John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, and now at

Thursday, March 1, 2012

An explanation for Mr. Morrow

Both Clark Elder Morrow and Robert Hartwell Fiske have objected to my comments on Mr. Morrow’s writing about the Oxford English Dictionary, complaining that I have failed to give Mr. Morrow’s texts full consideration. I had endeavored to spare you, my readers, such an examination, but the worthy gentlemen are entitled to get what they have asked for.
Therefore I will go over Mr. Morrow’s original article on the OED’s “slide into stark irrelevancy,” demonstrating in some detail that it is a tissue of inanities wrapped in rodomontade.

A major deficiency comes to the fore immediately as Mr. Morrow goes on about the “once-august and once-respected tsar of all dictionaries” having including the heart symbol under the entry for love. There is much huffing and puffing,* and what you may take for ponderous waggery, about how this will help to “precipitate the Apocalypse of St. John.” 

Actually, as the linguist Dennis Baron patiently pointed out, the OED has not included the heart symbol; neither has it listed such a meaning in the love entry. It has added to the entry on heart as a verb, indicating that that sense is sometimes represented by the symbol. Given Mr. Morrow’s windbaggery about precision of meaning, one might have expected better of him, and of Mr. Fiske for reproducing this error in his Dictionary of Unendurable English.

Putting that bone aside, Mr. Morrow proceeds to chew on some initialisms: “LOL and OMG are included now, of course, Not words, you say? Doesn’t matter. Any burp, any eructation, any sound-producing escape of noxious fumes from a human being. …” Say, you don’t mind, do you, if I begin to abbreviate some of the repetitive blowhard rhetoric, do you? Professor Baron points out that the inclusion of initialisms in dictionaries is not a novelty. And unless Mr. Morrow uses ante meridiem and post meridiem instead of a.m. and p.m. with times, he should know this.

He also deplores the inclusion of phrases, such as tinfoil-hat-wearing (and I will not speculate on why that particular one is a burr under his saddle). I wish that he had expanded on this (not a wish I frequently voiced while reading the article), because all of the dictionaries I’m familiar with include phrases.

There is some extended carrying-on about slang and ephemeral phrases. I’ll move to the punch line: “Does the OED really want to produce a fifty-volume set (and it will be fifty volumes if it continues in its mad lust for passing verbal hiccups), the vast majority of whose terms will have to be marked Obs. In a relatively brief time?” I begin to wonder how much time, if any, Mr. Morrow himself has spent in these sacred precincts. The OED is a dictionary on historical principles, beginning each entry with the oldest meaning to be found. Virtually every page has an entry with some archaic and obsolete meaning.

Let me skip to the peroration: “The inclusion of a heart symbol [not actually there, remember?] in the OED renders the entire enterprise suspect, in my view, and wassup and LOL nestling in its pages mean that I will return (for all my lexical explanations) to the 1913 edition of Noah Webster’s masterpiece.” 

Now all begins clear. After all this tick-tocking between tosh and bosh, we see the point. Mr. Morrow dislikes not only the language of the twenty-first century, but also that of the twentieth. And the Oxford lexicographers have had the temerity to include in a dictionary words that he does not like, without consulting him. This galls him.

The point of a dictionary is to provide meanings for terms, and I expect that many current readers and writers appreciate a resource that sets out to explain the meaning of language they encounter that is unfamiliar. Not to speak of how much future readers and writers may need it to understand the writings of this age.  

But for Mr. Morrow, that is not the point. The point is that a dictionary should exercise Authority, should pass judgment on what words are acceptable for the language, showing arrivistes to the door. As I concluded previously, he complains about the OED for not doing what it does not set out to do.

I suggested originally that Mr. Morrow might be a coxcomb. Here’s a meaning from Dr. Johnson’s dictionary: “a superficial pretender to knowledge or accomplishments.” I leave it to you, gentle reader, to judge my surmise.

*Viz., “So it is now undeniable that there is no phrase, no adjectival compound, no tattoo symbol, no random smudge on a page or a pair of pants anywhere in the world, that the editors of the OED will not enshrine in its pages—electronic and otherwise. It does not matter how far the term in question may lay [oh, sic] from mainstream usage—it doesn’t matter how completely unheard-of the word or mark or scrawl may be—it does not matter how asinine or silly or childish or contemptible the pictogram or smear may be—it matters only that some sort of consensus emerges among the geeky gurus of the OED as to its inclusion, and the mark or scratching or happy face is hallowed forever in some corner of the estimable tome.”

Mind you, the OED, however estimable, is neither a shrine nor a hallowed place nor a repository of sacred scripture, but a dictionary, a place to which people resort to find the meanings of words they do not know. And, of course, I have to remind you, the odious symbol that gave rise to this chivvying is not actually included. 


