“Take”: My Life? (Please.)

We had finally finished the never-ending slog through S. You’re always relieved to be done with S–it is both the longest letter in the dictionary and the harbinger of the end of your project. After S, it’s a downhill glide to Z (with a small bump at W), so when you sign in that final S batch, you are giddy. Lexicographers have not adapted to survive extended periods of giddiness. In the face of such woozy delight, the chances are good that you will do something rash and brainless.

It took me a few minutes of flipping through the galleys of my next batch before I realized my rash brainlessness: I signed out “take.” But the rush of giddiness had done permanent damage: I didn’t trot the batch back to the galley table and sign something else out.

There are eight (sometimes nine) verbs that get pulled from most defining projects and given to senior editors, and “take” is one of them. As is the way in lexicography, the simplest words are often the hardest to define, and the Big 8 are hard six ways to Sunday: they’re used in phrasal verbs, idioms, collocations, with multiple parts of speech, and in ways that can be hard to define lexically. Handling them requires the balance of concision, grammatical prowess, and fortitude usually found in wiser and more experienced editors.

I didn’t know any of that at the time, of course, as I was not wise nor was I a more experienced editor. I was hapless and dumb, but dutifully so: grabbing a fistful of index cards from one of the two boxes, I began sorting the cards into part-of-speech piles. When those piles were 2.5 inches high and began cascading onto my desk, I decided to dump the rest of the citations into my pencil drawer and stack my citations in the now-empty boxes.

Sorting citations by their part of speech is usually quick and simple. A matter of minutes. Five hours in, I had finished the first box.

I decided to define the verb uses of “take” first–in for a penny, in for a pound. My first cit read, “She was taken aback….”  Oh, I thought, this is simple. I scanned the galley and found the appropriate definition, then began my pile. The next handful of citations were similarly dispatched, and I began to relax a bit. In spite of its size, this is no different than any other batch, I thought. I am going to whip through this and finish this project, and then I am going to take a two-week vacation and go outside.  (The desires of a lexicographer are simple, small, and just a tiny bit pathetic.)

Fate, now duly tempted, intervened: my next cit read, “Reason has taken a back seat to sentiment.” I confidently flipped it onto the pile with “taken aback”–and then stopped. I pulled the cit back off the pile. I pulled the galleys closer. This use of “take” didn’t really mean “to catch or come upon in a particular situation or action” (sense 3b), did it? Reason did not catch or come upon a back seat. That’s sloppy, Kory, very sloppy. Reason was made secondary to sentiment. I scanned the galleys and saw nothing that matched, then put the citation in a “new sense” pile. But before I could grab the next citation, I thought, “Unless….”

When a lexicographer says “unless…” in the middle of defining, you should turn out the lights and go home, first making sure you’ve left them an adequate supply of water and enough non-perishable food to last several days. “Unless…” marks the beginning of a wild lexical goose chase.

Pulling up the dictionary program on my computer, I looked up the current definition for “back seat.” There it is, sense 2: “an inferior position.” Awesome. So this sense of “take” means “assume,” and I can put it in the pile for sense 7a and–

Oh God. Wrong styling. This “back seat” is an open compound. The “backseat” on my screen is closed. I wondered if it really mattered, knowing all the while that it did. I sighed audibly, and my cubicle mate hemmed loudly to remind me that sound was verboten. Minding my volume level, I placed this citation in its own pile, far away from the other piles. I would deal with this later.

My rhythm had been thrown off, but upon reading the next citation, I was confident I’d regain momentum: “…take a shit.” Oh yeah, profanity and a clear, fixed idiom that will need its own definition at the end of the entry. YES.

Only it’s not a fixed idiom. You can also take a crap. Or a walk, or a breather, or a nap, or a break. I scanned the galleys, flipping from page to page. “To undertake and make, do, or perform,” sense 17a. I considered. I tried the time-honored trick of substitution with hysterical results: “to undertake and make a shit,” “to undertake a shit,” “to undertake and do a shit,” and “to undertake and perform a shit.” This got me thinking, which is always dangerous. Can one “perform” or “do” a nap? Does one “undertake and make” a breather? Maybe that’s 17b, “to participate in.” Mmm, yes, I mused, I would like very much to participate in a break right now. But that doesn’t solve “take a shit.” I tentatively placed the citation in the pile for 17a. I looked at my piles, then spent the next five minutes writing the sense number and definition down on a sticky note and affixing it to the top citation of each pile. The note for sense 17a included the parenthetical “(Refine/revise def? Make/do/perform?)”.

