Tag Archives: defining

Repossession: Reclaimed Slurs and Lexicography

[Ed. note: this post contains language that is considered extremely inflammatory. Caveat lector.]

People forward language articles to me all the time–usually the same article multiple times, until my inbox is nothing but language links and plaintive requests from Wine.com to buy more booze, please. But no one forwarded me Talib Kweli’s recent Medium post on language, probably because it was about the history and uses of the word “nigger.” I asked one of my frequent-forwarders if he had seen the post. “I had,” he wrote, “but I figured you’d have already seen it. I was not going to be the one to forward you a post on the n-word.”

The n-word. I think about slurs on a regular basis, in part because I have to explain to people why they’re entered in some of their dictionaries. It’s not unusual for me to open my email in the morning and see a message with the subject “NIGGER”; after a decade of answering these emails, I still wince when I see the subject line, stark in black and white.

Language has power, and slurs are a remarkably tidy way of asserting that power. They are not simply  neutral descriptors for a person or a group of people (“she’s a lexicographer”), nor are they merely expressive terms used as a vent for the speaker’s emotions and which could be used of any person in any group (“she’s a rotten fucker”). Slurs are descriptors that target one characteristic or aspect of a group and denigrate a member of that group (or the whole group) on the basis of that one aspect (“she’s a spic”). They are cruelly ingenious: because they are often taboo, never to be spoken and never to be discussed, they are prone to gathering around them ancillary attitudes and stereotypes about the slurred. Someone called an “uppity nigger” or a “castrating bitch” or a “flamboyant faggot” can only ignore the comment and feel the mottle of rage and misplaced shame creep up their back: to turn around and call out the speaker only confirms the stereotype they were just slammed with.

But people who are denied the dignity of an honest response, over and over again, will get wily. Language belongs to everyone, oppressed and oppressor alike. And so those at the sharp end of those words have sometimes snatched them out of the hands of their attackers and owned them as labels. It’s effective: as Kweli notes, “Why wouldn’t you want to embody that which most scares your oppressor and change its meaning?”

But language is not a political system you can overthrow; it’s personal. Slur reclamation is risky business for both the oppressed, the oppressor, and the lexicographer.

Slurs are never a pleasant thing to define. Reading the citational evidence for them requires some internal preparation: you are about to see centuries of the ugliest ass-end of humanity on parade and it is your job not only to muscle through it, but to engage it, analyze it, explain it in detail. It is a cavalcade of suck, and you are its unwilling but unapologetic emcee. But when slurs are reclaimed, they become Janus-faced and fragmented, and what was once a straightforward (if horrible) usage is no longer.

Kweli ends his piece on “nigger” and “nigga”  with some practical usage advice:

Say nigger or nigga as much as you like, just be prepared to deal with the consequences of your actions. The consequences of context. The word has racial connotations, and those connotations are different for white people and black people, whether we choose to accept that or not. It’s about personal responsibility.

This is true, but the lexicographer looking to provide usage information can’t gloss over the “consequences of context.” If use of “nigger” or “nigga” really is about personal responsibility within context, and a lexicographer’s job is to explain how a word is generally used in context, how can a lexicographer possibly talk about the consequences of usage when they are unique to every individual speaker and his or her context? Some may think it’s socially appropriate to dismiss a white person’s use of the positive “nigga,” but it is not lexicographically appropriate to do so. If a language belongs to the whole of its speakers and a lexicographer must report on use, then for lexicographers, Eminem’s use of “nigger” is just as valid as Ice-T’s use of “nigger” is just as valid as Mark Twain’s is just as valid as Ted Joans’ is just as valid as the frothing racist Internet commenter’s–and that’s just looking at American uses of the word.

