We might as well start this blog off with a confession: I never planned on being a lexicographer.
Until I got my job, wherein I primarily write and edit dictionary definitions for monolingual English dictionaries, I did not give a single thought to where the dictionary came from. (You’ll notice I say “the dictionary”; I wasn’t even aware that there were different dictionaries made by different companies.) The dictionary just was: if pressed, I might have told you that it had spontaneously generated and crawled out from underneath a pile of damp newspapers sometime in the 1800s. Don’t ask me how new words like “computer” and “automobile” made it into the dictionary—they just did, by, I guess, computer magic? The notion that a group of people sat down and spent eight hours a day writing the damn things was preposterous and absurd.
And yet, here we both are. I know what that says about me.
I almost literally fell into lexicography: I tripped over a book and landed on the newspaper which held the “Editorial Assistant” want-ad I eventually answered. I had a (fun and tremendously useless) degree in Medieval Studies and worked a menial job that was slowly and steadily killing my will to live. Publishing was a field that held some appeal—not because it was high-paying, glamorous, or easy to get into. It is none of those things.
You see, I love words. I love all of them, even the nasty bastardized ones—yes, I even have a love/hate thing for “irregardless.” Their histories, who they’ve been with, where they came from, where they are going. Reading is not just an escape or a hobby; it is a compulsion. I am that person you see on the subway who, upon finishing her newspaper or magazine, begins carefully reading all the ads and graffiti on the train and then moves on to the receipts in her pockets. If I run out of reading material, I start fidgeting like a coke fiend needing a line or ten. Do not come between me and my words.
I interviewed; I got the job. I had no idea what I was in for.
You see, a love of words—even the unloved, unlovely bastard ones—does not guarantee that one will excel at, or even enjoy, lexicography. The two primary requirements for my job are a good grasp on the rules, requirements, and idioms of your target language, and a willingness to throw two-thirds of that out the window in the face of cold, hard facts about usage.
In learning a language, we each gather a neat collection of rules and regulations for that language, like building blocks. The bottom layers are things that we learn before we actually remember learning: syntax, inflections, basic vocabulary. On top of those, we stack increasingly smaller blocks of knowledge: don’t end a sentence with a preposition; “ain’t” is not a word; “comprised of” is wrong and if you use it no one will ever, ever sleep with you. We pile these blocks up and measure ourselves (and others) by them.
On my second day of work, I began my Style and Defining class with E. Ward Gilman, the granddaddy of defining at Merriam-Webster and the man who would make a lexicographer of me. Gil looked like the Skipper from “Gilligan’s Island” gone to seed—I say that affectionately—and he had been writing definitions since my dad was in short pants. ”GOOD!” he barked. “Is it an adjective or an adverb?”
“Adjective,” I replied dutifully. I HAVE READY ACCESS TO THAT BLOCK, SIR.
Gil shook his head. “What about ‘I’m doing good’? That’s not adjectival, that’s adverbial.”
“Well, yeah, but you’re supposed to use ‘well’ in that instance.”
He peered over his reading glasses at me and sucked his teeth. I was a little afraid that he might fire me on the spot, or perhaps unhinge his jaw and swallow me whole. “I assume you are well-educated. Do you ever say ‘I’m doing good’?”
I paused. I could lie—but I was pretty sure that I had, in fact, said “I’m doing good” just ten minutes earlier, when Gil asked me how I was settling in. “But you’re not supposed to.”
“What does that matter? It is the job of a dictionary to tell people what a word means and how it’s been used, period. People have been using ‘good’ as an adverb for over 1,000 years. Regardless of what your grammar teacher told you, ‘good’ is used in an adverbial sense and so gets entered as an adverb in our dictionaries.” Then he smiled broadly.
Blocks were falling all over the goddamned place.
I spent the next four months slowly dismantling all my of long-cherished notions of what was “right and proper” and taking a look at how the language was actually used. Terminal preposition? It has been steadily used in English for over 1,000 years. “Ain’t”? It is a word. “Comprised of”? Used by some surprisingly intelligent people who, I have it on good authority, have managed to get laid nonetheless. It’s been 13 years now, and I continue to be disabused of notions left and right.
Dictionaries are not style guides. They are not grammars. They are a painstakingly accurate record of the language as it is used currently and as it has been used historically. That record includes some information on the register of the word (“obscene,” “vulgar,” “informal,” “formal”), and some information on the syntax and grammar of that word (“usually used before another noun”), and often a review of any grammatical brouhaha surrounding that word (“Irregardless is still a long way from general acceptance.”). But that’s it.
Let’s be perfectly clear here: all the glamour and intrigue that most people attach to lexicography is a fiction. Samuel Johnson, in his great dictionary of 1755, defined “lexicographer” as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge,” and he is not lying. My day consists of sifting through citations of words in context and puzzling over how to succinctly describe the glob of dust and crud that makes up a dust bunny. (I settled on “aggregate.”) Lexicographers do not sit in sleek conference rooms and make your language. That’s what you—the reading, writing, speaking public—do. Language is democratic, not oligarchic. That’s where the real glamour is.
There are a number of great people on the Internet who are much smarter than I am, and they will be delighted to give you advice regarding style and usage. All I can offer is a journeyman lexicographer’s look at the language as it grows and changes. It’s not always pretty and it’s rarely tidy. But I love it all the same.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to reading these 5,000 citations for the word “get.”