  1. Silly fellow.

    But not altogether without the ability to spur endeavour. I don't know how one would construct a dictionary composed entirely of pictograms and other suchlike, in which the heart for love would be an early entry – indeed there may already be such a thing – but if it doesn't already exist, and if someone could come up with a methodology, I reckon it would find a market almost as large and enriching as that Miss Truss discovered. Any takers?

    By the way, I particularly like the fact that Mr Morrow objects, in the huffing and puffing you quote, to the fact that entries in the OED are those the editors decide on. He's quite right. Its probably unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

  2. At Facebook, Laura Lee wonders whether Mr. Morrow's article may be satirical, a burlesque of prescriptivism. That has a ring of plausibility, but for my part, though I cannot share the gentleman's principles, I cannot bring myself to question his sincerity.

  3. the irrepressible fairchildMarch 1, 2012 at 12:07 PM

    It would probably be of equal interest to see a list of the words the OED editors decided NOT to include. I'm sure it would find a large market in itself.

    This discussion basically rests on the purpose of a dictionary. Is it A) to provide a reference for words, or B) a reference for acceptable words? If the latter, than Mr. Morrow might prefer Thomas Bowdler's dictionary instead of that published by Webster.

    As for me and my house, we will choose option A.

  4. Indeed, Picky. Everyone knows dictionary entries ought to be determined by popular vote.

    Well, Mr. Morrow? Your move, sir.

  5. I think I've said this before, but it seems to be an example of Poe's law, which says that "without a clear indication of the author's intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between sincere extremism and an exaggerated parody of extremism."

    I find it quite amusing that Mr. Morrow seems to be entirely unfamiliar with not only the purpose of the OED but also its contents.

  6. Mr. Morrow favored me with a comment at the Other Place:

    Clark Morrow at 4:18 PM March 01, 2012
    Mr McIntyre's elephantine pirouetting on this subject has become tiresome, and as most of what he raises here I have answered in my current article for Vocabula Review (which, once again, Mr M appears not to have read fully), I will make this brief and then have done with it.
    I have long since applauded the OED on not including the heart symbol, though the fact that it considered it shows the degraded nature of it editorial instincts.
    The problem is not that the OED includes initialisms and compound phrases, but that it shows such adolescent judgement in preferring the flashiest and most transitory ones, which, again, demonstrates a debased set of crowd-applause-seeking instincts.
    I don't appreciate being misquoted by Mr M, and then his placing a "sic" after his own misquotation! I wrote "lie", sir, not "lay".
    Mr M misses the point about obsolete words -- the OED should include examples of these in tracing the history of words, but why include words that won't outlast the paper it's printed on?
    I don't expect the OED to seek my approval. I expect it to use maturity in selecting its words. And if a dictionary is going to -- as Mr M writes -- "provide meanings for words", then it will need to have authority: an authority it vitiates when it repeatedly includes buncombe, and when it displays a pathetic vulgarity in running after every 8-year-old's texting fiddle-faddle.

    And this was my response:

    jemcintyre at 4:40 PM March 01, 2012
    "Lay" is what appears in the text of the Unendurable English book, as do the erroneous animadversions on the inclusion of the heart symbol in the OED quoted here. Perhaps Mr. Morrow would do better to take his complaints to Mr. Fiske than to me.

  7. Well, I can say that the word peth-winds was rejected. I asked the OED3 people about it, as it appears in The Water-Babies, and means 'convolvuli', but appears neither in the English Dialect Dictionary nor the OED. Their as-always polite response amounted to "Too obscure even for us."

    There are also a vast number of regularly constructed technical terms in chemistry that don't and won't appear in any dictionary, since they can go on as long as you like.

  8. Barbara Phillips LongApril 1, 2012 at 1:54 PM

    There are illustrated dictionaries and similar items. I have "The Oxford-Duden Pictorial English Dictionary," a sort of grown-up version of Peter Spier picture books such as "Bill's Service Station" and "Food Market."

    There's also the "Dictionary of Symbols: An illustrated guide to traditional imags, icons, and emblems" by Jack Tresidder.

    Given the ubiquity of LOL in written communications, including emails, Facebook and blog postings, and text messages, blaming it on eight-year-old children and claiming that it is not mainstream makes me want to ROF and yes, LOL. LOL is not, to hijack the words of Captain Francis Grose, "too indecent for explanation."

    In this post-South Park age, I am glad Mr. Morrow did not pound on the table with his fist while insisting the 1913 dictionary is an Authority. It would have brought to mind Eric Cartman's notorious demand: "You will respect my authoritah!"

    -- Barbara Phillips Long

  9. John:
    It appears that the powers-that-be at T Baltimore Sun have blocked my access to your site in perpetuity unless I accede to their demand that I subscribe. Much as I appreciate your efforts, in good conscience, I cannot justify subscribing to a paper in Baltimore when I reside in Central New Jersey (that first capital is in vogue). I'll check in periodically.Until then, keep up the good fight.