Prescriptivist fools should go to jail, sorry, gaol

If there’s one thing funnier than a prescriptivist, it’s a prescriptivist who’s clearly wrong yet doesn’t know it. I was therefore giggling as soon as I saw Neil tweet about my spelling of “jail”.

Either @stilgherrian has been transported to America, or I really am the only person who spells gaol correctly here (along with @jbugs14)

“Correctly”, eh? Hilarious, Neil.

Dictionaries record language as it is actually used, not as those with a dangerous little knowledge imagine it is used. Both the Macquarie Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary list “jail” as the primary spelling. And as Google’s Ngram shows, “jail” started to be used more often than “gaol” some time in the 1830s, at least in the totality of English.

The OED does record “gaol” as a second spelling in the entry’s head, but the Macquarie does not. Instead, it adds this note:

Usage: In general the spelling of this word has shifted in Australian English from gaol to jail. However, gaol remains fossilised in the names of jails, as Parramatta Gaol, and in some government usage.

Fossilised. See that?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, consulted online just now:

In British official use the forms with G are still current; in literary and journalistic use both the G and the J forms are now admitted as correct; in the U.S. the J forms are standard.

Looking through the OED’s citations, we see “Iaiole” dated to ca1300, “Iayle” to ca1440, “Iaile” to ca1660 and some bloke called Shakespeare, “jayl” to 1743–5 and good ol’ “jail” to 1860. Of course that last citation is R W Emerson, an American, so presumably Neil thinks that doesn’t count. But even if we imagine Australian English is derived only from British English — something that’s patently untrue — we still have precursors of the J form going back a mere 700 years.

“When spelling, I prefer The Queen’s English,” tweets Neil. Yeah? Which Queen? Elizabeth I?

I’ve nothing against people choosing to use different forms of language. Far from it. It adds colour, spice, variety. But that’s not the same as imagining that an older form is somehow “right” and newer forms “wrong”. Especially when your views are at odds with the vast majority of the language’s native speakers.

Just how far do you want to go back and freeze our language — or should I say “fossizlise” it — before it’s acceptable, Neil? A hint: When you’re “the only person” who thinks something is right, you’re probably not.

[Update 4.15pm: Google Ngram image added, with explanatory sentence. The graph showing all English usage is slightly misleading. Restricted to British English only, the “jail” form has been the more popular “only” since the 1940s. I’ll post a further update in due course.]

Media140: What do journos do better, exactly?

[This is my presentation for the Media140 Sydney panel “Do Journos Do it Better? Journalists in SocMedia Communities”. This is being posted here automatically, at 5pm, just as the panel is scheduled to start. Given that sessions earlier in the day may cover similar ground, I may well re-word things as I go.]

Media140 logo: click for more info

“Do journos do it better?” Do journos do what better? I think this is actually the more interesting question: What is it that journalists actually do in our society?

Or, to stick with the question, what do they do in “social media communities” — although as I’ll explain, all communities are “social media communities”?

Now if I were presenting an Oscar I’d start by quoting the dictionary. “The Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘journalist’ as ‘someone engaged in journalism’.”

Very helpful.

However “journalism” in turn is glossed as “the occupation of writing for, editing, and producing newspapers and other periodicals, and television and radio shows”.

So the question as stated is meaningless. Of course journalists are better at “It” — journalism — because they’re the ones doing it. If you’re not a journalist you’re not doing journalism, therefore you’re not merely bad at it, you’re not even doing it at all!

This is why I think the whole bloggers versus journalists debate was and still is so incredibly stupid. Both sets of people are doing much the same thing — creating words and pictures, probably about current events, maybe for money, maybe for the love of it or for professional status. Maybe they’re doing it well, maybe they’re doing it badly.

But during the Industrial Age, journalism with a capital “J” ended up meaning, specifically, the employees of industrial mass-media factories — especially newspapers. Employees whose jobs were to create the specific widgets of news needed by a production line — a five-paragraph story, a 30-second radio news item or whatever.

Or, with respect to my friends at the MEAA, “journalist” meant membership of a certain trade union.

Now, coming back to that word “social” in “social media”…

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Fairfax drops Macquarie Dictionary

I’m not the only one critical of the Macquarie Dictionary, it seems. Big fat media empire Fairfax is switching over to using the Australian Oxford Dictionary. Crikey has the story (behind the paywall for the moment). They quote the Fairfax memo: “Style officers from major papers in the group agree that the Oxford has a stronger sense of style than the Macquarie, offers concise, informative definitions and clearly states its preference for word usage, and therefore is better suited for use in a media organisation.”

Word of the Year 2007: category “online”

Time to look at the Macquarie Dictionary‘s nominations for Word of the Year and decide how to vote. Since we’re online, we’ll start with the category online

I’m disappointed with the choices. The criterion is “the most valuable contribution to the English language in 2007.” All of these words pre-date 2007, and in this category the Macquarie faces its strongest criticism for being slow to add new data.

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