In the great ebb and flow of slur reclamation, lexicographers are often stuck knee-deep in the muck left in its wake, grubbing around for something solid to grab on to. Slurs may exist within a context, but much of that context is not just personal, it’s nonlexical. My male friend can complain about an early-morning meeting he didn’t want to participate in yet did so cheerily because he “wasn’t going to be a bitch about it,” and I know that he is not saying that whiny, uncaffeinated petulance before 7am is the purview of nasty women because I know him, and I know he likes turning a vocabularic expectation (“asshole”) on its head (“bitch”). But if the guy next to me on this flight, who I don’t know but who I already assume to be something of a douche because he has taken up the empty seat between us with his papers, his empty soda can, and half of his left leg, complains that he doesn’t want to be a bitch, but could I move my bag from the DMZ of unoccupied  seat, I will damn sure assume that he is denigrating women with that use of “bitch,” because he is, as I have already unerringly determined, something of a douche, and denigrating women is exactly what a douche would do.

Names good and bad are used in relationship, and lexicographers cannot possibly parse the intricacies of every relationship on the planet (because lexicographers’ closest relationships are with their favorite pens and their coffee mugs, and these are generally nonverbal entities). This goes triple for reclaimed slurs. You’re asking people who took a job specifically because it promised almost no human interaction to delve into the grossest, wrongest human interactions in history and the efforts to right or repair or avenge those interactions, and then concisely describe the lexical fallout from centuries of that. Can you imagine the sort of usage paragraph that would appear at an entry for “nigga” if we tried to accurately describe the word as it’s used by every American who uses or has opinions about it?

The positive “nigga” is derived from “nigger,” and as such, has a share in the controversy surrounding “nigger.” It is generally spoken and used primarily within groups of young black men who are friends, except when it is used in groups of young white men who are friends, or young Latino or Hispanic men who are friends, or young Asian men who are friends, or other groups of young men of various races and ethnicities who are friends. It is rarely used among friends without permission (usually implicit) from the majority of the group, or from the person in the group who may take the most offense at use of this word. Though current evidence shows its use is most common among men, it is also sometimes used by women who are socialized within a community where use of “nigga” is tolerated or encouraged, unless that woman is considered an outsider to the community regardless of whether she truly is or not. The earliest modern uses of  the positive “nigga” are attested to in rap and hip-hop songs by black artists, though its use within the black community is hotly contested from both within the black community (in so far as you can call the majority of black Americans “the black community” without being reductionist and therefore possibly racist) and without. Use of “nigga” between different  groups considered minority or marginalized is also a point of contention. Only use “nigga” if your friends use “nigga” and you feel comfortable enough within that social circle to risk alienating people you love, or unless you are a rap or hip-hop recording artist who feels the same about his or her or thon’s listening community.

The result is that dictionaries and lexicographers have taken an imperfect tack: we sit and wait until “usage settles out,” as we say. We are reticent–and sometimes, not equipped–to enter into the difficult conversation about how slurs are used and how they are changing, because that involves entering into the difficult conversation about human pain and oppression. And this is hard for us, because lexicography has been the province of privilege since the year dot. You look at old pictures of any dictionary company and what do you see? A tweed of old, white guys with Ivy League degrees. Hell, the biggest scandals to come out of lexicography  are that the Oxford English Dictionary was edited by a Scotsman and that the editors of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary had abandoned all human decency and entered “ain’t” (a word that had been around for centuries, had been in dictionaries before the Third, and has not incited riots or led to anyone’s death, as far as I know). There are plenty of modern lexicographers who don’t fit the old paradigm, who want to delve into some of these questions thoughtfully and objectively. We are nonetheless scared shitless that, even with all the facts in front of us, and even with all our training, we are still blinded enough by our privilege and institutional baggage that the minute we ask “What about ‘nigga’?”, we will unwittingly perpetuate oppression.

It’s a funny thing: lexicography as a discipline has to deal with the dirty, ugly ways that language has been used and abused by and for power, and yet the tradition is one of British genteelness, of Yankee restraint, of safe distance from the political realities of some words. We bleat out the caveat that dictionary definitions describe “words, not things,” but as often as we draw that line in the sand, lexicographers also must admit that sometimes, the word is the thing.

