Words: Inclusion, Exclusion & Questioning

“Dictionaries project an image of disinterested expertise. This is because they are produced with stunning care by a professional team whose job it is to monitor a culture’s temperature. Consequently, they project authority. Yet what makes culture, particularly in a country like the United States, move is often an anti-authoritarian drive: rebellion, protests, marches. We like to think of ourselves as having a voice, and that voice, in linguistic terms, is in a constant state of unsettlement. We not only like to oppose power; we also like opposing the languages of power…

…Maybe every dictionary has its own double: the book features all the words its makers included, and the double features the words that were excluded. Inclusion is power, but so is exclusion. I say this because dictionaries exert a strange allure: an urge to completion. And the exclusions are a statement about life itself: the words that were left out haven’t been co-opted; by not yet being cataloged, they still belong to us.

It is a source of constant amazement to me that English doesn’t have the equivalent of an Académie Française. No institution forces us to use our words in a particular way. Yet we do have, of course, mechanisms of authority — for instance, peer pressure: we use the words we hear. So, usage is a mechanism of cohesion. And dictionaries, too, are tools of consent. I say this with absolute reverence. No language, especially no standardized language, is able to exist without a drive toward cohesiveness; otherwise, it would disintegrate rapidly. At the same time, those mechanisms of authority, including dictionaries, need to be questioned. Who is behind them? Are we satisfied with the dictionaries we have?”

Ilan Stavans and Margaret Boyle, “How Dictionaries Define Us: Margaret Boyle and Ilan Stavans in Conversation.” Los Angeles Review of Books. March 30, 2022

True of words. True of our lives.