The Dictionary as Doberman

by Mark L. Levinson


Today’s dictionaries, like other modern authorities these days, find the idea of authority distasteful.  You know how it is.  You turn on the TV and they’re interviewing a fellow who’s spent twenty-five years all over Europe refining his taste in wines, and the top vineyards pay him hundreds of dollars a sip for his expertise, and when the interviewer asks him what criteria make a good wine, he says, “Oh, anything you enjoy drinking is a good wine.”  It’s the only answer by which he can avoid the social sin of claiming to be better in some way than most other people.

Similarly, the dictionaries long ago stopped proclaiming that they know how words should be spelled.  They merely report on how words are spelled by plain folks like you and me, they assert.  They’re not prescriptive, they’re descriptive.

Dictionaries are sort of like the dog in the Hebrew proverb, but in reverse.  Instead of running ahead and pretending to lead, but looking back at the master all the time, the dictionary pretends to be the conscientious follower but, like a hundred-pound Doberman being walked on a leash, it can’t be led anywhere it doesn’t want to go.

The word “seperate” has more than nineteen million hits on Google.  That’s more hits than “burgundy” has.  But there isn’t a dictionary that recognizes “seperate” as a legitimate spelling.  I know because I checked Onelook.

For those who aren’t using it: simultaneously checks a whole slew of dictionaries, both general and specialized, including Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary, and the unabridged.

That’s the 1913 unabridged.  A later unabridged dictionary costs money.  You can subscribe to Merriam-Webster’s unabridged at for thirty dollars a year, but for less money Steimatzky’s will sell you a hardcopy of the same book’s 1993 edition — Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, three inches thick and a foot high, 2600 pages, with updates at the front.  It’s a bargain, and everything after 1993 is on the Internet anyway, right? 

The way I see it, none of us can keep all the reference books on hand that we’d like, but with Merriam-Webster’s ginormous Third kennelled on your shelf, people at least will think that on the day you bought that, you could have bought anything you pleased.

The word “ginormous,” by the way, is in several dictionaries but doesn’t pass Microsoft’s spellcheck.  Since Microsoft’s spellcheck predominates at the typical workplace, inevitably it rules minds if not hearts.  I’ve gone over to “canceling” from “cancelling” (which Microsoft foolishly claims is only British) just to keep people who read my files from worrying about the squiggle of disapproval.

One dictionary that I wouldn’t buy is American Heritage.  Look up Jerusalem there and you’ll find it’s “in the West Bank” and that “Israeli forces took control of the city in 1967,” with no indication that the State of Israel had any foothold there previously.  Look up “West Bank” and you’ll find it was “part of Jordan after 1949,” though in fact it was officially part of Jordan only in the opinion of Jordan, Pakistan, and those sore losers the British.

American Heritage points out that David Ben-Gurion was born David Grün in Poland and Golda Meir was born Goldie Mabovitch in Russia, but it doesn’t point out that Yasir Arafat was born Rahman 'Abd Arra'uf Al-Qudwah in Egypt.  Under “Palestine,” it writes that “In 1988 the Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasir Arafat declared its intention of forming an Arab state of Palestine, probably including the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Arab sector of Jerusalem.”  At least in that entry it tacitly acknowledges that there is another sector; but it implies a limit on the PLO’s ambitions that the PLO itself preferred not to specify.

Our own state, according to American Heritage, “was established in 1948 following the British withdrawal from Palestine, which had been divided by recommendation of the United Nations into Jewish and Arab states.”  Of course the implied reality of such a division and such an Arab state is a false one, since the recommendation was violently rejected by every Arab government.

Comments and questions are welcome: ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.