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I read the following quote today:

A lexicographer's business is solely to collect, arrange, and define the words that usage presents to his hands. He has no right to proscribe words; he is to present them as they are.

Noah Webster, lexicographer (16 Oct 1758-1843)

And I wondered to what extent the gist of this quote matches the ethos of English Language & Usage

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    They match my ethos. Also, my first name.
    – Dan Bron
    Oct 16, 2018 at 13:24
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    The title doesn't match the question in the body. Webster's quote did not say that any claim, impression, definition or theory about a word's origin was permissible or legitimate. Do you think that EL&U is any different?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 16, 2018 at 15:52
  • @Mari-LouA - I didn't understand your comment. To my mind Webster's quote doesn't need paraphrasing. It is a clear statement and I think the title of the question is entirely apposite - he does appear to me to have said that, lexicographically-speaking, anything does indeed go.
    – Dan
    Oct 16, 2018 at 20:25
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    Except this conversation, it’s not going anywhere ;)
    – Dan Bron
    Oct 16, 2018 at 20:42
  • There are no bad words, only bad usages. That's a paraphrase of Jonathan Saffron What's-his-surname. Oct 17, 2018 at 4:07
  • That quote is very meta-prescriptive. He's saying people shouldn't tell others what they should and shouldn't do. Webster shouldn't do that.
    – Mitch
    Oct 17, 2018 at 12:48
  • I have my doubts regarding if Noah Webster actually wrote that. Noah Webster certainly had some populist sentiments, but he was also not afraid to proscribe as Sven already mentioned, and I can't find reference to it prior to a 2006 issuance of The New Yorker. Perhaps that is because it is from an untitled non-book source, or perhaps it was fabricated, but I think it is important for us to know which is the case before we continue discussion predicated on the assumption that he wrote it, or misinterpret an out-of-context quotation. Can anybody verify this quotation with a primary source?
    – Tonepoet
    Oct 18, 2018 at 14:57
  • @Tonepoet - why is it important to know whether or not Webster actually wrote the quote?
    – Dan
    Oct 18, 2018 at 20:45
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    @Dan Although the statement logicaly retains just as much or as little underlying merit irrespective of who said it, there are two reasons: One is that we should strive against the propagation of misinformation. The other is that a teaching will be given a greater or lesser degree of significance depending on whether or not it comes from a master of an art, especially by people who seek to emulate his success in that field. Besides that, in order to determine the likeness of our ethos to Webster's as originally requested, we need to accurately represent both.
    – Tonepoet
    Oct 18, 2018 at 23:51
  • @Tonepoet - I agree with both your points. I used the quote because of what it says rather than because it may or may not have been said by Webster. I've edited my question to make this clear.
    – Dan
    Oct 19, 2018 at 8:48

3 Answers 3

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I think you are asking whether the EL&U community are willing to pass judgment on how English should be used.

All these answers are true:

  1. No, of course we don’t judge. We’re objective.

    Our job is to give right answers to questions about how the English language works. Suppose you want to know what ain’t is a contraction of. We’ll offer an expert answer (originally “am not”, then it drifted).

  2. We sort of judge, but we don’t actually take sides.

    Social implications of language elements are necessarily a part of the language. So we are quite prepared to answer questions about them. Suppose you want to know whether ain’t is appropriate to a given social situation. Based on the situation, we’ll try to let you know objectively if it identifies you as a member of the in-group, or is likely to cost you prestige.

  3. Yes, of course we judge. That’s what humans do.

    The Stack Exchange network is a social setting. Vocabulary, grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, writing style – your readers cannot help interpreting them and making judgments. How you use ain’t in a question or answer will identify you as a member of the in-group, or cost you prestige.

  4. Not only do we judge, we prescribe correct English.

    We know anyone with any level of English skill might have a good question. And the skills of our visitors run the gamut from virtual illiteracy to complete mastery. We do not expect questions to be written in perfect English (whatever that might be). But to make questions as clear as possible to our experts and other visitors, we ask in the help pages for correct use of English spelling and grammar to the best of your ability. Similarly we advise that answers with correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar are easier to read. If you use ain’t, you best include the apostrophe.

By the way, when the help pages prescribe correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar, the question becomes, correct according to what standard? After several years on the Stack Exchange network, I’d say the standard is loose. We do not prefer BE, AmE, or any specific variety of English. We lean towards a “professional” or “academic” style, but at the informal end. We use contractions, we inject humor. It’s language more appropriate for a casual team meeting between peers, than for a lecture, job interview, or business proposal. We aint snobs.

