Dictionary Prescriptivism

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As we stop being teens most of us have a desire for ideological purity and a clear black and white view of the world. That’s when young adults switch politics and sometimes take up fringe political ideas. At that age I was studying computer science and I was a huge proponent of open source software. As I entered the online open source community I started to read Eric S. Raymond.

What does the word hacker mean? To the old school programmers and many open source enthusiasts it means something different than everyone else. To most people, it is someone who breaks into computers system or through computer protection. Usually a criminal. But in the 70s and 80s it means a genius programmer who came up with inventive solutions. Someone who would hack away at the keyboard and at the problem until they solved it.

That is what the word meant in the hacker community, and it was being misused by the general public. I started correcting people online and in person. ‘Actually, it’s a cracker that cracks into computers. A hacker is just a good programmer.’ That’s what the word means. That is it’s history. To me it was a simple, clear, black and white definition.

Shortly after that I came across a person on the internet who had a website with a lot of great information on it. On his website he also had some pages about internet security. I was alarmed to see he was using the word hacker wrong. So I emailed him to explain the situation. His response was pretty simple. He said it’s too late. We have lost the word. The term hacker now means someone who breaks through computer security, usually for nefarious purposes. That’s what people mean when they say it, and that’s what people understand when they hear it.

That is the definition of hacker now.

And he was right. Regardless of what the New Hacker’s Dictionary said. Regardless of what the etymology and history of the word was.

Example, planets wander. More examples: http://mentalfloss.com/article/54770/15-words-dont-mean-what-they-used


A prescriptive who tries to make rigid boxes around cultural concepts is like a creationist who tries to put rigid boxes around species. Nature and culture are messy. It’s humans who have the need to categorize and box nature and culture.

See the definition of efficient.

DP are like puritans/amish/whatever who refuse to change with the time. Picking one defitition, (the one around when you learned language) and none of the definitions before or after.

In my experience those who hold to the ideology of dictionary prescriptivism are the only ones confused by common language. You can be having a conversation about ideas, where people are concerned about the evidence and reasoning behind your position. Up pops the DP ideologue who seems confused at how you are using the words.

Rather than argue the ideas, they argue your use of words. They want to take a moderate level conversation and bring it down to an entry level conversation. Then they refuse authorities on the subject (see: anti-intellectualism) and instead claim that the dictionary is an authority, even though it is not (see: appeal to authority logical fallacy).

And worse, they do it again, the next time, as though you didn’t have the conversation earlier. And despite being so concerned about communication that they constantly look up words in the dictionary, that cannot seem to actually remember how people actually use the words.

Rarely do they actually disprove the meaning of what you say. They do, however, derail the conversation. Instead of arguing against your ideas, they argue against the words you use. They argue that it’s confusing, despite the fact that it’s only them that are confused. And the reason they are confused is because they refuse to learn what you mean.

 Pro-Tip: You can tell you are arguing with an DP-ideologue because they never ask what you mean, while at the same time claim you are using confusing terminology. Often, they only pop up on conversations where there disagree with what your ideas. But don’t argue the ideas.

 Further reading and source

Slightly off topic reading: