September 04, 2005


Recently I've come across the odd word wordsmith in both of its current meanings, 'writer' and 'expert on words':

1.  "Paradoxical wit and wisdom from history's greatest wordsmiths", subtitle of Mardy Grothe's Oxymoronica (HarperCollins, 2004), a compendium of oxymoronic quotations by writers through the ages.

2.  "It could be said of modern wordsmiths, perhaps as much as for any other group of writers, that they 'stand on the shoulders of giants.' ", beginning of Jeffrey Kacirk's acknowledgments for Informal English (Simon and Schuster, 2005), a collection of "curious words and phrases of North America".

So I've been musing about why wordsmith strikes people as an appropriate (fancy) label for writers, and also about the variety of things that wordsmiths in the second sense do.

Wordsmiths in sense 1 are like coppersmiths and silversmiths: they craft things from some material -- copper, silver, words.  (Tunesmith and songsmith aren't entirely parallel compounds, since in them the first element denotes the thing crafted rather than the material from which it is crafted.)  The image here is that a language is just a "big bag of words", as Geoff Pullum put it in an early Language Log posting (with reference back to a 2001 note that he and Barbara Scholz published in Nature); the craft of writing is then a matter of having a very big bag and of picking well from it.  Writers are word-slingers.

The problem with this way of looking at things is that it puts all the emphasis on words as the raw material, and totally disregards syntactic constructions as another kind of raw material.  Syntax becomes a matter of technique, not material.  This distorted view is part of the folk conceptualization of language, however.

On to sense 2, which seems to be -- the OED is of no help here, so I'm speculating -- a semantic extension, from one specific kind of expertise with words, artful word-slinging, to a more general expertise, applying to all sorts of people who collect and display information about words.  Not to morphologists, it seems, but to lexicographers (who do this sort of thing professionally) and all kinds of word fans (from what we might think of as semi-professionals to enthusiastic amateurs).   The product of this wordsmithery is an enormous range of publications about words (and idioms): scholarly reference works, advice literature, entertainment.  Everything from the OED, though usage dictionaries and compendia of often-confused words, self-improvement literature (like the Reader's Digest feature "It Pays to Increase Your Word Power" -- note its very American reference to benefits configured in economic terms), the website ("We are a community of more than 600,000 linguaphiles in at least 200 countries"), with its A Word A Day feature, and what I think of as the "ooh, shiny" literature, like Kacirk's book (from which you will carry away virtually nothing that you could actually use).  Now-obsolete words, dialect vocabulary, vogue words, taboo vocabulary, foreign expressions borrowed into English, jargon, word and idiom histories -- all these, and more, are catalogued for us.  And most of this material is aimed at a general, not specialist, audience.

Turn with me now to syntax.  Where are the comparable compendia of syntactic constructions?  Almost entirely in the specialist literature: in the big reference grammars of English, in college textbooks, and the like.  The usage dictionaries are organized, insofar as possible, by reference to specific words; to find out about English relative clauses, for instance, you'll probably have to look under the various relativizing words (that, which, who).  In material for a general audience, it's pretty much all about words.

I study syntactic variation, I think it's really cool stuff, and I'd like to communicate my enthusiasm about it to a more general audience, but I haven't yet figured out how to pull that off.  Everybody wants to hear about words, words, words.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 4, 2005 03:22 PM