A few weeks ago, in an effort to stave off the ever-looming threat of student loan collectors, I started working for the editorial department of a company that does consulting and advertising for pharmaceutical firms. Most of my job consists of proofreading, but every once in a while I’ll be tasked with ensuring that certain documents aimed at international audiences use British spellings of words rather than American ones. I have to make certain that, say, a program on tumors and leukemia is really a programme on tumours and leukaemia.
Being an American, it can’t be too surprising that British spellings don’t quite come naturally to me. I doubt that, if I weren’t looking for deviations from a pattern, I would even notice if someone wrote “traveled” (American spelling) instead of “travelled” (British spelling). As such, I find it useful to consult the list of British/American spelling differences on the Oxford Dictionaries website, using it as a sort of checklist when working on a file. I ask myself, have I accounted for every cancer centre, every licenced physician, every adverse event of diarrhoea?
The other day, once I’d gotten to the end of that checklist, I saw a link to a blog post by Lynne Murphy, asking “How do British and American attitudes to dictionaries differ?” That’s the exact sort of question that catches my attention: I hang out with language all day, I fashion myself a poet, and I spent an entire blog post here exploring my fascination with the word “paratext.” So, when I had some downtime, I gave it read.
It’s a short piece, but it hits on some intriguing cultural differences between British and American readers. For instance, American judges cite dictionary definitions in their decisions orders of magnitude more often that their British counterparts. I’d always assumed, from reading Supreme Court jurisprudence, that referencing nineteenth-century dictionaries was just part of the judge’s job description.
But the difference that I found most illuminating was in how dictionaries market themselves (and not just because it’s another example of paratext). To quote Murphy:
[A] look at the way dictionaries are marketed betrays their local histories, the local attitudes toward dictionaries, and assumptions about who is using them. One big general-purpose British dictionary’s cover tells us it is ‘The Language Lover’s Dictionary’. Another is ‘The unrivalled dictionary for word lovers’.
Now compare some hefty American dictionaries, whose covers advertise ‘expert guidance on correct usage’ and ‘The Clearest Advice on Avoiding Offensive Language; The Best Guidance on Grammar and Usage’. One has a badge telling us it is ‘The Official Dictionary of the ASSOCIATED PRESS’. Not one of the British dictionaries comes close to such claims of authority…None of the American dictionary marketers talk about loving words.
I think I’ve been subconsciously aware of these divergent tendencies in British and American dictionaries for some time now. If I wanted to know about a word’s etymology, or to look up the myriad meanings of a word in Middle English, I knew that I needed to consult the Oxford English Dictionary to do so; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was going to be of little help. And I’ve been in that position fairly often, needing to research the intricacies of a word’s history. In undergrad, for example, I was inspired to write an essay based on playwright Thomas Middleton’s use of “blame” as an adjective, roughly meaning “blameworthy.” The OED would see that usage as a interesting feature of 17th-century English; Merriam-Webster’s would suggest it’s merely wrong by not even acknowledging it.
On the other hand, I understand there’s a need for clear standards for a language in certain contexts, where confusion and ambiguity can have negative consequences. I work tangential to the medical industry, where unclear communications between drug manufacturers and doctors, or doctors and patients, may seriously harm or kill someone. Having an agreed-upon standard, even an arbitrary one, helps reduce that risk. In that case, the curiosities and trivia in the OED are at best distractions; give me the dry definitions and spellings of Merriam-Webster’s.
Even if I sort of knew about it already, it was still enlightening to see that division between American and British dictionaries laid out like that. And I was happy to come across a piece written by Lynne Murphy, who is the author behind the blog Separated by a Common Language, which is dedicated to exploring differences between American and British English. But I best remembered her for the time she was on the YouTube channel Numberphile, talking about how Americans and Brits abbreviate “mathematics”:
Most of the video is dedicated to debunking arguments for why “math” or “maths” is the correct or more logical abbreviation for “mathematics,” but the part of the video that interests me most is the brief history of how those abbreviations came to be. Namely, both the American and British abbreviations derive from print sources, and only later entered the spoken language. Prior to those written abbreviations, there’s little evidence that people abbreviated the word “mathematics” at all.
That brief bit of context is a demonstration of how language can evolve from the most mundane sources. I’m reminded of a line from Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”: “nor is it valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school books’; all these phenomena are important” (lines 17-19). It’s the sort of history that one would completely miss if all one cared about was utilitarian usage. So if British dictionary marketers are representative of the country, count me an Anglophile in that regard.
But what do you think? Do you consult dictionaries for linguistic trivia or practical guidance? Are there any words or etymologies you find especially interesting? Let me know in the comments! And as always, thanks for reading.