How reliable are dictionaries?(Miscellany)
A former senior lexicographer at a major dictionary publisher has told me by e-mail: "An editor seldom sits down and composes new text for any lemma out of whole cloth. Even for a supposedly thoroughgoing revision, what usually happens is that you take the text from your previous edition, apply whatever mechanical formatting changes have been decreed, and then check two or three of your competitors' books to see if they've said anything different from what you have. (Right -- it's no accident that all the major dictionaries look so much alike!) This practice can lead to some pretty awful results; the nautical terminology in [a dictionary that I worked on] was based on 19th-century square-rigger stuff originally copied out of OED -- and evidently *they* didn't have any sailors on the staff either! "In any case, the citation files don't normally even get looked at unless something in the entry raises a red flag -- it's a new word, or a member of some class of words marked for special scrutiny (e.g., gender-specific terms or personal pronouns), or has been tagged for special attention as the result of someone's query somewhere along the line." For more on the frightening extent to which dictionaries copy from one another, see "The Genealogy of Dictionaries", in Robert Burchfield's _Unlocking the English Language_ (Hill and Wang, 1992, ISBN 0-374-52339-8), pp. 147-165. Thus we see that a consensus of dictionaries does not necessarily indicate a consensus of actual research. Nor does disagreement among dictionaries necessarily indicate actual scholarly controversy: it may simply be that the lexicographers were too overworked and deadline-pressed to copy from one another more thoroughly. Samuel Johnson's observation, "Dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true", remains highly pertinent today, despite the improvements in both products since Johnson's day.
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