Insinuendo: OED’s Opinions

The Oxford English Dictionary is rightly regarded as a dispassionate authority on English words, recording without fear or favour as many of those little beasts as it can. But OED editors have not always been above a bit of prescriptive snark. Here is a list of opinions Robert Burchfield, editor of the Second Supplement, decided to include in the main text:

insinuendoA tasteless word.
opinionnaireA word of doubtful usefulness.
permanentize, v.A word of little value and rarely found in serious writing.
plusageA word of restricted currency.
pre, prep.Usu. found in contexts where before would be equally appropriate and more agreeable.
prioritize, v.A word that at present sits uneasily in the language.
regretfully, adv.A regrettable use, prob. after hopefully
sanction, v.A use of doubtful acceptability at present.
scenario, sb.The over-use of this word in various loose senses has attracted frequent hostile comment.
spastic, a.Although current for some fifteen years or more, it is generally condemned as a tasteless expression, and is not common in print.
supportative, a.An unnecessary formation, since the shorter supportive is completely established.

I tend to agree about “permanentize” (a word that Google books tells me has not quote managed to permanentize itself). But “insinuendo”!?

It’s amusing that all but one of these “notes” by Burchfield come after “M”, which is to say after he was halfway through editing. This suggests that either words beginning A-O harbour no “tasteless” terms among them, or Burchfield could only control his word-rage so long.

One Comment

  • kts wrote:

    Charlotte Brewer discusses Burchfield’s interjections in full detail — over 30 of them in total — in her article on “Authority and Personality in the Oxford English Dictionary” (available at Usage and correctness in the OED) and more briefly in Treasure-House of the Language. Burchfield announced that he had started adding his own judgements in the preface to the O-Scz supplement (1982):

    One small legacy of these great debates is that here and there in the present volume I have found myself adding my own opinions about the acceptability of certain words or meanings in educated use. Users of the dictionary may or
    may not find these editorial comments diverting: they have been added (adapting a statement by John Ray in 1691) ‘as oil to preserve the mucilage from inspissation’.

    But in fact he had already made a few such remarks in the earlier volumes, e.g. agenda “Treated as a singular (a use now increasingly found but avoided by careful writers)”, hopefully “(Avoided by many writers)”. Some of these were dropped on incorporation into the OED2, some retained, and some retained but relabeled “R.W.B.”

    These snarky bits are gradually being purged from the Third Edition, and good riddance; I agree with Brewer’s comment:

    Absence of quotation support—or printing quotations which do not substantiate the editorial comment but instead provide evidence that the usage was unexceptionable—vitiates Burchfield’s (or the OED’s) authority by making it appear idiosyncratic and biased, and out of touch with the linguistic facts he is purportedly describing. Where does his judgement come from if not from his
    quoted evidence?

    As she discusses, it’s useful for the OED to report a sample of *attributed and dated* quotations on usage controversies, but they should not be giving unsigned and (especially) undated opinions!

    Anyway, I came here because sanction, v., sense 4 “to impose sanctions upon (a person), to penalize” has just been revised, and Burchfield’s comment about “doubtful acceptability” has been eliminated. This makes it a bit confusing that one of the four supporting quotations is not a use of this sense but a complaint about it: “normal meanings being stood on their head”. It would be better if they separated out the meta-linguistic quotations into a headnote.

    These days, sanction is not one of the high-profile controversies: most dictionaries, including Garner’s Modern American Usage, just observe that it has two opposite meanings without calling one of them wrong. There are some holdouts: the negative sense of the verb is still officially rejected by the Guardian and the New York Times in their style guides (whether their published stories obey that proscription is another question). See Language Log for a recent discussion of a possibly ambiguous real-life example.

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