Discuss word origins and meanings.
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Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Mon Sep 16, 2013 11:16 pm

There has been quite a lot of debate on another linguistics website about whether the term 'landfill' may be used for (c) the actual material dumped as well as (a) the method of waste disposal and (b) the site involved, whether in use or reclaimed.

Different dictionaries differ in the senses they list:

AHD: a , b

Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary: b , c

M-W: a , b

Macmillan AE: a , b , c

Macmillan BrE: a , b , c

Collins: a a , b , c

A dispute has arisen over which of the above dictionaries is 'the most authoritative, especially for deciding on allowable meanings in US English'.

At ... c/post.htm , drew.ward says:

At one time there were two different approaches to dictionaries. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) was based on one approach and Webster's Dictionary was based on another. Webster spent decades traveling and asking people "what does this word mean?". He recorded these answers, then when he had enough data, he averaged the answers together to come up with a common definition so that the meaning of that word was the one that most people gave it. The approach used for the original dictionary (not the OED but the one on which it was originally based) was written with the idea that only certain 'experts' should be allowed to say what a word means and was simply a large listing of words as defined by a small group of writers.

These two dictionaries competed with each other for decades until finally Webster's method was proven superior. At that point Oxford and all other dictionary publishers began using Webster's method of surveying people to determine definitions.

The OED is considered the best dictionary in the world (for the English language at least) and is the most respected and considered to be the primary authority when it comes to what words mean in English. It uses Webster's approach of surveying speakers to find out what they think a word means. Because around 75% percent of native English speakers live in America, this means that the content of the OED, even though it is published by Oxford, is overwhelmingly American, making the best English dictionary in the world also the best 'American English' dictionary.

Are there any views on Drew's opinions on the status of the OED?

Does the OED list, as I suspect, all three senses for 'landfill'?
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Re: landfill

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Sep 18, 2013 4:44 am

Edwin, The OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY does list all three meanings:


Note: Quotes are the OED's earliest:

1) A site where refuse is disposed of by burial under layers of earth.
<1903 “Before 1902 the ashes and rubbish of the city of New York were disposed of upon landfills . . . The landfill were those of private contractors, who bought marsh lands on speculation and filled them with city material.”—Scribner’s Magazine, October, page 395/2>
2) The action or system of disposing of refuse by burial at such a site.
<1938 “The origin of the present technique of land fill goes back to the time, two years ago, when William F. Casey took over the duties of Commissioner of Sanitation.”—Engineering News-Record, 1 September, page 270/2>
3) Material disposed of at such a site; material used to level an excavated site, etc. Also figuratively.
<1969 “We intend to put a lot of landfill in the Credibility Gap.”—The New Yorker, 17 May, page 131/2> [[used figuratively; also see Credibility Gap]]

<1970 “Philadelphia is now packaging its trash, . . . shipping the material back to the strip mines as land fill.”—Natural History, February, page 183>
I find some of Drew’s views hard to swallow. Does the OED and ‘all other publishers’ really go around ‘surveying people to determine definitions’? It strikes me that it is more likely that they use computers, along with the computer's human assistants, to comb through a wide variety of available sources, see how words are used, and the come up with the appropriate definitions.

I agree that the OED is a monumental work that is considered the most authoritative English language source. But ‘best’ depends on what you are looking for. In the area of up-to-date definitions, for example, I don’t think they lead the pack. But sifting through every word in the OED and coming up with updated definitions along with quotations, including the first use in print, is no mean task. And, although they are methodically grinding away and posting quarterly updates, some listings are still decades behind those found in leaner and more nimble dictionaries such as the American Heritage Dictionary (4th and 5th editions) and Merriam-Webster Online.

I also have doubts that the OED is overwhelmingly American. My impression is that it is overwhelmingly ‘neutral.’

Ken – September 17, 2013
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Re: landfill

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Wed Sep 18, 2013 8:40 am

Thank you, Ken.

Your views on the status of the OED are very useful. And I'm now able to zap a sense-3 disallower and bury him. Nicely, of course.

I hope you're not getting too much of the rain falling over there.
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Re: landfill

Post by Phil White » Thu Sep 19, 2013 3:14 pm

1) As far as the permissibility of your third usage is concerned, if people are using it (which they are, both sides of the pond), it patently can be used. There are people who will tell you that a screwdriver must not be used to open a can of paint, because it is the wrong tool, but it works wonderfully, and everybody does it.

2) In reality, there is relatively little footwork in terms of "what does this word mean" involved in the compilation of any dictionary nowadays. Most of the work is done by corpus analysis, and the main difference between dictionaries is the extent to and speed with which they are willing to incorporate new sources into the corpus. In many ways, this is little different from the approach adopted by the early compilers of the OED, who took a massive corpus of (mainly classic) literature and applied their scholarly minds to interpreting each usage they came across. Even Webster, on his data collection excursion, only sampled a very small proportion of opinions on a small number of words that were finally incorporated in his dictionary. The first edition of Webster's dictionary contains 70,000 words. I am willing to wager that he did not consult every interviewee on every word and that he relied on his intuition to identify words that people commonly understand differently or that inherently had different senses.

One criticism of the OED is that it still indulges in a certain amount of prescriptivism by appearing to denigrate certain usages. There is, however, a problem in this entire area, namely that it is important to indicate in a dictionary (or indeed, a style guide or a teaching grammar) that some people regard a particular usage as uneducated or "wrong" even though this particular usage may be extremely widespread. The fact that a dictionary may indicate that a particular usage is commonly regarded as being incorrect does not necessarily reflect on the impartiality of the dictionary itself.

As far as the authority of the OED or any other dictionary is concerned, scrupulous scholars have only ever regarded any work as being of necessity incomplete and, to a certain extent, subjective. Ken's many magnificent posts clearly show that no dictionary has any claim to comprehensiveness and ultimate authority, and that any objective truth about language and meaning (if such a thing exists) will often lie outside the scope of any dictionary.
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Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

Re: landfill

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Fri Sep 20, 2013 9:20 am

Yes - I remember once quizzing Ken about the size of his library, and his reply that it covered nine whole backyards (or something). Of course, even that's not enough if the now-famous claim 'words are (almost!?) infinitely polysemous' is true. It's a relief that his copies of 'Concrete Mixers' Digest' survived the infamous conflagration, and he rebuilt in such a way as to ensure the non-extinction of his wonderful collection.
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End of topic.
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