Wednesday, December 25, 2013

On the Purpose of Dictionaries

Do not pay attention, child, to the Academics (of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language). They are theologians of language, restricting, confining, limiting, fearing change, without art or imagination. Read the great writers, listen to the great orators, learn from the great communicators, see as great artists have seen. They are the mystics of language, and they will teach you what the inbred pseudo-knowledge of the instructors cannot.

There is an article in El País about the new edition of the  DRAE, which will be published next year. It starts off rather stupidly but in fact it's quite good. It praises it for being 'less sexist', apparently thinking that a dictionary which reflects what some people think language should be and how it should be used is better than one that reflects how it really is and how it is really used. 'Gozar' is still used to mean 'have sex with a woman' and a dictionary that fails to recognize that is not a good dictionary. The editor, Pedro Álvarez de Miranda, states that the point of the new dictionary is to be better, not less sexist, which is a good start. Then the article goes on to acknowledge that language is not what the RAE decrees it to be, and that no one looks at what the Academy has said before speaking or writing. On the whole, as I say, a good article.

The Dictionary has always tried to teach people how it thinks they should speak, and has been largely ignored other than by writers of style manuals and professors of language, who tend to use it as a reference (perhaps because they have to). It does not have anything like the scope of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a magnificent work of scholarship and, like a swimming pool in Bali with pretty young waitresses serving chilled rum as you float by; once dipped into it's hard to get out of.

There are better dictionaries of the Spanish language. María Moliner's is probably the best, and for etymology the six volumes of Corominas are unequalled. The DRAE, on the other hand, is for people who want their homework to get a good grade, or their article to be accepted by a newspaper. A fine and useful work, but with a specific purpose to define what is good and evil in language.


James Higham said...

'Gozar' is still used to mean 'have sex with a woman'

First I'd heard of that.

CIngram said...

With a prepositional phrase, as in 'gozó de la chica que le atendió en el hotel'. It sounds a bit archaic, and seems to be used mostly by older people or for slightly humorous effect, but it isn't dead yet.

It's just one of the examples they give, and it didn¡t feel quiet right to me.