I sat back and berated myself a bit. “Take” should be simple. I have redefined “Monophysite” and “Nestorianism,” for God’s sake. I can swear in a dozen languages. I am not a moron. This should be easy. My next citation reads, “…arrived 20 minutes late, give or take.”

What? This isn’t a verbal use! How did this get in here? I took a pinched-lip look around my cubicle for the guilty party–someone has been in here futzing with my citations!–then realized I was the guilty party.  Another audible sigh, another muffled bark of warning from next door. Clearly, I needed to refile this. But where? After five minutes of staring at the citation, I decide it’s adverbial (“eh, close enough”). Yes, I’ll just put this citation in the nonexistent section for adverbial uses of “take,” because there are no adverbial uses of  “take.” My teeth began to hurt.

I placed the citation next to “take a back seat” and dubbed that section of my desk “Which Will Be Dealt With In Two or Three Days.”

And the next citation: “…this will only take about a week….” Ah, finally, I am back on track! Phrasal verb! “Take about!” And as I began to lay it in a pile on the “Done” section of my desk, a derisive voice from deep inside the left hemisphere of my brain sneered, “That’s not a phrasal verb.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. The voice was still, waiting. I silently asked the cosmos to send the office up in a fireball right now. No rush of flame nor conflagration appeared. The voice in my head said, “You know that ‘about’ is entirely optional. This is a straightforward transitive use.” I muttered, “Shut it, Quirk,” and my cubemate groaned, angrily gathered the newspaper he was reading and marking, and left.

It had been an hour, and I had gotten through perhaps 20 citations. I sifted all my “Done” piles into one and grabbed a ruler. The pile of handled citations was 1/4″ thick. Then I measured the cit boxes. Each was full. Each was 16″ long. I renamed the problem section of my desk “Which Will Probably Not Be Dealt With Until Christ Returns In Majesty To Judge The Living And The Dead.”

Over the next two weeks, my sanity unspooled. I shilly-shallied over any use of “take” within four words of an adverb, a preposition, or any particle whatsoever. Every transitive use of “take” led to a long hunt through the dictionary and other galleys to see if this use of “take” was a fixed idiom, covered at the definition for the object, or needed covering here. I shuffled and reshuffled piles of citations so frequently I am now qualified to be a dealer in a Vegas casino. My working definition of “desk” expanded as I ran out of flat spaces to stack citations. A wrinkle in the time-space continuum had appeared in my cubicle; the rest of this project moved along at breakneck speed, but time slowed interminably the longer I worked with “take” until minutes were geologic eras. I muttered to myself with increasing frequency. One night during dinner, my husband asked if I was okay. I looked up at him, utterly lost. “I just don’t think I really speak English.” He looked mildly alarmed–he only speaks English–but then settled into a fixed look of sympathy when he realized that I was probably just stressed. “You’re probably just stressed,” he said. “But what does that even mean?” I whined. “Just thinking about what it means makes my brain itch!” He went back to looking mildly alarmed.

The next day, I finished sorting the citations. A flicker of triumph flared up within me: I was ready to define. The flicker was snuffed: oh shit, I still had to write definitions. I was only half done. Further, I was only half done with the verb. I still had to do this for the noun. To divert my attention away from the yawning pit of panic and despair that had suddenly opened up in my gut, I began counting. There were 107 piles of citations on my desk. Just for the verb. Panic and despair waved up at me from my midsection and invited me down for a picnic lunch.

I hit rock bottom the day I came in to work and found that my carefully constructed fortress of citations had been breached. The overnight cleaning crew–who, to be fair, were probably sick of trying to clean around my piles of citations balanced on top of my monitor, on top of the walls of my cubicle, on the edges of my bookshelves, on the armrests of my chair, and in between the rows of keys on my keyboard–had decided to tidy the piles of paper on the floor of my cubicle. It was a cinematic moment: I dropped my bag in the middle of the floor and stared open-mouthed at the blank spaces where 20 or so piles used to sit. My small nest egg of sanity cracked cleanly open; I could feel what little rationality I had slip out. My stomach decided to exit through my feet. My sinuses prickled. I realized, almost too late, that I was about to cry, and if I cried, I would most certainly make noise (snuffling at least, possibly wailing). I left my bag in the middle of the floor and went to the ladies’, where I leaned against the paper towel dispenser and wondered if it was too late to get a job as a baker instead.

