Sunday, January 28, 2018

Uncovering The Secret Life Of Dictionaries and Lexicographers

How are dictionaries crafted and maintained over the years?  Just which words should be included?  How are these words carefully defined?

Those questions are answered in a dynamic discussion about language, linguists and culture in a book that promises to “make you appreciate the wonderful complexities and eccentricities of the English language.”  I’m talking about the lexicographer’s confessional, Word by Word, penned by Kory Stamper, a Merriam-Webster wordsmith who also blogs regularly on language at

She has provocative chapters on things like bad words (bitch), wrong words (irregardless), and the pronunciation gaffes of words misspoken (nuclear).  She also covers grammar definitions, and the authoritative powers and obligations of a dictionary.  She engages in a lively debate about the very words we give currency to.  Without the building blocks to sentences and communication, where would we be?

She notes that “lexicography is an intermingling of science and art,” and really summarizes well the challenge today for all keepers of dictionaries:  “English is a language that invites invention (whether you like it or not) and the glories of the Internet make it possible to spread that invention abroad. That means we tend to see new collages everywhere we go.”

The debate for dictionaries comes down to this – by what standard shall it be decided if a word should be included in the dictionary?  Does the dictionary reflect cultural usage or does it seek to create and initiate such usage?  Once a word makes it in, should it be reviewed periodically to see if the meaning needs to be tweaked or if the word’s still worthy of inclusion?  How is it figured out as to how to define a word?

In Kory’s insightful book on the secret life of dictionaries she pours her thoughts, feelings, and experiences out and flavors her story-telling with a peppered voice on all things words.  You can see she delights in all of this as she both defends explains what she does, while she also questions and ponders the sometimes unmet challenges of lexicographers.

Below are excerpts from her book:

Definition Crafting
“We read the definitions given there with little thought about how they actually make it onto the page.  Yet every part of a dictionary definition is crafted by a person sitting in an office, their eyes squeezed shut as they consider how best to describe, concisely and accurately, that weather meaning of the word “cat.”  These people expend enormous amounts of mental energy, day in and day out, to find just the right words to describe “ineffable,” wringing every word out of their sodden brains in the hopes that the perfect words will drip to the desk.  They must ignore the puddle of useless words accumulating around their feet and seeping into their shoes.”

Oldest Dictionary Maker
“Merriam-Webster is the oldest dictionary maker in America, dating unofficially back to 1806 with the publication of Noah Webster’s first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, and officially back to 1844, when the Merriam brothers bought the rights to Webster’s dictionary after his death.  The company has been around longer than Ford Motors, Betty Crocker, NASCAR, and thirty-three of the fifty American states.  It’s more American than football (a British invention) and apple pie (ditto).  According to the lore, the flagship product of the company.  Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is one of the best-selling books in American history and may be second in sales only to the Bible."

The Life of Lexicographers
“Lexicographers spend a lifetime swimming through the English language in a way that no one else does; the very nature of lexicography demands it.  English is a beautiful, bewildering language, and the deeper you dive into it, the more effort it takes to come up to the surface for air.  To be a lexicographer, you must be able to sit with a word and all its many, complex uses and whittle those down into a two-line definition that is both broad enough to encompass the vast majority of the word’s written use and narrow enough that it actually communicates something specific about this word – that “teeny” and “measly,” for instance, don’t refer to the same kind of smallness.  You must set aside your own linguistic and lexical prejudices about what makes a word worthy, beautiful, or right, to tell the truth about language. Each word must be given equal treatment, even when you think the word that has come under your consideration is a foul turd that should be flushed from English.  Lexicographers set themselves apart from the world in a weird sort of monastic way and devote themselves wholly to the language.”

“A lexicographer’s view of grammar begins with the parts of speech, eight tidy categories we shunt words into based on their function within a sentence.  If you survived the American educational system, you can probably rattle off at least four parts of speech – noun, verb adjective, adverb – and here the nerds among us chime in with the remainder:  conjunction, interjection, pronoun, and preposition.  Most people think of the parts of speech as discrete categories, drawers with their own identifying labels, and when you peek inside, there’s the English language, neatly folded like a retiree’s socks:  Person, Place, Thing (Noun); Describes Action (Verb); Modifies Nouns (Adjective); Answers the W Questions (Adverb); Joins Words Together (Conjunction); Things We Say When We Are Happy, Surprised, or Pissed Off (Interjection).”

