Righting Wrongs, Writing Wrong, and the Power of Mistakes

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March 18, 2019 by libroshombre

Martial arts maestro Bruce Lee wrote in his book, “Striking Thoughts,” that “Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.” I encountered his book in the gift shop of Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum that’s dedicated to the “Asian Pacific American Experience.” The museum’s website, www.wingluke.org, says Chinese-American Wing Luke faced stark racism growing up in Seattle in the 1930’s.

Tired of being bullied at school, “he decided he couldn’t put up with it anymore. He had to stand up to them, to fight back. So he picked up his pen – and he drew funny comic strips. Before long, his classmates wanted to read them, and he became popular, eventually elected class president at Roosevelt High School in Seattle …. Son of a laundryman and grocer and an immigrant from China, Wing Luke went on to … earn a Bronze Star Medal for his Army service during WWII, receive a law degree from the University of Washington, and be appointed Assistant Attorney General for Washington State. In 1962, Wing Luke made history, elected as the first person of color on the Seattle City Council and the first Asian American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest.”

Wing Luke corrected a bunch of mistakes, but what constitutes a mistake usually depends on the beholder, especially when it comes to English grammar and vocabulary, as Austin Dobbins pointed out in a landmark 1956 essay, “The Language of the Cultivated.” Dobbin’s essay “highlighted confusion and disagreement among college handbooks and popular dictionaries on words and phrases of questionable respectability,” according to “Defining Characteristic,” an article by David Skinner in the Weekly Standard. Dobbins considered ten slang expressions: boondoggle, corny, frisk, liquidate, pinhead, bonehead, carpetbagger, pleb, slush fund, and snide. “In the American College Dictionary, the first five were labeled slang, but the second five were not labeled at all. And in Webster’s New College Dictionary, the first five were not labeled at all, but the latter five were all labeled slang.”

The confusion became a crisis in 1961 when Webster’s New International Dictionary, Third Edition (W3), replaced the 1934 Webster’s Second (W2). You see, W2 is a prescriptive dictionary that puts forth the correct way to spell and use every word. As Sidney Landau, author of “The Art and Craft of Lexicography,” explained, prescriptivists believe “correctness should be promoted, instilled, and enforced by vigorously criticizing writers and speakers who use incorrect usages.”

The W3, conversely, was descriptive. A descriptive dictionary “captures a moment in a language’s history. It records the standard spelling and meanings of a word but makes no value judgments about how the word should be used.” Descriptivists, as Landau wrote, “believe that language change is a normal process that cannot be retarded, and that users should not be stigmatized as ignorant or careless because they use language in a way others disapprove of.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD) came out in 1969 determined to bridge the gap between prescribing and describing by incorporating a celebrity Usage Panel chaired by “Strictly Speaking” author Edwin Newman that would advise the editors about questionable terms under consideration. The panel included Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners, “a gaggle of poets … and the usual overstock of former association presidents and suspiciously prominent journalists,” according to Skinner. Moreover, of the panel’s 105 members, just 28 had been born in the 19th century and only 6 were under 50. Worse, it included only 11 women.

Mistakes were consequently made, enough that the panel quickly became marginalized and was disbanded a year ago. Fortunately, the AHD’s was the first to utilize computer analysis in compiling its words, and its executive editor was Alma Graham. Her team’s study of children’s textbooks revealed that they didn’t represent males and females equally. In fact, Graham wrote, “the ration in schoolbooks of ‘he’ to ‘she’, ‘him’ to ‘her’, and ‘his’ to hers’ was almost four to one.” The reason “was because most of the subjects being written about were men and boys.” Graham also wrote the first entry for “Ms.”

Whether you prescribe or describe, your public library’s there to provide more than one opinion, for as James Joyce noted, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”


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