What do you do? You press onward. Besides, a few of my colleagues were waiting for me to move so they could dry their hands.  I re-sorted the tidy stack the cleaning crew left (and papered every flat surface within five feet of my cubicle with “DO NOT MOVE MY PAPERS!!! KLS!!!!”). I sat grimly in my chair, careful not to disturb the four stacks of citations balanced on the armrests, and decided that a little fun was in order: it was time to stamp the covered citations and file them away. I took out my customized date stamp and began marking the covered cits, pile by pile, as used. My cubemate hemmed in irritation, but I stamped louder. I had no bread dough to throw around; I had no punching bag to pummel; I had no nuclear device to detonate. But I had a date stamp and, by the power vested in me by Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, I was going to put this goddamned verb to bed.

That small act of physical brutality against index cards marked the other side of “take.” I wrote and rewrote and wrote. I got up from my desk to run proposed revisions and new entries past a few colleagues (after climbing out of their hiding places, they were very helpful). I came up with what is perhaps the best verbal illustration of my career by lexicographical standards (“take the witness stand”). I was suddenly able to see that “take the plunge” was a fixed idiom, “give or take” should be covered at “give,” that these three piles can be combined into one if I revise this definition by two words, this phrasal verb has own-place coverage. When I finished the verb, I went straight on into the noun–a blissfully manageable 20 piles.

Three weeks after giddiness had made me stupid, I marched my finished batch back to the galley table. I had to flip the sign-out sheet back several pages–we were already in U–but I found the line for “take” and signed it back in.

A month later, as I was talking to the Director of Defining about something else, I mentioned “take.” “Oh, I wondered where that went.” It turns out he had forgotten to mark it as unavailable on the sign-out sheet. By the time he remembered, I had already defined it. His eyebrows crept up above the rim of his glasses. “You seem to have survived the ordeal.”

“I survived.”

He paused. “I was going to say ‘take a bow,’ but it might be too early to go there.” Older and wiser, he had stepped outside of hitting distance nonetheless.


Filed under lexicography, making word sausage

20 responses to ““Take”: My Life? (Please.)

  1. Sometimes I think I’d really enjoy lexicography; other times I read stuff like this. ;)

  2. Oh, hey.
    There is a missing space in your post. :P
    « I began counting.There were 107 piles »

  3. Charming Charlie

    Gold. You made lexicography funny. You would probably write funerals as sexy.

    However this post raises the question, if a word has 20+ definitions, can looking it up really help someone who is confused? I assume the only people who would look it up are foreign language learners and other lexicographers. That someone is paid to define “take” demonstrates that completeness and the creation of a linguistic record are other goals of a dictionary maker. I can’t imagine either of those goals sell copies as much as simple (contemporary) utility though. Creating a linguistic record seems kind of like a public or academic service, but I’m not aware that Merriam Webster receives any public funding.

    I would love to hear a little back story regarding the project you all were working on. You had to redefine “take,” a word that was already once defined. Periodically meanings need to be tweaked, but “take” is the kind of word that’s used so broadly I can’t imagine definitions would necessitate tweaking so much as adding whole new usage in idioms and such. In other words, “socialist” is the kind of term I would expect shifts in meaning from decade to decade, while “take” is so foundational redefining it seems like reinventing the wheel. How do words get picked for redefinition and why?

    Also, what’s the deal with the cits? I don’t understand the redefinition project, as it seems to rely on looking at evidence that’s already been found. How does that relate to the search for interesting vocabulary that you’ve mentioned, and what percentage of your time is spent doing either? Maybe 8/10 years the staff is mostly gathering evidence and adding and subtracting words from new editions, then for 2/10 you completely revise the whole collegiate?

    • Charming Charlie

      I meant to say “you could write funerals as sexy,” not “you would write funerals as sexy.” One is a compliment, the other is more of a slight. Or a compliment, depending on how you roll.

  4. Like Charlie, I don’t understand the redefinition project. It sounds like you were starting a dictionary from scratch.

    • korystamper

      Ah, I should have explained. Every ten or so years, we undertake a new edition of the Collegiate, which means that we revise the dictionary from cover to cover. Generally, a definer compares the new citational evidence accumulated since the last edition against the current definition, and then you add to the definition or revise it as necessary. Not quite defining from the ground up, but close. (I have defined from the ground up, and that’s a whole ‘nother critter.)

