Does Your Dictionary Have an Opinion? Defining marriage, global warming, and gun control

© Robert Pernell -
If there’s one thing we’ve learned watching the political circus here in the U.S., it’s that the battle over social issues is often a war of words. Does ‘marriage’ have to be between a man and a woman? Should it be ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’? Is ‘gun control’ about regulating or eliminating gun ownership?

It’s no doubt that these have come to be loaded terms in our society, which makes the act of defining them for a dictionary a delicate task. Is there a way to capture the full meaning of a word without stepping on any sensitive political toes? Well, let’s look at how three definitive online dictionaries — Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary — handle gay marriage, global warming, and gun control.

Merriam-Webster(1) : the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2) : the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage <same-sex marriage>

Oxford Dictionary(1) : the formal union of a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife (2) : the state of being married (3) : (in some jurisdictions) a formal union between partners of the same sex

American Heritage Dictionary(1) : the legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife, and in some jurisdictions, between two persons of the same sex, usually entailing legal obligations of each person to the other

The verdict? Well, all three dictionaries include same-sex marriage as part of their definitions of marriage. The American Heritage Dictionary includes same-sex marriage in its primary definition rather than as a secondary bullet point. But it qualifies it with “in some jurisdictions,” as does the Oxford Dictionary — the definitions focus largely on legality. The Merriam-Webster dictionary seems to take the strongest position that same-sex marriage IS marriage, although it also creates a distinction from traditional marriage. But if language is any indicator, times and attitudes are changing.

Global Warming
Merriam-Webster: an increase in the earth’s atmospheric and oceanic temperatures widely predicted to occur due to an increase in the greenhouse effect resulting especially from pollution

Oxford Dictionary: a gradual increase in the overall temperature of the earth’s atmosphere generally attributed to the greenhouse effect caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, CFCs, and other pollutants

American Heritage Dictionary: an increase in the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere, especially a sustained increase sufficient to cause climatic change

Interestingly, the American Heritage Dictionary steers clear of the controversial ‘why’ of global warming: Is it a man-made problem? Merriam-Webster’s definition is bolder, stating that global warming is a “widely predicted” phenomenon, “resulting especially from pollution.” But this definition suggests that global warming is something that’s likely to happen in the future, rather than something that’s already happening… The Oxford Dictionary definition takes the strongest position here, noting that the greenhouse effect is real, man-made, and “generally” believed to be the cause of global warming.

Gun Control
Merriam-Webster: regulation of the selling, owning, and use of guns

Oxford Dictionary: no exact results found for ‘gun control’

American Heritage Dictionary: regulation restricting or limiting the sale and possession of handguns and rifles in an effort to reduce violent crime

Merriam-Webster’s definition is short and sweet — gun control is about regulating guns, plain and simple. The Oxford Dictionary, on the other hand, doesn’t even define gun control (perhaps because in Britain, there is no powerful gun lobby and handguns and automatic weapons have been “effectively banned“). In this case, American Heritage’s definition provides the most context, connecting gun control to an effort to reduce violent crime caused by certain kinds of weapons.

So there you have it. This exercise isn’t meant to sing the praise of any single dictionary or try and point out potential bias — rather, it’s to show that cultural, editorial, and perhaps even subconscious factors all play a role in how definitions get written for dictionaries. It doesn’t mean that any of these definitions are right or wrong — on the contrary, they illustrate that language isn’t black and white. It’s always changing and adjusting, as we humans struggle to define the words that define us.


The Atlantic’s Scientology advertorial doesn’t mean that all sponsored content is bad

atlantic scientologyIn the world of journalism, “sponsored” content is often treated like a dirty word — an untouchable that gets cordoned off, lest it tarnish the purity of true editorial content.

But the recent controversy around The Atlantic’s decision to run a bizarre and confusing advertorial from the Church of Scientology shows what happens when editorial thinking doesn’t play a role in sponsored content. This was neither a good ad, nor was it a good piece of content. And it runs the risk of giving a bad name to all sponsored content, which can actually be a useful way for publications to get revenue and brands or organizations to connect with their audiences. (For the record, I have a journalism background and work in sponsored content).

