Dispatches from the decline and fall of western grammaticisation, part two

(Wherein our intrepid hero sighs as he sees all that once was torn down by all that’s left behind)

I do hope, gentle reader, that you do not imagine me unreasonably or thoughtlessly biased against the ever-so-humble Macquarie dictionary. For whilst it is true that I hold but few motes of warmth for it in my heart, I can assure you that I approach each instance of rampant stupidity as an entirely novel event, and in a thoroughly dispassionate and scientific manner.

Thus, you can imagine my surprise and disappointment in discovering the current winning selections of the Macquarie dictionary’s “Dictionary wit” competition. Simply put, they wish for their readers to utilise their considerable intellects (sadly deluded, as they are, to the cognitive condition of their readership) to produce definitions for words in the tradition of that fine dictioneer, Dr Johnson, of whom they provide an example with which you are hopefully already acquainted:

Take, for example, his entry for oats:
A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
Dr Johnson did not hold a high opinion of creature comforts in Scotland.

As you can see, those fine Macquarie minds are even kind enough to elaborate on the point, for those for whom the words of Dr Johnson are impenetrably vague. The Macquarians continue:

In more modern dictionaries, Chambers is known for the odd moment of wry humour, as in the following:
eclair n. a cake, long in shape but short in duration, with cream filling and usu. chocolate icing.

Macquarie Dictionary would like to develop this tradition and invites you to submit witty definitions for inclusion. The definition must, as the Chambers definition does, satisfy the normal dictionary expectations as to explanation of meaning, but give it that little added spike of humour.

I imagine you are, at this point, protesting – how could I possibly take issue with this endeavour? It seems, in fact, precisely the sort of initiative to give the Macquarie that spark of brilliance it so desperately needs – and indeed, in principle, I agree. In practice however, I am afraid I must take issue. Observe, for instance, the winning entry for November:

cantankerous
able to drive a tank

Ah ha ha, how terribly droll. However – and one does so hate to be a pedant – but, how, precisely, does that “satisfy the normal dictionary expectations as to explanation of meaning”? Humour being so terribly subjective, I shall leave it to your own good selves, gentle readers, to decide whether or not it has “that little added spike of humour“.

However, let us not be too hasty in our judgements, November is, after all, traditionally a slow month for witticisms, and it is unreasonable for us to expect the minds of these great epigrammatists to be on fire all the time (a wish that we might, however, reasonably hold for the dictionary). Let us turn our attention, then, to the latest winning entry, where no doubt we shall find that this unfortunate definition was just a one-off. Therefore, the winning definition for December:

Mr Robert Myers
subordinate clause
Santa’s helper

Oh dear*.

*an expression, chiefly to be found of use in face of distressing circumstances – and also the Macquarie.

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Published in: on January 17, 2008 at 10:07 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi, as egotistical as it may seem, I searched my name online and found your article referencing me. I think you make a good point and wonder how my entry ever made it.

    My reason of contact is actually to ask you to change your reference to “Hayden Jeremiah Sverre Stasven”, as I’m in the process of changing my surname, and would also appreciate it if you would please remove this comment after you’ve read it, or at least edited out this latter paragraph. I’d understand if you didn’t want to but would greatly appreciate if you would.

    • Hi, it’s me again. If it’s not too much trouble would you please change my name to attribute me as “Anonymous”? The people at the Macquarie changed it for me there and I was hoping you would also. Thanks anyway, it was nice to get some feedback on my horrible pun.

      • Your pun was not especially terrible, as far as puns go – they are, after all, inherently pretty awful. My criticism was actually of the fine people at Macquarie, who don’t seem even remotely interested in actually following their own guidelines.


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