unlikely that the hypothetical iced bun sense of cat would eclipse the more recognizable ‘small domesticated carnivorous mammal with soft fur’ definition, since that sense has more than a thousand years of use behind it, and is familiar to every speaker of English across the world. But it’s entirely possible that a new sense of cat could enter the dictionary alongside the primary sense – just as, in the past, the word cat expanded to refer to a prostitute in the Middle Ages or a jazz expert in the 1920s.

My favourite mistakes

Some of the most interesting changes in language come about because of mistakes. Errors in use can, over time, come to be accepted as standard. This process can be seen in the development of the phrase ‘to curry favour’, meaning ‘to ingratiate yourself with someone’: he tried in vain to curry favour with his prospective father-in-law. The original form of this phrase was ‘to curry Favel’, which probably sounds rather baffling, unless you are familiar with the characters of 14th-century French romance. Favel (or Fauvel) was the name of a chestnut horse in the Roman de Fauvel, an allegorical poem published in the early 14th century. This horse was renowned for his cunning and duplicity, and ‘to curry Favel’ meant to stroke or groom him, coming from the sense of grooming a horse with a curry comb. By extension, this came to mean ‘act deceitfully or hypocritically’.

Time passed, and while the phrase clung on, poor Favel the horse was forgotten. By the mid-16th century, the name ‘Favel’ was beginning to be replaced by the similar sounding ‘favour’, which no doubt made more sense to users unfamiliar with the original poem. The ‘mistake’ was repeated, and eventually became the accepted form of the phrase.

This reanalysis of familiar phrases is still going on today, and it’s something we keep a close eye on. With the Oxford English Corpus, we can compare the frequency of the old or established form of a phrase with the frequency of its new form. Here are some examples, with the figures showing what percentage the total number of examples each form represents:

Accepted form % % Reanalysed (i.e. changed) form
moot point 97% 3% mute point
sleight of hand 85% 15% slight of hand
toe the line 84% 16% tow the line
fazed by 71% 29% phased by
home in on 65% 35% hone in on
a shoo-in 65% 35% a shoe-in
bated breath 60% 40% baited breath
free rein 54% 46% free reign
chaise longue 54% 46% chaise lounge
buck naked 53% 47% butt naked
vocal cords 51% 49% vocal chords
just deserts 42% 58% just desserts
fount of knowledge/wisdom 41% 59% font of knowledge/wisdom
strait-laced 34% 66% straight-laced

For some of these phrases the standard forms are still much more common. For others, the newer form has actually overtaken the original. In the case of ‘strait-laced’, this change has become so well established that we now give ‘straight-laced’ as a valid alternative on ODO.

A very similar process can be seen at work with individual words. The adjective ‘minuscule’ is one of the clearest examples of this in action. The word comes from the Latin minuscula, meaning ‘somewhat smaller’. But because minuscule means ‘very small’, many people associate it with the word ‘mini’, and so spell it miniscule instead. The evidence of this spelling goes back to the late 19th century, and has been gaining in popularity ever since.

From the Corpus, we saw that the spelling miniscule was now just as common as minuscule. Examples of this ‘mistake’ came from printed sources, such as newspapers and periodicals, as well as from chat rooms and unedited blogs. In the pages of a British newspaper, for example, we find “the dogs are trained to find miniscule traces of blood and body fluid, while another case was discovered in a respected medical journal: “the cost of the micronutrient supplements is miniscule compared with the cost of the delivery system”.

In light of the increasing evidence, we came to the conclusion that miniscule should be allowed as an acceptable variant of minuscule, though the entry does come with a warning that this spelling should be avoided in formal contexts.

Taking everything into consideration

Numbers aren’t everything, of course. A user recently contacted us, worried that British English was surely under threat. I suppose the fear was that as there were far more people in the US, American English would eventually dominate British English, and before long the dictionary would be insisting that pavements were sidewalks, and transforming Brits’ fringes into bangs.

Luckily, our methods are a bit more sophisticated than merely counting up examples, and choosing the most popular. The Corpus allows us to see exactly where uses are coming from, so that we can analyse trends in language based on the region of origin. We can always see whether a source is British or American English, and make our decisions based on that information, rather than be blindly led by numbers alone. Likewise, we can see if a use is purely informal, trace the exact year it started to become popular, as well as seeing all the words it likes to associate with.

So don’t be afraid of the big bad lexicographer. We’re friendly creatures, really, and if you find us looking at you quizzically, we’re probably not condemning your language skills, but actually wondering if that slip of the tongue might be the beginning of a fascinating new linguistic trend. . .