In a world where sponsored content is becoming so prevalent, what sparked the outcry around this particular advertorial?

The art and science of sponsored content
Let’s break this down. This isn’t the first time The Atlantic has run sponsored content. As other critics have noted, they had a series on innovation by Boeing and an IBM piece about the power of data. There’s a “Sponsor Content” call-out at the top of the page, and if you hover over it, The Atlantic explicitly states that it is “created by The Atlantic’s Promotions Department in partnership with our advertisers. The Atlantic editorial team is not involved in the creation of this content.”

This is a sound policy. You don’t want the editorial team directing the ads, and you don’t want advertisers influencing editorial decisions. But that being said, editorial thinking and content strategy should absolutely come into play — especially if you’re a highly-regarded journalistic publication that’s running advertorial content. In this case, the editorial reputation of The Atlantic took a hit anyway, despite this policy and their swift apology. Why is that?

Well, there are two main issues that caused readers to lash out at The Atlantic:

1.) Don’t try and trick people into thinking they’re not reading an ad. There were very few cues suggesting that this piece about the Church of Scientology was not an actual article, other than the tiny yellow “Sponsor Content” box at the top of the page (see the above image). But perhaps most controversial was the comment moderation for this piece — only comments supportive of Scientology were allowed to appear on the site. These tactics are unnecessary because, really, sponsored content should ideally be good content on its own that also happens to be sponsored.

2.) Just because content is sponsored, doesn’t mean it can be totally random. You can’t treat sponsored content the same way you would a traditional ad. It’s content, so it requires some finesse. It promises the reader information, so it should mesh with the brand image of the publication (for example, Foreign Policy had a special advertising section about Timor-Leste … you’re not going to see that running in Better Homes & Garden). But the actual copy of the Scientology advertorial  wasn’t good content — it was pro-Scientology propaganda (note that the Boeing series was about innovation, not airplanes). It would’ve better served Scientology’s purposes to think about the context, and develop content accordingly.

Don’t hate me because I’m sponsored
All that being said, there is such a thing as good sponsored content — and we shouldn’t let this one incident convince us that there’s no place for it. The moral of this story is that when  it comes to sponsored content, a.) don’t trick people and b.) make sure your piece fits in with the brand image of the publication in which it’s running. You’re only doing your brand or organization a service that way — otherwise, it’s wasted money and effort.

Finally, let’s keep in mind that sponsored isn’t always bad. Sponsorship is basically the new word for patronage — and it’s why Shea Stadium is now Citi Field and the American Tour de France team is called the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a creative at heart, and I don’t think advertising should invade all aspects of life. I strongly believe in a free press that’s unattached from corporate and political pressures. But that being said, sponsorship can support projects that would otherwise never happen — and it presents a very real way for struggling online publications to earn some revenue.

One good example of sponsored content, in my mind, is Huffington Posts’s Global Motherhood channel, sponsored by Johnson & Johnson. It’s real content, written by experts in the field, on an important topic that likely wouldn’t get this level of coverage otherwise. It’s health-related, which fits with Johnson & Johnson’s brand, but they aren’t literally selling baby shampoo and bandages. It puts the content in sponsored content first.

Finally, while some of the greatest works of art from the renaissance were “sponsored” by patrons who wanted to assert their power and status, these patrons didn’t climb ladders and paint stick figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo, someone with expertise, actually created the final product. Sure, we’re not painting the Sistine Chapel here. But there’s a lesson in this for brands seeking to create sponsored content — if you aren’t an editorial and marketing expert (or you don’t have any of those in-house), find someone who knows what they’re doing to help you.

Why? Because sponsored content is, in fact, content. And savvy readers will rip it apart if it’s terrible or insults their intelligence. Just ask The Atlantic.

The Style Guide Wars: Why there are (and will continue to be) so many darn style guides

© Pixsooz - Fotolia.comThis week’s headline from The Onion says it all: “4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence.” (By the way, in case this gets picked up in China, The Onion is a satirical newspaper… no editors died over comma usage and capitalization this week, as far as we know).

But if you’ve ever worked for a major publication or written an academic paper, you know that style guides are no laughing matter — especially when you’re faced with a hair-pulling grammatical conundrum. Comma or no comma at the end of that list? Is that one compound word or two words with a hyphen between them? And once and for all, is it website, web site, or Website … or Web site?!