The River of Language
“Think of English as a river.  It looks like one cohesive ribbon of water, but any potamologist will tell you that rivers are actually made up of many different currents – sometimes hundreds of them.  The interesting thing about rivers is, alter one of those currents and you alter the whole river, from its ecosystem to its course.  Each of the currents in the river English is a different kind of English:  business jargon, specialized vocabulary used in the construction industry, academic English, youth slang, youth slang from 1950, and so on.  Each of these currents is doing its own thing, and each is an integral part of English.”

The Changing Dictionary
“This is the general approach that lexicography takes for another sixty years or so:  dictionaries are lists of hard words for educated, well-read people, and the words worth defining sprang generally from the mind of the lexicographer and the drudgery of others who had gone before.  These early dictionaries focused sometimes on foreign words that we had kidnapped into English and sometimes on multisyllabic words we had churned out.  What they did not include were simple, ordinary words, because those were already common enough that no scholar needed to know them.  Early dictionaries were entirely didactic:  they were meant to improve the education of those who already had some education.

“That began to change in the mid-seventeenth century.”

The Early Dictionary
“First was Nathaniel Bailey, whose 1721 An [sic] Universal Etymological English Dictionary not only included everyday words but also gave extensive histories, notes on various uses, and stress marks so people would know where to put the emphasis on a word they might have only read.  It was aimed at everybody – students, tradesmen, foreigners, the “curious,” and the “ignorant” – and accordingly included a good number of taboo and slang words, including “cunt” and “fuck.” (both coyly defined in Latin, not English).  Bailey’s dictionaries were wildly popular.

After Bailey came Samuel Johnson.”

Then Came Johnson
“Johnson’s system became the basis upon which nearly every dictionary from 1755 forward was prepared.  Noah Webster used heavily annotated copies of books (and many, many other dictionaries) in preparing his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language; every managing editor at what would be called the Oxford English Dictionary oversaw a public reading program to gather quotations and rare words from an international cadre of readers (including at least one murderous nutbar);  dictionary companies today still underline, bracket, and extract quotations, which we call “citations,” from a wide variety of sources.”

New Words Everywhere
“English is a language that invites invention (whether you like it or not), and the glories of the Internet make it possible to spread that invention abroad (whether you like it or not).  That means that we tend to see new coinages everywhere we go.”

Taboo Language
“Dictionaries mark taboo language in a variety of ways.  Most common are labels at the beginning of the definition to warn you:  “offensive,” “vulgar,” “obscene,” “disparaging,” and the like.  Unfortunately, these labels can be opaque at best.  What’s the difference, for instance, between “vulgar” and “obscene,” or “offensive” and “disparaging”?  Don’t offensive words disparage?  If something’s obscene, isn’t it also vulgar, and vice versa?”

Today’s Lexicographer
“Modern lexicographers are trained to be objective and leave their own linguistic baggage at the door; modern lexicography is set up to make the definer anonymous and incorporeal. But language is deeply personal, even for the lexicographer:  it’s the way that we describe who we are, what the world around us is, delineate what we think is good from what we think is bad.”

The Etymology of Words
“Most words come into being first in speech, then in private writing, and then in public, published writing, which means that if the date given at the entry marks the birth of a word, the moment when it went from nothing to something, then Merriam-Webster must have an underground vault full of clandestine recordings of each word’s first uttering, like something out of the Harry Potter books, only less magical.  But the fact remains: because of how words are born, we will probably never know who coined a particular word and when they first used it, because language begins as something private and then moves into the public sphere.”

How We Use Dictionaries
“Though this book has been a nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty, worm’s-eye view of lexicography, one cannot ignore that dictionary making and reference publishing are commercial enterprises.  American dictionaries, in particular, are a slave to the dollar:  they are not magnanimously sponsored by academic institutions, as many people believe.  Most of the innovations in American dictionaries have been driven by a desire to gain market share and outcompete other publishers, and it’s been that way since Noah Webster.  The difference between then and now is in how people consume and use dictionaries.”

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. 

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