About ten years ago, I got a phone call from a gentleman who found “nigger” in his family dictionary. I vividly remember the call; his polite but bristling questions, the stuffiness of the little phone booth I was in. I assumed that he wanted the word removed from the dictionary, so I explained to him why it was entered, gave some of the history of the word, how we don’t make up the words that go into the language but just record them. He listened–thoughtfully, honestly–to my explanation, and then said, “I understand that. But I’m thinking of my 10-year-old daughter. The word ‘nigger’ shouldn’t exist for her. She should not have to confront that in a dictionary, which is supposed to tell her what words really mean. So I want you to explain to her–she’s sitting right here–that the first part of that last sentence in that definition is wrong.”

I blinked hard. The first part of that last sentence. We don’t write definitions in sentences. While I stared at the entry, it hit me over the head like a shelf of Unabridgeds: he was not complaining about any of the definitions of “nigger” which we mark as “offensive.” He was referring to the last sentence of the usage paragraph. That sentence begins, “Its use by and among blacks is not always intended or taken as offensive.”  The offense was that “nigger” is not always offensive.

Our conversation continued, but did not go well. Though we were each listening carefully, we talked past each other, worried that the other might be missing our point and so preemptively overexplaining our positions.

“Let me ask,” he said suddenly. “Do you have children?”

“Two,” I said. “Two daughters. In fact, one is almost your daughter’s age.”

“And how would you feel,” he continued, “if your children had grown up–I don’t know what race you are–hearing their friends use this word and then being told it was fine? How would you as a parent feel if you had been called this word all your life by people who set fire to your yard and chased you out of your town, or threw rocks and bottles at you on your way to school, even after Jim Crow was defeated; if everywhere you went, this was the word that the world saw you as and threw at you until you believed that was all you’d amount to–how would you feel, after all that, if your little girl came home and told you the dictionary said that being called a nigger was no big deal?”

I couldn’t give him a lexicographer’s answer. We weren’t just talking about words any more.

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The Times, They Are A-Changing (And So Should Your Dictionary)

I was on an airplane heading to Georgia for a conference when I got into my usual “take my mind off the possibility this plane will suddenly plummet from the sky” conversation with my seatmate. Talk turned to dictionaries, and my seatmate began heaping praise on her old one. She had, she told me proudly, a Webster’s Second, and there was no way in heaven or on earth she was going to give it up for one of those silly modern dictionaries. “My son keeps trying to get me to use a dictionary on my phone, but I tell him, ‘Those new dictionaries aren’t the same quality as the one I have at home.'”

I opened my mouth to say that, nice though the definitions in the Second are, they are almost 80 years out of date, when the supercell we were flying past let out a little meteorological burp and the plane flew right through it. I am not entirely sure, but I believe we may have flipped over several times, and I am certain that the sound that came out of my mouth was not a spirited defense of the modern dictionary (though it was certainly “spirited” in the “possessed by banshees” sense). Our bounce through North Carolina airspace lasted only ten seconds, and afterwards my seatmate excused herself to the lavatory, so our conversation was over.

Had the conversation continued, I would have said this: old dictionaries are nostalgia bombs in more ways than one. The heft of the Second and the Third are glorious: tooled leather and gold-leaf embossing, that powdery vanilla smell of old paper as you smooth the pages back. Then you see this:

doo dee doo dee doo WHAT

“Negrito,” Webster’s Second

Consulting old dictionary definitions is like having dinner with your grandparents. The evening usually starts off well enough, with your grandparents telling stories of their life during the war or down on the farm, and then there is that one point where your dear old granny says something that is slightly outré and you know that the whole conversation is slowly going off the rails, but before you can think of some tactful way to change the subject, your dear grandma is using words like “Japs” and “Eye-ties” and “the blacks,” words that make you inadvertently screech your fork across your plate. And when you look for some sign of self-consciousness–some sign that she should know better, Grandma–all you see is the same little old lady who was there before the vileness came tumbling out of her mouth, slowly daubing her meatloaf with mashed potato.