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I have no insight into "the ethos of English Language & Usage," but I do want to respond to the suggestion that Noah Webster's view of language amounts to "anything goes."

In his introduction to An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), Webster offers the following thoughts on "words of recent origin" and "vulgar words, and term of art":

In the admission of words of recent origin, into a Dictionary, a lexicographer has to encounter many difficulties; and it is not easy, in all cases, to determine whether a word is so far authorized as to be considered legitimate. Some writers indulge a licentiousness in coining words, which good sense would wish to repress. At the same time it would not be judicious to reject all new terms; as these are often necessary to express new ideas; and the progress of improvement in arts and science would be retarded, by denying a place in dictionaries, to terms given to things newly discovered. But the lexicographer is not answerable for the bad use of the privilege of coining new words. It seems to be his duty to insert and explain all words which are used by respectable writers or speakers, whether the words are destined to be received into general and permanent use or not. The future use must depend on public taste or the utility of the words; circumstances which are not within the lexicographer's control.

Lexicographers are sometimes censured for inserting in their vocabularies, vulgar words, and terms of art known only to particular artisans. That this practice may be carried too far, is admitted; but it is to be remarked that, in general, vulgar words are the oldest and best authorized words in language; and their use is as necessary to the classes of people who use them, as elegant words are to the statesman and the poet. It may be added that such words are often particularly useful to the lexicographer, in furnishing him with the primary sense, which is no where to be found, but in popular use. In this work, I have not gone quite as far as Johnson and Todd have done, in admitting vulgar words. Some of them are too low to deserve notice.

Any notion that Webster believed that the lexicographer's role is purely descriptive, as one might suppose from the quotation in Dan's question—

A lexicographer's business is solely to collect, arrange, and define the words that usage presents to his hands. He has no right to proscribe words; he is to present them as they are.

—must be based on careful cherry picking from the writings that Webster left behind. As his remarks in the introduction to his 1828 dictionary make clear, he considers the lexicographer's task to be, in part, "to determine whether a word is so far authorized as to be considered legitimate." And he considers that, "Some [vulgar words] are too low to deserve notice." Ultimately, he seems to believe that the obligation of the lexicographer "to collect, arrange, and define the words that usage presents to his hands" extends only to words that "are used by respectable writers or speakers."

As you might expect from the foregoing, many a sturdy English four-letter word is not to be found in An American Dictionary of the English Language. But Webster also omitted a number of other words that he considered insufficiently English (or inappropriate for other, unnamed reasons), such as jounce (attested to the 15th century), kilter (1628), slush (1641), and squaw (1634). As for the meanings he assigned to words, consider the entry in Webster's 1828 dictionary for Yankee, a term of some familiarity to Americans going back to the American Revolution:

YANKEE, n. A corrupt pronunciation of the word English by the native Indians of America.

This is an interesting etymological note—although not one that Merriam-Webster endorses today—but the entry doesn't really try to define the word that usage presented to Noah Webster's hand.

Noah Webster's attitude toward language was far from laissez-faire. He ignored words he deemed illegitimate. He proscribed words he deemed excessively vulgar. He sought changes in orthography strictly on the basis of what (in his view) was good for the language. These are very strongly prescriptivist tendencies. His willingness to accept whatever words and forms of usage happened down the pike is far less expansive than the quotation in Dan's question might lead you to believe.

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  • I don't know how you learned to frame and phrase things the way you do, but I know I want to find out.
    – Dan Bron
    Oct 18, 2018 at 17:29
  • @Sven Yargs - I have no trouble believing this. And I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the quote, which I found online. I posted the question primarily to hear whether the ELU community prefers to observe and catalog usage, or to police and prescribe usage. I've edited the question accordingly.
    – Dan
    Oct 18, 2018 at 21:08
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Your quote has 2 sentences, the first of which defines a lexicographer's business and the second proscribes them proscribing words.

EL&U doesn't really proscribe words, except that we should try to keep things civil, on-topic and in good taste. There's also been some talk about how our question titles are perceived by the general public, but that is a site-wide matter across Stack Exchange, not EL&U-specific.

To the extent that something is proscribed at all as a binary decision, I suppose EL&U doesn't subscribe to the proscription of proscription when it comes to lexicographers. But that's because EL&U doesn't have a position on lexicographers, so it wouldn't even proscribe that. It isn't quite anything goes, but EL&U does admit a fairly wide range of content matter that relates to the English language and its usage.

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