June 09, 2006

Go and synergize no more

If, as Geoff Pullum reminds us, "people who are clueless about English grammar shouldn't be trying to humiliate others over grammar," then by the same token people who don't know how to use a dictionary shouldn't try to appeal to lexicographical authority to advance an argument. The latest such case (brought to the attention of the American Dialect Society mailing list by Bill Mullins) comes from a blog called NASA Watch by Keith Cowing, a former NASA scientist who now casts a critical eye on the workings of the agency. In a recent entry about linguistic sloppiness at NASA, Cowing zeroed in on one particular lexical item that rubbed him the wrong way:

Experts Agree: Synergizing is not a Word - Yet
Today, in the Constellation presentations at NASA headquarters, I heard Jeff Hanley use the word "synergizing" several times - as a verb. This was a new word to my ears - almost as good as hearing someone at NASA saying that they were going to "action" something. Out of curiosity, I checked Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster OnLine, The Free Dictionary, and Cambridge Dictionaries Online. None of these resources recognized the word "synergizing".

As Cowing's links indicate, the search term he used for these online references was synergizing, not synergize. If he had thought to search on the uninflected form, he would have had better success with Dictionary.com, which consolidates entries from a number of dictionaries. A proper search finds entries for synergize in Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English and Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary.

(Webster's New Millennium, by the way, has no relation to the Merriam-Webster line of dictionaries. It's an electronic resource recently developed by Lexico, the publishing group behind Dictionary.com. So far, in this new millennium, its main claim to fame is that it fell for a lexicographical copyright trap set by the New Oxford American Dictionary — see this New Yorker piece and this Chicago Tribune followup for details.)

Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary provides the older sense of synergize, "to act as synergists; exhibit synergism," or, used transitively, "to increase the activity of (a substance)." Webster's New Millennium gives a more generalized meaning, "to cooperate with another or others, esp. to remedy something." It's true that the other references on Cowing's list — Merriam-Webster Online, The Free Dictionary (which reproduces entries from the American Heritage Dictionary), and the Cambridge Dictionaries Online — are no help with synergize or synergizing. But both the limited sense relating to interacting pharmacological agents and the more extended sense can be found in various unabridged dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition as "to act as a synergist, co-operate, as a remedy, or an organ, with another," with a handful of citations, including this lyrical passage of literary criticism:

1954 Times Lit. Suppl. 12 Nov. 721/1 The illuminating, synergizing word here, without which the rest is nothing but maundering, is..the word sighs.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary of 1961, still reliable after all these years, gives the "act as synergists" sense later published in Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary, also listing the synonyms cooperate and coordinate. Granted, the OED and Webster's Third aren't available online for free, but the wonderful Century Dictionary is, as it's old enough to be in the public domain. Global Language Resources even offers scanned page images, and here's what you can find in the 1909 supplement:

So at least in the medical sense, synergize and synergizing have been in the bigger dictionaries for about a hundred years. (And Google Book Search easily churns out attestations back to 1882.) But guess what? As it relates to Cowing's gripe, none of this really matters. Cowing didn't like the way that synergizing was used in NASA management-speak, and he thought he found evidence that it was "not a word" based on a desultory search of online references. So has synergize suddenly "become a word" because we've found it in several dictionaries? The idea is laughable. But such is the power of "The Dictionary" in the popular imagination as an anointer of sacred wordhood.

Lexicographers themselves are quick to dispel this notion of The Dictionary as ultimate authority. Two recent pieces by dictionary honchos make for instructive reading on this point. Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary, wrote last month on Slate about copywriter Ray Del Savio's quixotic campaign to get the verb concept in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Such lobbying is the flip-side to Cowing's disparagement of synergizing as "not a word" because he couldn't find it in a dictionary — from Del Salvio's perspective, once concepting is in The Almighty Dictionary, well, then it will really have arrived!

In a similar vein, New Oxford American Dictionary editor Erin McKean stepped in as a guest blogger for Powell's Books not too long ago and posted an entertaining entry titled "What's a Word Gotta Do to Get in This Joint, Anyway?" She writes:

Lots of people (and by "lots" I mean roughly 99% of everyone I've ever spoken to) believe that the dictionary is a Who's Who of words. That it's like Ivy League college admissions. That only the really good words, the ones that have eaten all their spinach and who play the oboe and who get high scores on the SAT, make it into the dictionary. That the words that make it into the dictionary are somehow "realer" than the words that don't.

Well, that's not exactly true. It does take a bit of work to get a word into the dictionary, but inclusion in the dictionary is not an honor. The dictionary words are not more real than the words not in the dictionary. What they are is more USEFUL.

Think of the dictionary as less of a Social Register for words and more like a word general store. I am the manager of the word general store. Do I stock only words in my size? Only in the flavors I like? Only the words I wish people would use? No — I provide a wide selection of words for the use of all my customers. And because my customers are such a wide group (basically, all adult readers and writers) I have to make sure to include the words that will serve their needs.

Because there's limited shelf space in the Word Store, we have to make hard decisions about what to stock. Those decisions are based mainly on usefulness, not on beauty or on any kind of perceived intrinsic merit. We want you to be able to walk in and grab what you need off the shelf (and since we don't have to worry about shoplifting, there's nothing kept behind the counter).

If more people thought of the dictionary as a "word general store" (and had a better idea of how to rummage through the aisles), then maybe we could avoid these constant misperceptions about what's stocked on the shelves, lexically speaking.

(As for the management sense of synergizing that got Cowing's goat in the first place, its popularization is no doubt due to Stephen R. Covey's 1989 best-seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit #6 is "Synergize" — as Covey advises, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.")

[Update #1: And speaking of popular perceptions of how words get included in dictionaries, here's a wonderful image from the New York Times Sunday Magazine of June 3, 1923, accompanying an article entitled, "Getting Into the English Dictionary; Every New Word Must Pass an Inquisition to be Admitted to the Select 500,000." (Thanks to George Thompson for discovering this and Jesse Sheidlower for hosting the image online.)]

[Update #2: I goofed in the original version of this post, misspelling Cowing's name as "Cowling," as Bill Mullins had rendered it on the American Dialect Society mailing list. Cowing responds on his blog:

I just love it when the language police try and make a grammatical point - and misspell the name of the person they cite for having committed the grammatical offense ...

It just goes to show that Hartman's/Skitt's/McKean's Law is alive and well. But I hope it's clear that there was no "grammatical offense" that I was "policing"... Just an appeal for improved appreciation of dictionaries, both practically in terms of actual use and conceptually in terms of understanding the limits of their authority.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 9, 2006 01:34 AM