Repainting birds

There’s been a discussing among some of my fellow editors in recent days about a word – the word complicitly – seen in a document. Should it be changed? But why? Well, it’s not in the dictionary. (“Which dictionary?” is of course another question.) But it fits in the sentence and there’s no problem understanding it. But it’s not in the dictionary! Maybe we should rewrite the sentence to be safe. Etc.

The is the point where I sigh, roll my eyes, and tell a little story.

A guy painting pictures and feeding the birds in a park sees a bird land near him and come up for some food. He doesn’t normally see birds that look like this one. He looks in his field guide to birds and it’s not in there. There’s one that looks like it but has yellow streaks on its wings. So he paints yellow streaks on the bird’s wings before feeding it. Of course, now the bird is going to have some social and aerodynamic problems, but at least it’s a real bird now.

I trust you see what I’m getting at.

Dictionaries are like field guides. They’re not legislation. They tell you what you can see in the wild, but they’re not always exhaustive, and they lag behind reality. We’re editing. We do what we do to enable and enhance communicative effectiveness. We’re not repainting birds.

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