Dictionaries (William H. Gass)

Dictionaries are supposed to influence usage. Usage is what dictionaries record. “This is what we have meant,” they say; “continue in the same vein so that communication will be accurate, reliable, and fluent.” Then the next dictionary will record that fidelity, and issue the same command, which will complete the cycle. Among users, however, there are many who are incompetent, inventive, or disobedient. The French Academy tries to drive strays back into the herd. English has no comparable guardian and its speakers lack every discipline. Soon meanings have multiplied or slid or mushed, and niceties—delicate distinctions—lost along the way. In this haphazard fashion, influence has come to mean a kind of causality that operates only through the agency of a consciousness. Where this puts the stars, I’m not sure. Because of smog or city glare, we often don’t even know the stars are there.

From: William H. Gass’s essay “Influence.” Collected in A Temple of Texts.

Walt Whitman, Unsurprisingly, Was Not a Prescriptive Grammarian

More from Walt Whitman’s essay “Slang in America”:

Language, be it remember’d, is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea. It impermeates all, the Past as well as the Present, and is the grandest triumph of the human intellect.

“Your Liberal Arts $ at Work” — David Foster Wallace

From the David Foster Wallace Archive at the Harry Ransom Center.