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Observing Norm, Observing Usage

Lexis in Dictionaries and the Media

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Edited By Alessandra Molino and Serenella Zanotti

This volume includes a collection of studies on the interplay between norm and usage in lexis, which is explored by looking at both dictionaries and the media. The title features the polysemous verb to observe, which is used both in the sense of «investigating» use/usage and in that of «respecting» norms. This thematic area is analysed from a synchronic perspective focusing predominantly on the lexis of four European languages, namely English, French, Italian and Spanish, although other languages are occasionally referred to (e.g. Catalan and Danish). The volume comprises nineteen chapters, which provide a wide-ranging, but deeply focused overview of the complex and challenging interrelation between sites and processes of norm formation and the recontextualization, reconfiguration and re-creation of those norms. The book is structured in four thematic sections, which focus on the norm-setting role of dictionaries, the importance of authentic language use in recent lexicographic products, the impact of the Web on language usage as well as on the processes of norm creation and diffusion, and the impact of mass-mediated communication on lexis.
The volume contains contributions in English, French, Italian and Spanish.
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The Report of the Death of the General Dictionary is not an Exaggeration

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1. Introduction

In 1897, the news spread that the writer and humourist Mark Twain, author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, was seriously ill, and a journalist was sent to inquire.1 The journalist discovered that it was a false alarm: in fact, it was Twain’s cousin who was ill. No obituary of Twain’s death was ever published, contrary to popular belief, but Twain told the story in the New York Journal of 2 June 1897, in words that have become famous though they are often misquoted. What he wrote was: “The report of my death was an exaggeration”.2

In 2013, there have been reports that the general dictionary was ill, and if we start inquiring we will discover that it is indeed dying. I will be arguing that the general dictionary was a product of a society that had certain features, that the general dictionary on paper was particularly well adapted to the roles that it played, and that the appearance of electronic dictionaries has changed it beyond recognition. I will start with an overview of the history of the general dictionary, to show that it is one of the late products of lexicography but that it was prepared by the other kinds of reference works that appeared before. I will continue with the argument that the general dictionary, when it becomes electronic like all other reference works, will find it difficult to play all the ← 37 | 38 → roles that general dictionaries on...

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