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August 17, 2012 12:46 PM   Subscribe

Evocative definitions of colors in Webster's Third New International Dictionary and how they got there.

A chance encounter with the definition of the word "begonia"--"a deep pink that is bluer, lighter, and stronger than average coral (sense 3b), bluer than fiesta, and bluer and stronger than sweet william"--leads Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, to become enamored with the ornate descriptions of colors in Webster's Third: Prior to “begonia,” the Third was a middle-aged management man with a Brylcreemed combover, in well-pressed shirt-sleeves and pants that were a bit too tight at the waist, full of busy self-importance. Now, he was the same middle-aged manager, but unbeknownst to the rest of the office, he danced flamenco on the weekends.

Webster's Third owes its idiosyncratic approach to color to the color theorist Isaac Godlove, who had worked on color definitions for the Second Edition and was hired by lexicographer Philip Gove to update them for the Third Edition.

Stamper's description notwithstanding, Webster's Third has been highly controversial since its publication in 1961. It has been both praised and condemned for its supposed permissive attitude toward language usage, including allowing in words like "ain't" and "irregardless". It was famously excoriated by David Foster Wallace in Harper's in 2001--though as MeFi's own languagehat has said, his polemic is based on gross misreadings of Gove's work.

For more on Webster's Third, see Herbert Morton's The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and its Critics.
posted by Cash4Lead (13 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
now that we’re undertaking a revision of the beast

It's only been 50 years. What's your hurry?

TEAM GOVE
posted by Egg Shen at 12:51 PM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


To read Kory Stamper is to be closer to God.
posted by scrowdid at 1:08 PM on August 17, 2012


When I was little, I had a record by one Joe Wise by the name of "Pockets." The song "I Love To Color" featured, as a major plot point, Joe repeatedly declaring that "when I'm feeling real loose, I color puce," and sparking some confused children's guesswork about what "puce" was. Near the end, Joe finally defined puce:

"Puce, noun, one syllable. A dark red that is yellower and less strong than cranberry; paler and slightly yellower than average garnet; bluer, less strong, and slightly lighter than pomegranate; and bluer and paler than average wine."

Today something has gone click for me.

("Coloring puce" later took on the meaning in our household of "that thing that happens in the TRS-80 Breakout clone 'Bustout' when the slightly buggy collision detection decides that a ball can bounce back and forth between two rows of adjacent blocks, thus taking out both rows in their entirety." Don't ask me why.)

And I'll be darned if it isn't still around.
posted by darksasami at 1:35 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Heh. I had that Joe Wise album as well. The "puce" segment is the only part I remember.
posted by mykescipark at 1:40 PM on August 17, 2012


The question I've always wanted to ask prescriptivists is, if a beginning or awkward English reader encountered the word "ain't" somewhere, and not knowing it wanted to find out what it meant, why shouldn't he be able to find it in a dictionary? That's what dictionaries are FOR. The tool that your average prescriptionist is seeking is not a dictionary at all, but a big stick, which has been inserted up his or her behind.
posted by Fnarf at 2:03 PM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


I would definitely agree that for as many colors as can be, just naming things that are typically that color should work fine. I figure that it is far more likely that somebody will know or be able to look up a basic object--like blood for red--than to follow how one color differs from another.

I recall reading a book about lexicography (like, a serious academic book) which said there are basically two ways to describe things, which I can't wholly bring to mind, but go something like:

1) the essence of a thing, in what it does or has, with reference to only relatively basic words; or
2) the differentiation of a thing, saying that which it is like and the way it is unlike.

They do, at length, come down to the same thing, for describing anything without naming it is basically association through a word or words. The hurdle with colors is that they all rely heavily on direct association, and thus differentiation. You can give a meaning based on essence and say red is "light with a wavelength of Xnm" but that won't work for 99% of your readers. Really you have to give one based on differentiation, and that leads to two options: either things or other colors. By saying orange is, " a kind of deeper yellow, tending toward red", for example, you're saying " a kind of color you know, but different in X way". By saying orange is, "the color of oranges or carrots", you're saying, in truth, "a kind of orange or carrot, but where only the color aspect is relevant."

I don't know what I'm getting at with this point, except to say that I appreciate how deep lexicographers must think about these things.



The question I've always wanted to ask prescriptivists is, if a beginning or awkward English reader encountered the word "ain't" somewhere, and not knowing it wanted to find out what it meant, why shouldn't he be able to find it in a dictionary? That's what dictionaries are FOR. The tool that your average prescriptionist is seeking is not a dictionary at all, but a big stick, which has been inserted up his or her behind.
They want to see:

ain't vulg., err. for isn't
posted by Jehan at 3:27 PM on August 17, 2012


i thot that puce was more purple, like the darkening of a fresh bruise.
posted by PinkMoose at 3:41 PM on August 17, 2012


I know what ain't means. But, what letter does the apostrophy stand for? It's kind of stupid to put it there if it don't mean anything, id'nit?

Okay, puce. I can see why you'd want to know how to describe puce.

Um, maybe not. Tell me again.
posted by mule98J at 4:10 PM on August 17, 2012


I'd like to see the definition of "Metafilter Blue"... I'd imagine it's "Bluer than Boing Boing Red"
posted by symbioid at 4:11 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


The apostrophe is for 'o'. Ain't evolved from amn't and haven't (han't)
posted by empath at 4:33 PM on August 17, 2012


You can give a meaning based on essence and say red is "light with a wavelength of Xnm"

Doesn't work for grey, pink, or brown.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:57 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Joe Wise is also exactly who I heard in my head when I read the definition of begonia. I always thought he had made up that definition himself!

Puce, puce, puce, puce.
posted by looli at 10:28 PM on August 17, 2012


Just heard the news story about f-bomb and sexting.

Oh, my.
posted by Twang at 4:59 PM on August 18, 2012


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