'Look it up,' from people who don't look things up

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

A comment on a recent Post article (not on our blog) faulted the author thus:

Before you attack others, look up "podium" and "lectern." You used "podiums" I assume as a plural form of podium when you should have used "lecterns."

This is an excellent example of what I've described before as assertionism, as well as the "one meaning fallacy": the unreflective assumption that, if you know a word as meaning one thing, it can't also mean something quite different.

In fact, if you look up "podium" in the American Heritage Dictionary, you get these two meanings (setting aside the more technical ones):

1. An elevated platform, as for an orchestra conductor or public speaker.
2. A stand for holding the notes of a public speaker; a lectern.

Not good enough for you? Here's the Oxford English Dictionary:

A raised platform or dais at the front of a stage, room, hall, or auditorium; (now esp.) a small platform on which a person may stand to be seen by an audience whilst making a speech, conducting an orchestra, etc. Also in extended use (N. Amer.): a lectern; (also) a lectern-like desk at an airport departure gate.

Same thing in the Random House dictionary. Using "podium" to mean "lectern"—to us professors, not the elevated platform on which we stand, at the front of the lecture hall, but the stand on which we put our notes, and behind which we stand—is fully standard.

Now I should say that, ever since I learned that "podium" also refers to the platform, I've tried to use "lectern" to refer to the stand. I like using more specific terms; it just seems more aesthetically pleasing. (Such use of the more specific term is rarely needed to avoid outright confusion, and in this case isn't even needed to avoid distraction; I just like it.) And every so often I may run across someone like the commenter, who hasn't actually looked things up, and who will think that my using "podium" instead of "lectern" is wrong—maybe even wrong enough to publicly fault me for. Avoiding such reactions is another mild reason for personally preferring "lectern" in such a situation.

But none of this makes "podium" wrong or makes it proper to say that the author "should have used 'lecterns'" (except sometimes as a teacher to a student, guiding the student among several standard answers to the one that's most effective). Even if one is a prescriptivist, taking the view that a usage is wrong if it's condemned by The Authorities, here The Authorities say the "podium" = "lectern" use is just fine.

And this brings me back to "assertionism." As I've noted before, while I have philosophical disagreements with prescriptivists about English usage, my main practical disagreements are with people who might be labeled "assertionists." These are people who don't just say that prescriptions set forth by some supposed authorities define what is "right" in English—instead, they simply assert a prescription even in the face of what those supposed authorities say, whether because (1) they don't know what the authorities say, (2) they don't care what the authorities say, or (3) they assume the authorities just follow their own preferences (the most likely explanation in this case, I think). Usage X is wrong, they say. Why? Because it violates this rule. What's your authority for the proposition that this is a rule? Well, it violates the rule. Look it up! I didn't look it up myself, they would say (if they're honest), but I'm sure that if you look it up, the authorities will agree with me.

Finally, did you notice the "You used 'podiums' I assume as a plural form of podium"? No one would say "You used 'doors,' I assume as a plural of doors"—"doors" is obviously the plural. I assume the commenter was suggesting that there's something wrong about using "podiums" as a plural of podium, and I would bet a beer that the commenter was caviling at the use of "podiums" instead of "podia." But of course the English podiums is just as legitimate as the Latinate podia, and indeed much more common in modern nontechnical usage; indeed, if you search for "on the podia," you'll see that these are overwhelmingly plurals of "podium" in the technical architectural or zoological sense. People can cast aspersions on the correctness of "podiums," if they'd like—but that would just further show that they are assertions.