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Cuz it ain’t in the dictionary

The title of this post is an allusion to a ditty I learned as a school boy, lo these many decades ago: “Ain’t ain’t a word ’cause it ain’t in the dictionary.” The self-referential joke was always ridiculous on at least a couple of levels. At a basic level, the sentence uses ain’t to declare the impermissiblity of using ain’t. At a slightly more abstract level is the fact that inclusion in a dictionary does not bestow any special sense of wordhood. There is no dictionary induction ceremony. Dictionaries are, in general, attempts to describe the lexicon of a particular language. In rare cases the dictionaries of language planning authorities may prescribe words or spellings as standard, but except in the case of constructed languages dictionaries do not create the lexicon.

This morning in my English composition class, composed mainly of Japanese speakers, I came upon another pitfall of relying on “in the dictionary” as a test of acceptability. A student asked me whether a sentence that he wrote was correct:

I prefer urbanized areas to ruralized ones.

I told him that, although urban areas is perhaps better, urbanized areas is acceptable. On the other hand, ruralized areas is not. “Why?” he wondered. I explained that both urban and rural are useful adjectives to describe what I gather he had in mind. In addition, urbanize is a verb and the derived form urbanized can be used as an adjective. But since there is no verb ruralize, there is no derived adjective.

“But professor, ruralize is a verb. It’s in my dictionary.”

Indeed it is – to my surprise. Obunsha Japanese-English Dictionary features the following (my translation):

ruralize, BRIT -ise /rúerəlàiz/
transitive. to make rustic [rural] intransitive. to do rural activities

I had never heard this word. The Google Books n-gram viewer reveals that it is comparatively rare. While  urbanize peaks at about 3 occurrences per million words in books published in 1975, ruralize hits a bit more than 1 per million in 1837 and is quite rare after about 1940.

The -ise spelling shows similar results. Peak ruralise hits in 1847 with 0.77 occurrences per million words and drops way off after 1946. In 1978 urbanise reaches about 0.51 per million words in the corpus.

The examples of ruralize or ruralise in Google Books appear to be mainly intransitive, meaning something like “go to the country” or pace Obunsha “do rural activities”.

The tourist who remembers the cottages of Argyle before fleets of steamers carried down the citizens of Glasgow to ruralize among its lochs and mountains, may estimate the wretchedness (“Scotch Topography and Statistics”, The Quarterly Review, 1848)

we wished to keep to ourselves, and that this company of motor ‘buses had been mainly formed in the interest of the working man, who desired to ruralise among us. (What the Judge Saw, Edward Abbott Parry, 1912)

I did spot this transitive usage, though I’m not sure I know what it means. Perhaps something like “carry out in a rural area”? “make appropriate to a rural area”?

There is a tendency at present for farmers’ sons to be educated outside their own locality. To ruralise their education we must ruralise the curriculum of the Secondary Schools in provincial towns. (Papers by Command, House of Commons, 1918)

Google Books shows no occurrences of ruralise it or ruralize it, and only 325 ruralise/ruralize the  in books published between 1800 and 2000, attesting to the obscurity of the transitive sense. (By way of comparison, the adjective rural appears in 225 books published in 1975 alone.) Several occurrences of transitive ruralize employ scare quotes. Perhaps the authors or their editors thought they were creating a nonce usage by analogy to urbanize.

The impulse to dress the park and ruralise the garden was irresistible, and the work of destruction was carried on with iconoclastic fury. (“Landscape Gardening”, The Quarterly Review, 1856)

But it is a mistake to suppose that any steps to ruralise the curriculum will appeal to the rural parent. (Progress of Education in India, 1923)

make those postings for a longer period, and move economists from the central banks to crop-research institutes — in short, ‘ruralise’ the public service. (Of Time and Place: Essays in Honour of O.H.K. Spate, 1980)

A more extensive and comparative treatment of the long history of failure of such attempts to make “relevant” and “ruralise” the school curriculum is provided by Foster and Sheffield (John Kurrien, Elementary Education in India, 1983)

And just to satisfy my sense of completeness: OED Online informs me that urbanize at one time meant “to make more refined or polished; to civilize, make urbane”. This sense is marked as obsolete, with the most recent example from Gentle Shepherd, an 1808 comedy by Allan Ramsay.

Lest they should shock good company by their honest open-hearted rusticity, shepherds have been brought to town by city poet after poet, and taught by their preceptors to act and speak with becoming delicacy. They have been introduced to new acquaintances; instructed in arts and sciences they never heard of before; and have been polished and urbanized by artificial refinements, till they have at last retained nothing either rural or natural, but, in some cases, their names.

There are two non-archaic senses of urbanize: “to accustom (a person) to life in a city or town”, and “to make urban in character or appearance”. It is from these senses that we derived the adjective urbanized.

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