In dictionaries, a history of us and of language
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 29 September 2018)

Those who poke through dictionaries, whether on a screen or in ancient book form, are often surprised by what they find. I was startled the other day when I learned that the Oxford English Dictionary contains an entry, with full historic documentation, for an unlikely term, "looky-lou."

A "looky-lou" means someone who views something for sale with little or no intention of buying. It can be spelled "lookie-lou, lookylou, looky-loo, or lookie-loo - or even lookie-lew." Apparently it was born in the real-estate business and then spread outward.

In 1978, according to the OED, an art dealer in Los Angeles complained that his neighbourhood was mobbed by tourists: "If we had a $2 bill for every 'looky-loo'we wouldn't have to worry." A 1992 Newsweek article reported that "A concierge had to tell the camera-toting, autograph-seeking 'lookyloos'camped outside to take a powder."

The OED tells us the truth about our language today, as opposed to how we might want it to be. It's not a prescriptivist dictionary, it's descriptivist. It traffics happily and unabashedly in slang of all sorts. (Recently it added "fatberg" and "worstest.") What it loses by giving up the authority of "correct" language it gains by its relentless research, and by the unremitting search for the origins of its words, and the earliest use of each one. The OED makes itself essential by exploring the history of the language.

When "looky-lou" made its first appearance on the desk of an editor at the Oxford English Dictionary, some years ago, it must have raised eyebrows. Was it outlandish? Was it good enough to be in the OED? Credible publications used it but was that enough to outweigh its monumental silliness? This issue, on a broader scale, became a literary controversy in 1962, when Dwight Macdonald set out to review a new edition of Webster's Dictionary. His article ran 24 pages in The New Yorker and created much bitter argument. In his view of dictionaries, Macdonald was a prescriptivist. He thought the editors of a dictionary should emphasize effective words, leave out slang, and provide learned guidance for the public. It should set the standard for proper usage.

The Webster's editors saw themselves as descriptivists. They wanted to describe the words, without rating them. They were concerned with the language as we use it. They welcomed parvenu terms such as "wise up" and "litterbug." They did not rule out "ain't."

Macdonald accused the editors of "debasing our language" and accelerating its already apparent deterioration. Another critic was outraged that Webster's endorsed the use of "like" as a conjunction. The debate extended beyond the bookish world. In his 1962 novel, Gambit, Rex Stout had his detective hero, Nero Wolfe, throw his copy of the offending Webster's into the fireplace. Nero considered it subversive.

But the Webster's furor marked a change in every English-speaking country. In the long term, Macdonald lost. The study of language was becoming less regulated, more open to new forms. Today, words created by the internet or television don't have to wait long for scholarly acceptance. Terms like "sexploit" or "'yadda, yadda" slide as easily into dictionaries as they do in everyday talk. So do anagrams. When the OED decided to include abbreviations, The New York Times ran an editorial headed "OMG!!!!! OED LOL!!!!!."

Stumbling around the OED, I came across a word that falls into a special category, the term with a sense of purpose and a built-in message. A remarkably specific phrase, noted by the OED, is the "Bechdel test," a way of deciding whether a film or novel portrays women in a way that marginalizes them or exhibits gender stereotyping.

The inventor, Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist, says that for a work to pass the test it must satisfy three criteria: there must be at least two named female characters; they must talk to each other; and they must talk about something other than a man. All of this the OED explains. Few movies pass, which turns a few lines into a feminist critique of the movie business, another function for dictionaries.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image