      Charlie, during a new edition, all words are up for revision, regardless of whether we think they need it or not. That’s why you only get a new edition of the Collegiate every ten years (and a new edition of the Unabridged once every aeon). It’s a lot of work. And you’d be surprised which words change and which don’t. I did add some idioms to “take.” But many of the changes I made there are the sort that only other lexicographers tend to notice: the broadening of a definition to include a new class of uses; additional genus terms; extra example sentences. Small, but pretend it’s not so I can feel like those three weeks were worth it. :-)

      And, no, MW doesn’t receive public funding; we’re a privately held company. Your dictionary purchases and other contributions to the Feed the Lexicographer Fund are greatly appreciated.

  5. Adrian Ogden

    Not a lexicographer and this is my first visit here, but I have to know now: what are the other seven (or sometimes eight) verbs that are left to senior editors?

  6. I could really feel what it’s like to try to bring a semblance of order to something that will always be messy. I’m glad you survived.

    So, besides “take,” “get,” and “do,” what are the Big 8, or 9? “Set” must be in there, and maybe “absquatulate.”

  7. Charming Charlie: Writers and editors (I’m both) do rely on the minute details of some of these definitions to turn phrases from “good enough” to “good.” As both a writer and editor, my most useful and often-used resource is the dictionary — not a style guide or a thesaurus or usage guide.

    So keep up the good work, Kory, on both the dictionary and the blog!

  8. korystamper

    Here is the truth: the Big 8 (And Sometimes 9) vary depending on which dictionary we are working on. When we wrote the Learner’s Dictionary, the Big 8 were folded into the regular defining batches but were copyedited by older/wiser editors (I got lumped in with older/wiser for that book. You’d think they’d have learned with “take,” but noooo). I have no idea how we’ll handle the Big 8 in the new edition of the Third, but I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough.

    So, with all that hemming and hawing, here are the Big 8 (And Sometimes 9)*:
    (and sometimes do)

    *This list is subject to change, restrictions apply, void where prohibited.

  9. Thanks for the explanation.

    I have no idea how we’ll handle the Big 8 in the new edition of the Third, but I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough.

    I’m very excited about the new edition of the Third! (And yes, I buy every new edition of the Collegiate as soon as it comes out; I’m a copyeditor, so it’s both feeding my addiction and a business expense.)

  10. Matthew Hill

    In a profession where careful organization of facts, characterization of subtleties, and precise selection of words is crucial, I find it interesting that you are hedging on whether it’s big eight or big nine. Go ahead…take a stand! Otherwise I’ll be full of ambivalence when I recount this topic to friends and family.

  11. Thanks for the list, Kory. I also second languagehat’s “Fourth” huge excitement (which comes out to “Big 8″ in lexicomputation).

  12. I really enjoyed this post – as eloquent and affecting description of the ‘joys’ of lexicography as I have seen. Anyone who has had to do this sort of thing (and even people who haven’t) will feel sympathy and admiration. Now don’t get me wrong, but i was ‘taken aback’ (not to say gobsmacked) by what I gleaned from your post regarding working methods at Merriam. I started working in dictionaries in 1980, so I do have vague memories of the sheaves of galleys, piles of index cards etc. you refer to. But I’m not aware of any other dictionary outfit doing it this way for at least 20 years, probably longer. Everyone I know works with two linked pieces of software: a corpus query system for interrogating very large corpora (2 billion words is pretty normal nowadays). and a dictionary-writing system for creating and editing entries. This isn’t meant to be a US/UK comparison – there are projects using this methodology in places as diverse as The Netherlands, Malaysia, southern Africa, and Ireland. Which raises the question: do the folks at Merriam genuinely believe ‘the old ways are the best’?

    • korystamper

      Heh, I am kind of old.

      We use an electronic system like most reference publishers, though we still refer to our old paper citations when necessary–not all of them have been digitized, so half our corpus is old-school and half is newfangled. Because of that, I can’t even give you a good sense of how big our entire corpus is.

      I like using the electronic system, though there was something very satisfying about stamping citations and filing them away. Clicking “save” and “send” just doesn’t have the same triumphal flourish.

  13. Pingback: The Power of Lexicographers « …And Read All Over

  14. I wonder if most of your readers recognise your blog title as coming from Johnson’s definition of a “lexicographer as a “harmless drudge”? (btw I know the American spelling is recognize but I am writing British English!)
    Great blog must read more.

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