The Miracle of Competence

Of all that which I consider worthy, perhaps the most remarkable is when someone does exactly what they promise they’re going to do. I weep with gratitude at every demonstration of competence and fulfillment of obligation. That experience grows increasingly rare. With a mobile telephone in everyone’s hand, the expectation is that they will phone it in—and get it wrong.

I went on a dictionary buying kick shortly before beginning this month’s paper. The news was that Merriam-Webster had overcome its mental constipation and finally allowed that it is permissible to end a sentence with a preposition. It was a cause for outrage in some circles, particularly those which value tradition over grammar.

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I have long known the injunction against ending with a preposition in English was a 17th century wrong turn. Fussbudgets like John Dryden (and later Edward Gibbon) wanted to make our disheveled and freewheeling tongue conform to the elegant rules of Latin—which it cannot. The error persisted for so long that it became mistaken for correctness. Your third grade teacher, Miss Fudge, beat the lie into you and made you accept it as holy—though she had ceased, a few years earlier, trying to make lefty students write with the other hand.

I’ve had fistfights (via email) over the preposition matter, which I’ve won by sending scans of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. I hesitate to resort to authority when the truth should be self-evident, but some people won’t accept it unless they see it written down somewhere. (Others, of course, now shun the written word and rely only on the pronouncements of their favorite internet commentators.)

Nonetheless, in considering Merriam-Webster’s late conversion to reason, I realized that I wasn’t overjoyed with the more recent editions of the Collegiate. I have to have them, of course, just to keep up with neologisms. I miss the old “Vocabulary of Rhymes” which songwriters today could sorely use. Cleverness aside, there’s “hip hop” rhyming (now pervasive in lyric writing of all genres) and there’s Larry Hart rhyming. Regrettably, my ear detects the difference.

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The section with given names and their meanings is gone, also. The guidelines for naming children flew out the window decades ago, though now there is a penchant for giving kids “old” names like Sophie and Edna. Anything goes (to quote someone who could swing a rhyme).

The word “Gazetteer” confused people, and now the section is labeled “Geographical Names.” Ho hum. Occasionally I’ll need to look up a place-name (while completing a crossword puzzle) and I don’t care what it’s called as long as it’s accurate.

It’s just that the new Webster’s doesn’t thrill me as much as leafing through my actual favorite dictionary, which is the Shorter Oxford. The Fourth Edition is a doll. I discovered within the past several weeks that it is likely to remain my favorite, having determined to try first the Sixth and then the Fifth.

We come now to my observation about most people getting it wrong. Goodwill did not fail to disappoint. I received a single volume (Vol. 2) of Sixth Edition of the Shorter Oxford (which had been sold by Goodwill as a complete set), and aside from its incompleteness, I noticed immediately that its type was much tinier than the print in the Fourth Edition, it has an unattractive sanserif font, and it actively scolds one. It is truly a dictionary for the 21st century—in other words, harder to navigate and given to rebuke.

The Sixth does care about your feelings, and those of the people you communicate with. It flat out tells you that certain words are “offensive.” It does not specify to whom, but trusts that you will know—even if it must inform you that those words are forbidden in polite company. Likewise, it softens definitions—where robustness of language would be more to the point. As per the blurb on the eBay listing, “Oxford’s esteemed lexicographers have given this new edition a major rewrite, modernizing out-of-date definitions to reflect current meanings and associations. For example, the definition for “villain” has been updated from ‘a rogue, a rascal’ to ‘a criminal or disreputable person.’”

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I take issue with the revision. Not all villains are criminals or even disreputable people. Many in current circulation and of recent memory have achieved an eminence that I could not possibly hope to attain. A villain, in fact, may boast a Nobel Peace Prize—and still be an arrant rogue and a thoroughgoing rascal.

All such niceties aside, I could not get past the minuscule typeface. Mine eyes are drifting toward inutility, which negates the pleasure of browsing even a prissy dictionary. I decided to try the Fifth, and ordered a copy from a different eBay vendor. Again, one volume appeared—but at least it was Volume One, with the same tiny print. Happily, I now own a complete mismatched set.

Both dictionaries were sold with stock illustrations picturing both volumes. In both instances the sellers could be bothered to send only one. And that is par—as is the type-shrinkage and the pussyfooting. I can’t get angry at incompetence and feckless insouciance because it is the norm. If I lost my temper I’d never find it again.

If I’m not underwhelmed at least once a day I have to check my pulse. Inconvenience and disappointment are my constant companions, and I’ve developed a grudging fondness for them. Heaven would be everything going right all the time, which this world will not allow. I will smile with resignation and forbearance, hugging my Shorter Oxford, Fourth Edition, knowing that villains, who are rogues and rascals, stalk the earth.

Dear World, get something right for a change, and make my day.

Andy Senior is the Publisher of The Syncopated Times and on occasion he still gets out a Radiola! podcast for our listening pleasure.

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