Our debates about usage still have that melodramatic tenor, but they don’t have the same cultural significance. Nobody objects now when a dictionary includes some hip-hop slang or a texting abbreviation. Oxford boasts about adding “wassup” and “BFF”; Merriam counters with “sexting” and “ear worm”; the American Heritage adds “manboob” and “vuvuzela.” Nowadays, a dictionary entry is about as hard to come by as a Facebook profile.
Since the time of Webster’s Third, people have been framing usage issues as a pseudo-philosophical dispute between “descriptivist” and “prescriptivist” views of language, the one telling it like it is and the other telling it like it ought to be. But actually all dictionaries are in the business of describing the language as it is. What really changes is the conception of the language itself.
Back in Macdonald’s era, it was still just possible to think of the English language as a single great stream with its sources in literary tradition, rolling majestically past the evanescent slang and jargon scattered on its banks. That was a glorious fiction even then. But it isn’t a credible picture when all the old distinctions have been effaced — between high and low, formal and casual, print and oral, public and private.
Where do you locate the mainstream of English in the flood of words that pours in over all the different screens in our lives? It’s not a stream at all, just a limitless ocean of yammer. Even with their modern tools, you have to feel for the lexicographers who are out there trying to sift through it all.