In a recent post, we pointed out that when it comes to abbreviations, we prefer to use ones we are familiar with. In particular, we mentioned that we try to avoid using “n” for “new,” which we’ve only ever seen in cryptic crosswords and in state abbreviations. Solver Dan Chall checked a bunch of dictionaries, and found that many did list “n” as an abbreviation for “new.” He writes:

I suppose that if N is widely used to mean “new” in many geographical references and other contexts, to the point that it gets its own entry in several dictionaries, then it’s not exactly idiosyncratic in the same way J=Jersey.

Fair enough. Claiming an equivalence between “n” for “new” and “J” for “Jersey” was a weak argument on our part. (For one thing, “n” for “new” appears in four state name abbreviations, while “J” for “Jersey” appears only in one.) But we stand by our point that dictionaries are not a good way to adjudicate questions about abbreviations. Dictionaries include some very obscure abbreviations such as “s” for “label” (we kid you not—check Merriam-Webster), and omit some very common ones, such as “S” for “salt.” The reason is that dictionaries are based on the written language, and “S” for “salt” occurs only on salt shakers.

Indeed, the MO of the OED and Merriam-Webster is to collect citations of word usage in written English, and base their definitions on the accumulated data they assemble. In other words, these dictionaries are based on the English language as it actually appears in edited prose. Other dictionaries base their definitions on the opinion of experts. Word nerds are free to prefer one approach or the other, but in any case, there is broad agreement between different dictionaries. When in doubt about a definition, we consult two or three dictionaries. This, alas, does not prevent us from being wrong; when we’re not in doubt, we don’t consult any references at all.

Some solvers of the Nation puzzle object to our occasional inclusion of words they deem obscure, and see it as evidence of our deficiencies. Well, they are not entirely wrong, as we sometimes include obscure words simply because they fit. But to be honest, the other reason is that we tend to construct puzzles we’d like to solve. When we come across a word we don’t know in a puzzle, we appreciate the encounter. (One of us saw SCOTOPIC in a puzzle recently. Nice, no?) We enjoy taking a trip into one or more dictionaries when that happens. (Scotopia is “vision in dim light with dark-adapted eyes believed to be mediated by the rods of the retina—opposed to photopia.”) If you looked at our bookshelves, computers, tablets, and phones, you’d find many, many dictionaries. We consult them often. We love dictionaries, because we love words.

This week’s clueing challenge: WEBSTER. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
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