Friday - - MIND GAMES -

Words miss­ing in dic­tio­nar­ies There could be sev­eral rea­sons. The old­est is the di­ver­gent evo­lu­tion of words across the At­lantic, with both the au­gust Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nary (OED) in the UK and Mer­ri­amWeb­ster in the US hav­ing their exclusive list of words. This list is not re­stricted to spell­ing vari­a­tions such as jew­ellery/jew­elry or colour/color.

Un­til the late 1970s Scrab­ble fans loved the Of­fi­cial Scrab­ble Play­ers’ Dic­tio­nary (OSPD) from the US be­cause it al­lowed – and de­fined – so many words that had ‘Q’ ( worth a juicy 10 points) with­out be­ing fol­lowed by a ‘U’, such as qaid, qadi, and qin­tar. Yet the OSPD ex­cluded cinq (the word for 5 on a dice cube), that be­ing the OED’s only such en­try.

Some­times a dic­tio­nary is just plain care­less in its edit­ing, leading to in­ex­cus­able omis­sions. These could be par­tic­u­larly in­fu­ri­at­ing for Scrab­ble play­ers of yore whose only source of ref­er­ence was such a ‘hard copy’. Web­ster’s Dic­tio­nary of the English Lan­guage: Handy School and Of­fice Edi­tion (HSOE) came in for spe­cific crit­i­cism from a Prof Chris McManus, who de­scribes how he made the word ‘deep’ dur­ing a word game, only to have his young op­po­nent ex­claim tri­umphantly “Deep isn’t a dic­tio­nary word!”, af­ter con­sult­ing the HSOE. Not just that, but page 322 ended with the en­try ‘whirlpool’ and page 323 be­gan with the en­try ‘wild-eyed’: white, wide, wild, whiskers, wig, wigwam, whis­per, wife, wield, widow, why and wicked were all miss­ing.

Then there is the ques­tion of naughty, vul­gar and ob­scene words. Only a few years ago a hand­ful of em­i­nent dic­tio­nary ed­i­tors dic­tated terms from lofty heights and de­cided what words could go in. Soon this era of the pre­scrip­tive dic­tio­nary ended, and the era of the de­scrip­tive one be­gan – one which sim­ply listed and de­fined all words spo­ken by the man in the street, with ‘(vulg)’ af­ter the en­try be­ing the sole con­ces­sion to an edi­tor’s pro­pri­ety.

More re­cently, Ap­ple came in for crit­i­cism for its cen­sor­ship poli­cies with re­gard to app con­tent. The iTunes Books’ de­scrip­tion of Moby Dick cen­sored the term ‘sperm whale’ as of April 2010. Songs with per­ceived pro­fan­i­ties were also awarded bans, and closer to our topic of dis­cus­sion to­day, its app for Nin­ja­words (the on­line dic­tio­nary) ini­tially met with cen­sor­ship. That seems to have been re­voked, be­cause now it does de­fine the world’s best known and most banned naughty word.

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