In 2001, Harper’s published an essay on lexicography by David Foster Wallace (“Tense Present”) that I have come to think of as classic, though I have no idea if fans of the author or lexicographers agree. I happened to be in college, studying linguistics, at the time, and I remember reading it excitedly, footnotes and all, the afternoon it arrived, on our college-y furniture, the requisite IKEA POÄNG. Rarely was the cover story so “relevant to my interests.”

Though my favorite subdiscipline was semantics, I had been largely unaware of what Wallace called “the seamy underbelly” of U.S. dictionary making, its “ideological strife and controversy and intrigue.” Said controversy, I learned, is essentially bipartisan — there’s a “liberal” school of pure descriptivism, wherein “words” like “heighth” get included without comment or censure, which sits in opposition and reaction to the “conservative” school of prescriptivism, or normative lexicography, which avows that “heighth” is not a word, sentences must not end with a preposition, etc. More… “Fair Usage”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.



Rumi looks pure. Her skin is porcelain-colored from high-end, Japanese-brand foundation and a layer of bone-colored powder. Her eyelashes are curled at 90 degrees, coated with black mascara and lined heavily. Her lips are glossed clear with just a hint of pink pigment.

I have learned to negotiate the labyrinth of her weird papers without ever seriously commenting on content at the drop-in community college center where I tutor, because when I do, it makes her pout and say my name in a high pitched stretched out way. She is always very sure of what she wants to say, and sure it is merely her misunderstanding of English grammar that is getting in the way of perfect communication.

One thesis went something along the lines of no matter how far apart your eyes are, and how small your… More…