I have been reminded of the chronological fixedness of old dictionaries as we have begun working on the Unabridged Dictionary. It’s no secret that most dictionaries in print today are written using another dictionary as the base; the Unabridged is being built on the very doughty scaffolding of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. We review the entries in the Third, add (many, many) new entries, and flesh out or correct entries that need it, and in no time at all, idiomatically speaking, the dictionary we’re working on is no longer the Third but a new critter entirely. But this transformational work is not as easy as you’d think, because the Third is 50 years old, and some of the language used and the implicit attitudes expressed therein are like those dinners with Grandma after she’s polished off her second martini. It’s not that the definers of the Third were trying to be offensive, it’s just that society and our cultural ethos have changed a little since 1961. When the Third was released, there was no Equal Pay Act or fully ratified Fourteenth Amendment or Roe v. Wade; sodomy was a felony in every state in the U.S.; and one of the top pop hits was “Runaround Sue,” a song that we today would call “slut-shaming.” Considering the time, it’s frankly amazing that the Third is as careful and circumspect as it is.

For dictionaries that are updated more frequently–even dictionaries updated every 10 years–this de-Archie-Bunkering happens naturally. You notice, for instance, that there’s mention of women in the citations for “firefighter” or “CEO,” and all you do is make sure that you edit out the masculine pronoun in the definition. Or let’s say that you undertake a revision and discover that what was formerly called “Black English” is now called “African-American Vernacular English.” Fine: you search the data for any label that reads “Black English” and make the change. In this way, the dictionary is updated for modern mores in manageable nibbles. But the fact is that you are catching things as you encounter them, rather than hunting for them. For the Unabridged, we’d have to grab our pitchforks and head into the forest looking for the monsters.

It all begins with lists (if there is one thing we are good at, it is making depressing lists). We compiled lists of every word in the Third, the latest Collegiate, and the Learner’s Dictionary that was given any sort of stigmatizing label, regardless of whether that label was current (dated, old-fashioned, vulgar, obscene) or not (abuse, contempt). Then we began to think of words we had encountered in our many jaunts through the Third that struck us as culturally sensitive or potentially offensive: “Negro,” for instance, or “colored.” This list grew as each of us began thinking about awkward family dinners with That One Uncle who likes to talk loudly with his mouth full and eventually lapses into saying horrible things that make our eyes widen and our mothers tsk in disapproval. As we each delved into the archives of our mythic That One Uncle, we together sang the body apoplectic: “Do we have ‘Asiatic’ on the list?” “Do we have ‘homosexual’ on the list?” “Please tell me that ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ are on the list.” “Oh good Lord, we absolutely need to put ‘redskin’ on the list.” And because everything’s better in threes, we had a third list of words that might be potentially sexist: any word with a masculine pronoun in the definition; any word with a gender-specific term (“woman,” “girl,” “mistress,” “man,” “boy”) in the definition; words ending in the suffix “-ette” or “-ess”; any word with the affix “-man.” Compiling these lists was deeply exhausting work, mostly because we’d swing between being riled up about and deeply embarrassed by the imaginary collective -isms of That One Uncle. 

Eventually, we had our list of words. But we weren’t ready to revise yet, because first, we had to search through every entry in the Third that contained any member of those lists. If “man” or “boy” appeared in a definition, a usage note, an example sentence or verbal illustration, an etymology, or even a subject label, the word where it appeared was put on the Potentially Offensive List. When all was said and done, we had thousands and thousands of entries to go through.

