Thursday, November 20, 2014

Shoot the Arbiter

It's funny, the flexible relation many people have to authority.

Today someone complained on Facebook that there are too many books with the title Something Rich and Strange, referring to a review of such a one in the New York Times, a collection of stories by Ron RashThe comments quickly focused on the reviewer's calling the collection an "anthology," which should mean a collection of work by a variety of authors instead of just one.  Thus:
The distinction between "anthology" and "collection" is so clear and obvious that the inability of major venues to acknowledge it makes me want to poke my eyes out with a fork.

Okay, I probably wouldn't got that far. Even so . . .
Another commenter, a novelist, chimed in:
It is dismaying to see it in the NYT ... I sort of count on them to help keep the roof from leaking
The next commenter, a distinguished writer, critic and academic, replied that
the NY Times gave that task up back in the seventies when they finally gave up as well on their "Information Desk," a service where you could phone in, ask any question you wanted, and generally get an answer pretty much immediately from one of the twenty-five or so smart people in that office at the time, with a few reference books and a couple of encyclopedias in with them, whose job it was to answer such queries. I called them up once, when I was twelve, to find out the meaning of "serendipity" (because it wasn't in my dictionary back then) and the person who answered the phone told me, without missing a beat, all about "The Three Princes of Serendip," its sixteenth century publication date in Venice, and its coiner in English, Horace Walpole. Neat . . . The NY Times may still be the paper of record, but it is no longer an arbiter of American English and hasn't even aspired to that for some fifty years.
Well, who can blame the Times, really, for abdicating that position?  First, in 1961, Merriam-Webster published its Third New International Dictionary, a "descriptivist" work that the Times and other establishment publications attacked editorially and in reviews.  The Times declared its intention to use only the Third's 1934 predecessor, though the writer Bergen Evans mischievously showed that the Times regularly allowed usage that the Second rejected, and only the Third accepted.

But the Enemies of Language weren't done with the Times.  Gay activists pressured the Grey Lady to refer to them as "gay," rather than "homosexual."  In 1987, their campaign succeeded.  So, with Authority crumbling, why shouldn't the Times simply decide that Anything Goes?  

Still, I'm not so sure it has done so.  Arbiters are entitled to change their minds, though they pretend they don't.  What the last writer I quoted objected to was that the "arbiter of American English" had made a decision he rejected.  But if the Times really is such an authority (and who appointed it to that office, anyway?), then who is he to challenge it?  I happen to agree with the "anthology" / "collection" distinction, but I have no authority.  As I said, it's funny how people will invoke this or that person or institution as Authority -- until it makes a decision they don't like.  Like it or not -- and I don't, particularly -- the New York Times regards "anthology" and "collection" as equivalent.  Language changes.