Is a dictionary a mirror or a map? Is its job to reflect the evolution of a language as actually used, or direct the language to a proper destination? That age-old dispute was renewed recently as the 11th edition of the iconic Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary hit the bookstores.
As sure as sunrise, some guardians of proper English will howl about the slang and neologisms that the gatekeepers at Merriam-Webster have allowed to creep inside the sacred precincts. For example, the new version has entries on terms such as "dead presidents" (street slang for paper money), "longnecks" (an idiom denoting bottled beer) and "comb over" (a term for the desperate stratagem of the male pattern baldness crowd).
Among some educated people, seeing terms of this sort enshrined on the pages of a Merriam-Webster generates a type of "barbarians at the gates" panic. (Just try using the word "dissed" in a daily newspaper and you'll get a taste of it.)
Grant the defenders of "pure" English this: The overall quality of spoken and written discourse is declining. But their bile is misplaced. The problem is not that the language is absorbing slang from the cultural margins. English has always been a rambunctious, omnivorous mongrel of a language.
No, the deadening of discourse stems more from the penchant of mainstream institutions _ corporations, courts, governments _ for dull, redundant, candor-averse diction. When so few people have the guts to say what they mean, the mental muscles that produce clarity atrophy.
So, welcome "dead presidents." It's all those verbs ending in "ize" that we need to hound into extinction.