The joy of lex and the satisfaction of precision

The joy of lex and the satisfaction of precision

It's impossible to be a completely retired pedant, but I am generally slower, in my dotage, to come forward if only because one has to accept, after a while, that standards change, whether I agree with them or not, and that there are some, if few, more important things to worry about.

Once, if I picked up a dictionary or book of usage (and I have picked up, indeed acquired, more than 1000) I would immediately check whether the tome was sound on particular bugbear words.

One was refute, a perfectly good word meaning to prove something to be wrong. It does not mean, as so many journalists think, to deny, disagree, dispute, reject or contradict. One must go beyond that to show, with evidence or logical argument, that the relevant proposition is wrong.

It was a word banned for most journalists here when I was editor. A few wordsmiths (such as Ian Warden, who returns to the staff tomorrow) were allowed to use it, because they were literate, but they had to have permission from me in writing. No journalist under the age of 40 had a licence. This was not ageism-in-reverse but marked the fact that most younger than me had never learned grammar or Latin (or Greek), and hence were a lot less likely to understand our need for precision.

Likewise with literally, almost invariably misused. These days I would add reticent, which does not mean reluctant or unwilling, as more and more seem to think, but silent.

The Macquarie Dictionary - about the only English Dictionary since 1480 I have never bothered to buy - had ''refute'' wrong in its first edition. It has since rectified its mistake, but defended it for far too long before doing so, saying that ''of course'' the relevant lexicographer ''knew'' the ''correct'' meaning, but that years of public misuse, particularly by journalists, had debased the original meaning. It was, after all, as all dictionaries must be, a descriptive rather than a prescriptive dictionary.

Perhaps, but there are standards, and, plainly, these lexicographers were mixing with, or reading, the wrong types. There are ways of acknowledging a use but saying it is wrong. My Oxford Dictionary, for example, concedes that ignorant people refer to an indigenous person as an Aborigine rather than the (correct) Aboriginal, but says this is ''etymologically indefensible'' in terms implying it is also morally indefensible. (The Macquarie is also unsound on Aborigine: as Ms Parker might say, it is not to be lightly tossed aside but thrown away with great force.

By contrast, I recommend a local discovery, Working Words by Elizabeth Manning Murphy, a professional editor of this parish both sound and interesting on usage, grammar, style and editing of text. Hers is a book which could be a textbook for a proper course in English, but also, like Fowler, or Partridge or Gowers, will give pleasure, satisfaction and smugness in equal measure even to the already literate. Literally.

Most Viewed in Politics