The answer, it turns out, isn’t an absolute truth — nor is it something that stays the same over time. It depends on what style guide you’re using, and how recently it was updated. Style guides, like the dictionary, are always evolving. In 2011, the Associated Press caused a stir when its style guide finally moved from the hyphenated “e-mail” (you know … electronic mail) to just plain old “email” (the thing that needs no explanation).

So which style guide should you be using for that article, blog post or paper? Well, you can’t just pick one willy-nilly — there are rules and guidelines to follow, dammit! (Turns out people who worry about grammar for a living also tend to like rules in general…) Chances are, there’s a specific style guide you should be using. Here’a rundown of the big players:

The Associated Press StylebookMost widely used by journalists, sometimes called the journalist’s bible. If you’re writing for a newspaper, the AP Stylebook is your new pal.

The Chicago Manual of Style: This bad boy — common in book publishing — gives the AP manual a run for its money, calling itself a guide for writers, editors and publishers.

The MLA Style Manual: If you’ve ever written an academic research paper, then you don’t need me to tell you about the MLA Style Manual. Citations are your friend… really.

The Yahoo Style GuideObviously, this guide doesn’t date back to 1906 like the Chicago style guide. But it speaks to an increasingly international online readership.

So, are these guys likely to play nice and consolidate into a single style guide that makes life easier? Well, no. This isn’t likely to change any time soon because a.) editors are stubborn (I should know — I am one) and b.) style guides are actually based on practical and stylistic preferences for a particular medium, as Poynter points out:

“For example, AP style does not use italics because italics become garbled over the AP wire. It’s the only style guide I’m familiar with that doesn’t use italics.”

That’s just one example out of hundreds. Sure, spelling ‘website’ four different ways across four different style guides might seem silly — but hey, we editors are a silly bunch sometimes. Still, the fact is, what style you follow if you’re writing for an international, online audience differs quite a bit from if you’re presenting your research in print to an academic audience who’s already well-versed in your field. Plus, a little variety in style never hurt anyone (as long as it doesn’t actually spark AP Style vs. Chicago Manual gang violence).

So next time an editor asks you to follow a particular style guide that you’re not familiar with, don’t a.) make it up, or b.) tell him or her that you’re opting out of this whole style guide thing, unless you’re prepared for something like a scene out of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video (that is, a spectacular fight … not spontaneous choreographed dancing, though that would be awesome).

Here’s hoping our quest for better writing remains a peaceful one!

Why do we sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to end one year and kick off the next?

Nouvel an horloge à 2013Well, since the world didn’t end on December 21st, we can officially celebrate the start of another new year. (I’m sure you’re breathing a sigh of relief.)

But when it comes to having an array of catchy tunes to help celebrate the season, New Year’s is the ugly stepchild of Christmas. It gets secondary, parenthetical billing in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas (and a Happy New Year),” and the other song or two we associate with the holiday — like “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” — are decidedly melancholy.

Still, nothing reminds us of the fleeting nature of time and the importance of long-standing friendships like the song that gets drunkenly belted out at raucous New Year’s parties around the English-speaking world: “Auld Lang Syne.” We sing it with gusto every year, but what does it mean and how did it become the go-to ballad of New Year’s Eve?

“Auld lang syne” simply means “times long past,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although the American Merriam-Webster gives it a cheerier spin by defining it as “the good old times.” The phrase was popularized by Robert Burns’ version of “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788, though the melody is much older, stemming from traditional Scottish folk music. This little ditty became an American standard in the 1930s thanks to bandleader Guy Lombardo, the man who owned New Year’s Eve long before Dick Clark.

If you’ve ever sung the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” and thought to yourself, “What the heck am I singing?” or “Why is this so freaking depressing?” you’re not alone. Here are the words that we use to welcome the new year (the full version of the song is much longer):

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and days of auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne.
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

This is the most well-known portion of the English translation of this song — so if you find this confusing, don’t even try to sing the rest of the song with its pint-stowps and running around the braes. But I think it’s time to put that famous question from “When Harry Met Sally” to rest:

Harry: [about Auld Lang Syne] What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means. I mean, ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot’? Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot?

