Happy belated National Dictionary Day! The day got its due in this two-minute segment on yesterday's ABC World News with Charles Gibson. There's a clever animation (TV news is trying really hard to capture viewers under age 75) that explains how variant spellings make their way into dictionaries, and there's a live-action (or taped-action) interview with linguist and lexicographer Benjamin Zimmer.
Turns out that when the Oxford University Press analyzed how "ordinary folks" spell some 2 billion English words, it found that 51 percent write "vocal cord" and 49 percent write "vocal chord." Each group has a plausible story for its choice. Similarly, 54 percent of people think of horses when they write "free rein"; 46 percent of people think of monarchs when they write "free reign." So the dictionary editors decided to be democratic: all of those spellings are now considered "acceptable," although half of them are actually eggcorns, or mishearings.
In fact, a vocal cord is a physical structure that resembles a rope. Free rein has equestrian origins. And while the stories people invent to justify the alternate spellings are colorful and amusing, they are unhelpful to those of us who make our living by slinging words.
I got into this recently with my brother David, who maintained that Scientific American erred in the first paragraph of this article when it published "poring over ... records." "Shouldn't it be pouring over?" David asked.
Poring is correct here, and even the new sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary doesn't sanction pouring to mean "examining closely or attentively." (I'd thought to pore derived from something like "looking at every pore," but it turns out the origin of the verb is unclear; it may be a variant of to peer. Here's my public apology, David!)
Still, the alternate spelling--which to me makes no sense it all; what exactly is being poured like a liquid?--is to be found everywhere nowadays. Here's a line, for example, from David Leonhardt's New York Times review of Alan Greenspan's new memoir: "He never seems happier than when pouring over economic indicators that allow him to predict everything from the 1958 steel recession to the 1990s boom." (The error appeared in the print edition; it was corrected in the online review--third paragraph from the bottom.)
Many linguists and lexicographers pride themselves on being neutral observers--descriptivists rather than prescriptivists. As linguist Michael Covarrubias noted yesterday in a comment about vocal c-h-o-r-d, "What makes it acceptable? Well ... the fact that it's accepted. Sometimes linguistics is just that simple."
But teaching, writing, editing, and proofreading are not "that simple." Those of us who ply those trades can't afford to be descriptivists. We need guidelines. And if we can't find them in respected dictionaries, where shall we turn? If we're editing Warren Buffett, for example, and he writes "vocal chords" in one of his annual reports (as he once did; I wrote him a letter about it), do we let it slide or pick up the blue pencil?
Do Benjamin Zimmer and Michael Covarrubias write vocal chords and free reign?
What would you do?