This is the point at which my dear friends who are computational linguists want to hear about the programmatic handling of these entries, but the truth is that everything had to be done by hand. Despite Philip Gove’s zeal for order and systematic defining, none of these terms had parallel handling in the Third, so it wasn’t as simple as swapping out “Negro” with “African-American,” for instance. Some of these terms were also a little too nuanced for a simple search-and-replace. The word “primitive” as it is applied to people groups is culturally outdated, but that doesn’t mean that every instance of the word “primitive” in the Third needs to be swapped out with…what, exactly? Is there a single synonymous word for this particular sense of “primitive” that would fit every stigmatized use of it in the Third? How would we know without having a real, live, myopic and undercaffeinated editor look at ever stigmatized use of “primitive” first? Our stalwart and defiantly cheerful Cross-Reference department began sorting through 50 years of fodder for awkward family dinners, and then an equally cheerful group of editors (and me) began to update these entries.

There is something utterly dispiriting about encountering that volume of offensiveness, but it can also motivate you. I am making this goddamned better, you think, because no one else should have to deal with That One Uncle in this dictionary, and you swallow the bile and bite back the “WTF!”s and keep editing “Negro” out of entries.

But as you may guess, offensiveness isn’t always so easily predictable. Take, for instance, the entry in the Third for “atheistic,” which I had in one of my early defining batches. The definition reads, in full, “relating to, characterized by, or given to atheism : GODLESS, IMPIOUS, IRREVERENT.”

“Oh my God,” I muttered, then paused briefly to regret my word choice. To a lexicographer, that boldface colon between “atheism” and “godless” is not just a cute way of breaking up space, but a way to signal that the things on either side of that colon are exactly synonymous. That means that if someone is describing another person as “atheistic,” according to that definition, they mean both that that person subscribes to atheism and that they are impious, irreverent, and godless. I believe that this definition wasn’t a malicious attack on atheists–it was just sloppy defining. These are two separate meanings and shouldn’t have been shoved together into one. But that boldface colon in the middle of the entry makes what could have been a perfectly neutral definition into a moral judgment on atheists.

There were occasional reprieves: sometimes the issues we uncovered weren’t completely depressing. While looking through the entry for “runner,” I ran across the definition “a seaman engaged for a short single voyage” and howled like a 12-year-old boy. “Seaman” went on the Potentially Offensive List; that sense of “runner” has yet to be fixed.

And there’s the rub (hur hur hur): the Unabridged is a work in progress. We’ve already changed thousands of entries, but there are, as our Director of Defining has put it, “no doubt many more excitingly offensive things to be discovered.”

Lexicographers like to remind people often and loudly that a dictionary is a record of the English language as it is used–and it is, fully and totally, from its entry list to the language used in the definitions. That’s why I cringe when people tell me they prefer to cite Webster’s 1828 or Webster’s Second when discussing what words mean today. Both those dictionaries are perfectly serviceable and scholarly dictionaries of their day, but the sun set on that day a long time ago. By all means, love your old dictionaries–cherish them for the works of art that they are, keep them around to remind you of days gone by–but maybe don’t look up “Negrito” in them.

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“God,” Guns, and Group Defining

When people want to make small talk with me—before they realize that I am terrible at it and not worth the time and effort—they will ask what I do, and then sometimes respond with, “So, you pretty much know everything, right?”

I have just taken to smiling wearily and saying, “Yes, I know everything.” I have teenagers, and often enough they are happy to disabuse those people of this asinine notion.

No one knows everything, and lexicographers are just like the rest of humanity (only slightly quieter and perhaps a little more openly deranged). There you are as a lexicographer, minding your own business with “harpy,” when you scan downscreen to your next word and encounter “harquebus” in all its Francophonic glory. You flip through your mental card catalog of Words I Have Seen, find the one labeled “harquebus,” and find your memory has only written, “from a novel, maybe Count of Monte Cristo? Is that a novel? SEE ALSO: sandwiches I have loved.”

Fortunately, the lexicographer doesn’t have to rely on this mental catalog. The lexicographer relies on citations. But what do you do when the citations are less than helpful? Here, for instance, the citations are all variants on “She pulled a harquebus from her corset/stomacher/stocking and shot him dead,” which gives you nothing besides a genus term for your definition (“a gun”) and a ten-minute respite as you ponder whether a gun would even fit inside a corset—or good Lord, a stocking, wouldn’t stockings fall down or even tear under the weight of a what’s-a-hoozy—harquebus? And why are heroines in these novels always pulling weapons from their underwear, anyway?