Sally: Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it’s about old friends.

It turns out, neither of them are quite right. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” is actually a rhetorical question that’s meant to make you reflect: Should we forget our old friends and loved ones? Should we forget the good times gone by? The obvious answer, which goes unspoken, is no. And that becomes more apparent with the rest of the lyrics, which are largely about buying pints for friends (along with some dining and frolicking).

Who wants to forget friends like that? So tonight, when you belt out “Auld Lang Syne,” impress your friends with the fact that really, they’re just asking a rhetorical question (since I’m sure it’ll just come up naturally, of course). Happy new year!

From good tidings to Parson Brown, find out what your favorite holiday tunes actually mean

Victorian christmas carolers making a vintage cardThe holiday season seems to be the only time of year that we Americans happily revert to Victorian English, singing songs about donning gay apparel and demanding figgy pudding. Since we’ve been singing these songs since childhood, it’s only natural that we don’t pause to wonder what these phrases mean or where they come from…

But after yet another year of hearing Ray Charles belt out something about a dude named Parson Brown in “Winter Wonderland,” I decided it was time to get to the bottom of what a few of my favorite carols really mean… For starters, what is a carol? Well, the word dates back to 1300s France, where it meant “a joyful song or dance in a ring.” It became more strongly associated with religious Christmas songs in 1500s England, although today we use the word to describe pretty much any song associated with the holiday.

So, here’s a look at where a few favorite modern-day carols come from, as well as what some of those perplexing lyrics really mean:

1.) Winter Wonderland: Who the heck is Parson Brown?
This 1930s tune has a line so odd and perplexing, it has its own Snopes entry:

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
then pretend that he is Parson Brown.
He’ll say, ‘Are You Married?’ We’ll say, ‘No man,
but you can do the job while you’re in town!’

So who is Parson Brown? It turns out this verse is about a couple frolicking in the snow, imagining their snowman is a traveling parson who’ll help them elope. Yeah, not exactly the stuff of kids’ songs, which is why Parson Brown got the boot for a circus clown in the ’50s.

2.) We Wish You a Merry Christmas: I brought good tidings, now give me pudding.
Dating back to 16th-century England, this fine tune was sung by carolers who’d bring “Good tidings for Christmas and a happy new year.” (A tiding is simply “a piece of news,” though now we usually use it in the plural and associate it with good news.)

This jovial little line is followed by a much more demanding one: “Now bring us some figgy pudding! Yes, bring us some figgy pudding! Now bring us some figgy pudding and bring it out here.” Carolers would typically be rewarded by the wealthy in a community with treats like figgy pudding. Much like the word tidings and the tradition of caroling, this treat has fallen out of fashion, too — so don’t go around asking people for pudding in exchange for your tidings.

3.) Deck the Halls: Decking, donning and trolling the holidays away
This little Christmas ditty has become a modern-day American classic, but the melody dates back to 16th-century Wales. The lyrics we sing today were popularized in the mid-1800s, which is why we have no idea what the hell they mean. Some choice phrases:

Deck the halls: Decorate the halls lavishly (related to “getting decked out”)
Don we now our gay apparel: We’re sporting our finest threads!
Troll the ancient yuletide carol: Sing that old Christmas tune in a round (you know, like “Row, row, your boat…”)

4.) Jingle Bells: I told you to jingle those bells, dammit!
I know what you’re thinking — “I understand Jingle Bells perfectly fine, thank you!” But do you?  Do you really? Did you ever stop to wonder, just who or what is jingling those bells? Grammatically speaking, the phrase “jingle bells” could mean a number of things:

Jingle, bells!: Hey, bells! You better jingle if you know what’s good for you…
Jingle bells (noun): A specific kind of bell (esp. the kind on a one-horse open sleigh)
– (You) jingle bells!: Hey, dude driving this sleigh — make those bells jingle!

It turns out the third one (“jingle bells” as an imperative phrase) is actually what the songwriter intended. He also wrote this as a Thanksgiving song.  Go figure.

These factoids are my gift to you — now go forth and amaze (er, annoy) your friends and family at that holiday dinner party.