I Wonder Why Dictionaries Went Out Of Fashion

Feb 23


Elaine Currie, BA (Hons)

Elaine Currie, BA (Hons)

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More Tips For New Writers (Part IV)


When you begin writing for your home based business,I Wonder Why Dictionaries Went Out Of Fashion Articles never lose sight of the following facts:

  1. People notice things (sometimes even the most minute detail)
  2. People remember things (sometimes even the most minute detail)
  3. People love to point out mistakes (sometimes even the most minute detail)
  4. People will magnify minute details.

Some people enjoy finding errors and pointing them out, even to the extent of writing books on the subject. Other people (and I admit to being one) can’t help noticing errors and find them so horrific that they (inadvertently and quite without malice) magnify them out of all proportion.

When you write for the public, you are poking your head above the edge of the literary trench and inviting them to pierce your brain with critical bullets. It is only sensible to take proper precautions. The tin helmet is not a great fashion accessory but, in these circumstances, much preferable to a baseball cap.

I used to work for a lawyer who had a selection of favourite words and phrases which he would drop into correspondence or conversation in order to impress people. These beauties included the phrase "most busiest" (makes me grind my teeth), "at the end of the day" (yawn), "in essence" (used relentlessly to introduce any minor point) and "very unique" (why does a unique word have to be devalued in that way?).

The day arrived when he discovered "vociferously" and latched onto it as his new favourite word. After several trial outings, he obviously became comfortable with "vociferously" and introduced "vociferous". Eventually he was managing to use one of them in every letter and conversation. He wrote to other lawyers informing them that he wanted to work vociferously to an early conclusion of the matter in hand. He told insurance companies that his clients’ losses would have been smaller if those companies had worked vociferously. He wrote to clients assuring them of his most vociferous attention at all times.

I didn’t understand why he thought it was a good idea for everybody to be shouting. When the awful truth dawned on me, I cringed: I realised that he didn‘t actually know the meaning of the word. I never did find out exactly what he thought it meant. I could hardly ask him. That would have led to a conversation I did not want to join in. How much good do you think it would do your career to impart to your boss the information that he appeared not know the meaning of a word he used on a daily basis? Trust me on this: promotion would not come into it.

You may call me old fashioned but I believe that professional people ought to have a reasonable level of education. At the very least they should know how to look words up in the dictionary before trotting them out for the delight of the general public.

Something, perhaps a combination of ignorance and arrogance, prevented this allegedly educated man from bothering to check on the meaning of this new word. It was, therefore, paraded about for all to admire. The use of the new favourite word escalated until no document was considered complete without it.

I was horrified and embarrassed. I squirmed, anticipating the day when another (better educated) lawyer or a client would broach the subject of this inappropriate word. Fortunately, I moved on before the day arrived and hope that my association with this word abuser has been forgotten.

A very public example of this kind of thing occurred to Georgie Fame who was a song writer and singer (and still is) in the 1960’s. Georgie Fame and his band, The Blue Flames, were very popular and, when they released a record, it was played all the time everywhere. This song was about the bank-robbing duo, Bonnie and Clyde, and included a verse about them stuffing their loot into a canvas bag. Unfortunately, when Georgie Fame wrote the words to the song, he got a word wrong. Instead of referring to a "burlap" bag, he used the word "dewlap". (In case you don’t know, dewlap is the loose hanging bit of skin under the throat of oxen, dogs, turkeys, etc ( you know the bit I mean.) I couldn’t listen to that song without picturing the villains stuffing bank notes into a cow’s mouth and that definitely ruined the dramatic impact for me.

This error did not go unnoticed by the rest of the world. Georgie Fame admitted in an interview that somebody had told him, before the song was recorded, that "dewlap" was not the right word but he brushed them off and didn’t bother to check. Once the song had been recorded and released, it was too late to do anything about it. This failure to check (even after a warning) became about as public as a mistake can be. If nothing else, it proved that people do notice these things.

I don’t know exactly why dictionaries went out of fashion but I’d bet money that it was due to pressure by the "don’t be shackled by correctness, creativity is all that counts" brigade. I never understood why you can’t be correct and creative at the same time but I’ll stay at the bottom of the trench until that argument is over. My suggestion is that you become a closet dictionary user. It’s still legal and completely harmless. If you fear discovery, you can cover your dictionary in brown paper or pretend you just keep it to prop the door open, or say it was a present from Granny. Whatever you do, use the dictionary if in doubt. If the idea of owning an actual paper dictionary makes you too nervous, you can find one online at http://www.thefreedictionary.com/. Never take a chance and assume you know the meaning of a word just from the context in which you heard it used.

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