fake dictionaries

i've been sitting on this one for a while, admittedly, but there are two good reasons to be blogging about the phenomenon that is the fake dictionary genre. the first reason is that i was asked to review one called "mixtionary" by its publsiher, IDW publishing. the second is that i went to a small press book fair in manhattan last weekend (working for coral press www.coralpress.com), and discovered a couple of other prominent fake dictionaries. it occurs to me that the emergence of this genre and its commercial viability probably mean something about our relationship to words. let's see what it is!

the devil's dictionary (view online here) seems like a good place to start, and might be one of the earliest examples of the genre. written by ambrose bierce as a newspaper serial from 1886-1906, it was finally bookified in 1911. a cynical and satirical work, it purports to give the true definitions of common words for "enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean English to slang." thus, from the preface, the book is already directed to those who believe there is a right and a wrong way to use language. take, for example, the following entry:
No longer used by the timid. Said chiefly of words. A word which some lexicographer has marked obsolete is ever thereafter an object of dread and loathing to the fool writer, but if it is a good word and has no exact modern equivalent equally good, it is good enough for the good writer. Indeed, a writer's attitude toward "obsolete" words is as true a measure of his literary ability as anything except the character of his work. A dictionary of obsolete and obsolescent words would not only be singularly rich in strong and sweet parts of speech; it would add large possessions to the vocabulary of every competent writer who might not happen to be a competent reader.
as though words could be 'good' based on their aptness of meaning! there clearly seems to be a mindset here that meanings exist in the world, and to best express them we must simply be able to find the words that match.

a newer addition to the true-usage dictionary genre is maggie balistreri's 'evasion english dictionary.' the book is in its fourth printing with melville press, and is a list of trendy, throw-away, and other words the author generally considers useless or even misleading. the dictionary is touted as a mode of cultural critique, but unfortunately written as a personal attack. each definition is written as a statement the speaker might have said instead. for example, one of her ten definitions of 'like' is "I have finished my sentence." the word DOES function this way, and we all understand it to mean this on a daily basis. so why should i buy the book? what's so funny about the fact that 'like' has come to mean something new, and it keeps people from having to say "I have finished my sentence now. Is there anything YOU would like to say?"

the more i think about it, less i know where to start this critique. sure, it's easier to ask "does that make me a bad person?" than "doesn't that make me bad person?" but that's not the fault of any individual speaker, which m.b's rhetoric clearly implies. it also doesn't mean that 'does' MEANS 'doesn't' in any sense of the word 'mean'. and additionally, who says language shouldn't be easier to use? is it lazy or dishonest to ask the question one way rather than the other? is there no room for tact in linguistic prescriptivism? is it even possible to speak completely and literally at all times? watch how i pile up rhetorical questions i'm sure you know my answer to!

both dictionaries wittily point out interesting changes that occur in the language, but the odds that they actually mean anything about our culture are slim to none. there have always been hedge terms. there have always been more or less direct ways to say something. these facts are part of the flow of how language changes. we often abandon words once their meaning becomes too direct and transparent. but this is nothing to be afraid of, and especially nothing to be scornful and superior about.

mixtionary might be a special case, since it defines new, made up words, rather than giving 'true' definitions for words we use falsely. however, its project still has this 'were not using language properly' feel to it, since it seems to be proposing that we need to fill holes in the language. this, however, makes it a cute novelty and not much else.

it's got cartoons of situations in which the new words should be used (which are surprisingly female-centric... almost all of the main characters are women, and there is a disproportionately high number of words about shoes). the words are formed as portmanteau in a, once again, cute but uninventive way (as in 'fleeceo,' fleece + ceo... you can guess what it means). and, to be a nit-picky crossword puzzler for a minute, the words often do not match the definitions in part of speech ('blahtiful = blah + beautiful; a beautiful person who is vapid.')

so the book bills itself (sarcastically?) as "a guide to communicating efficiently in the modern world, in which new-fangled ideas and phenomena leave us at a loss for words." but the idea that anyone might read a book like this and actually adopt a word from it is about as absurd as the idea that people might stop being evasive after reading the evasion english dictionary.

i submit that the fake dictionary genre is intended for people who already care a lot about language and believe that other people don't. it creates a meaning/saying distinction that indicates we need some special training to really understand everyday language. perpetuating this attitude in a joking way strikes me as particularly dangerous, though i'm not sure why. maybe it's because it allows us to discount others' language by believing we know what they mean better than they do. readers can pat themselves on the back for knowing that, though the general public may go on changing language, the literati can always read the truth.

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