Prescriptive or descriptive
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Prescriptive or descriptive
A recent entry in the Forum (disputing the dictionary's definition of the word "racism") was immediately answered by the editors with the mantra that the dictionary is "descriptive and not prescriptive". It's a "one-liner" I've read elsewhere in this website, but what exactly - apart from sounding smart - does that mean?
Dr Johnson started his work all those centuries ago in order, so I believed, to establish a work of reference that all could take recourse to in order to know the proper meaning of the words we use in communication. A dictionary's purpose is to allow a common understanding of what it is we communicate: so that what I say is what you understand. If the OED's philosophy is merely to describe what people - the corpus - de facto say to one another, does that then detract from its function as a central point of reference by which not necessarily the correctness of what is said or written is judged but the meaning to be attributed to it is measured?
I believe it is disingenuous for the OED to assume such a stance: either it must note that general usage (they need not label it "ignorance" if they choose not to) has led to a switch in a word's intended meaning or it must state categorically that its definition is right and all others wrong. Otherwise, I wonder how many times I would need to publish articles in which references to tables were instead made to chairs and vice versa for the dictionary to accede to the corpus's intention that the two definitions have been reversed. Can I blithely write infer and imply and expect my reader to intuitively understand what I mean? Can I plaster double negatives around my texts and argue that, though questioned by the OED, it has no authority to decide the matter of whether I am right or wrong?
I would like to see the OED revisit its "smart-sounding" mantra: and while it's at it, smarten up its welcome e-mail to new account holders, with expressions like "one of its favourite": or does it seek to observe that the plural can be the singular and the singular the plural, without compunction?