Saturday, June 02, 2007

Yeah, but . . .




I don’t like to think of myself as a curmudgeon, but sometimes my nostrils quiver in indignation when someone defends a dubious usage by proclaiming, “But it’s in the dictionary!” Even though it may be, I want to retort, “Yeah, but . . .” to such simplistic reasoning.

For many years, a battle has raged between the prescriptionists, who believe that a dictionary exists to tell us what is right and must not be changed, and the descriptionists, who believe that a dictionary exists merely to tell us how words are currently being used.

I have lived long enough and studied enough to know that meanings and grammar conventions and punctuation styles are seasonal. They are not, like the Ten Commandments, set in stone. So I have no trouble lining up with the descriptionists. Dictionaries shouldn’t lay down laws that can’t possibly be enforced.

On the other hand, total perspective comes only from knowing a fuller context, from knowing what came before our own brief time. That’s why God invented the Oxford English Dictionary and founded it upon historical principles.

In brief, here’s what I’m saying: you may find a meaning or usage in a dictionary because it developed from ignorance and misunderstanding, and now it has infected large numbers of users, forcing editors to acknowledge its bastardized existence. The fact that it’s listed in a dictionary does not excuse it from its embarrassing origin, nor does it mean that a writer’s job is over after he or she has zipped through one dictionary.

Here’s a case in point. The May edition of a local magazine in northern Michigan includes this headline: “Honing in on the Great Lakes’ most mysterious shipwreck.” I know that dictionaries say it’s a variant of homing in, but it’s a variant based on earlier mishearing or ignorance, so don’t be surprised if you hear titters and snickers in the background when you use it.

Let’s check the Oxford English Dictionary for historical perspective. Back in the 10th century, a hone was a stone or a rock. By 1325, the meaning had evolved into a whetstone, a hard, fine-grained stone used for giving a sharp edge to cutting tools, including knives and razors. Finally, by the 19th century, honing was metaphorically applied to refining a skill--sharpening your wits, as it were.

Since the 10th century, home was where you lived. It referred to people for centuries, but by the 19th century, to home began to refer to pigeons that were trained to return home to the loft after being released in sport. To home in became entrenched when 20th century warfare developed weapons that could be guided to a target, either by landmarks or by a radio beacon. These weapons would home in on a target; that is, they would go home where they belonged.

The mistake to hone in doesn’t even show up in print until 1965: “Then he'd fly on past or off at an angle, his hands splayed out wide, looking back for the ball honing in to intercept his line of flight.” George Plimpton, Paper Lion.

The fact that to hone in shows up in dictionaries doesn't cancel the history and logic of to home in. Both are used, but only one betrays perspective.

SIDEBAR: International Federation of American Homing Pigeon Fanciers, Inc.

SIDEBAR: How to use a whetstone


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