Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Watch Out for Mr. Dictionary

For copy editors, the problem with dictionaries is that the books describe usage, rather than prescribe it. This makes sense for a book that tries to reflect most meanings of most words.

In newspapers, though, we want to use the most accurate and most easily understood meaning. Just because a dictionary says a few people use the word in another way doesn't give the writer a pass.

Case in point: Gantlet/Gauntlet. In comments to my quibbles post below, a reader pointed out that a dictionary included one of those words as an alternate spelling of the other. That's fair for the dictionary to do, I suppose. Many people misuse those words.

But they come from entirely different sources, and they mean entirely different things.

In my reply, I pointed to the late John Bremner's "Words on Words."

He writes: "Gantlet comes from the Spanish gatlopp, a running down a lane, from gata, street, lane, and lopp, course, running, wherefore a gantlet is (1) a lane between two lines of men who beat some unfortunate as he tries to run through it, as in 'run the gantlet,' ...

"Gauntlet comes from French gantelet, diminutive of gant, glove, wherefore a gauntlet is (1) a protective glove and (2) a challenge."

Spelling the words differently in a newspaper setting, therefore, has a purpose. There's a reason to do it. We want to preserve the separate senses.

I love dictionaries. I collect them. But they can't edit for us.