You return to the citations with a sigh and a determination to carefully study the cover of the next trashy novel you see, just to observe whether the buxom, swooning lass’s dress has pockets in it or not.

The problem with “harquebus” is not just that the citations are maddeningly vague and all pulled from Harlequin novels. The fact is that the word “harquebus” refers to a very specific thing, and you need to know a bit about the thing “harquebus” in order to define the word “harquebus.” Or, at the very least, you need to know enough about the thing to know whether these particular uses for the thing are valid.

You do not know that. But fortunately, there’s a guy on the editorial floor with a thing for Renaissance-era weaponry, and he will know.

You know he knows because of a précis of wonder and beauty: the Specialized Subjects list. This is a document that tells you everything that every editor on the floor knows. It is full of surprises and is one of the best ways to get to know your co-workers without having to actually talk to them. Of course the senior etymologist “has at least superficial familiarity with most European languages, best within Slavic, Celtic, and Germanic,” but did you know that he also is  a mushroom-picking philatelist? Likewise, our French editor is a weapons enthusiast. The quiet health nut, it turns out, loves cigars. I know about the 9th-century Latin Mass, knitting, and muscle cars.

The list is handy for general definers who are stuck with “hot rod,” but it’s also handy for the Director of Defining, who uses it when a group of words (say, music theory terms) should be defined by someone with superior knowledge of the subject. Welcome to “group defining,” the ever-deepening hole into which you daily and hourly dig yourself by proclaiming that you have any knowledge of any subject whatsoever. For the new Unabridged Dictionary, I have been given, as a group definer, all the religion terms. This is what an interdisciplinary degree and a penchant for reading and marking books like “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” will get you: a batch for revision that is about 10,000 entries long. (I’m one-sixth of the way through and am currently stuck on the entry for “god.” See you in whichever afterlife destination you feel like condemning me to.)

There is something very tricky about group defining, because that is where you find yourself balancing the thing-ness and the word-ness of a definition. A harquebus, as I have learned from the guy with a thing for Renaissance-era weaponry, is a matchlock gun that is heavy enough that it was usually fired from a support. Those characteristics are what distinguish a harquebus from a blunderbuss, which was “probably a better choice for stuffing into a corset,” says my colleague. The distinguishing characteristics of a harquebus therefore belong in the definition for “harquebus,” even if the batch of citations I have at hand don’t mention any of them. The group definer has specialized knowledge, as well as a whole raft of odd books they can plunder for citations so our formal evidence matches up with reality.

But even a good raft of odd books can’t catch everything. I spent about two weeks revising three related theology entries because each of those words was used, for quite a long time, very deliberately incorrectly. They were employed by one side of a theological argument as rhetoric and epithets to discredit the legitimacy of the other side. It’s as if the whole early Christian church was at a hockey game together and someone started a “Monophysites suck” chant that went on for roughly 1,000 years. But if you aren’t someone who knows about the initial theological brouhaha and the way it resonated through the Middle Ages–perhaps because you never had to write a paper on the Nestorian and Eutychean controversies, because you chose a better degree than I did–you wouldn’t know that was the case.

Lexicographers talk with a sort of heavy-breathing fetishism about the corpus, the citations, the data. It will give us all the answers. But every corpus in the world has holes in it, limitations. That’s part of why a good dictionary is compiled by people–living, breathing, awkward people who can look through that corpus, give advice, and do some citational spackling based on the knowledge and experience they gleaned from outside the office. Lexicographers may throw around the size of their corpus, but it’s the people sifting painstakingly through that corpus, like archaeologists weighing potsherds, that make all the difference.

When my children were little, they learned that the word “wedgie” referred to “the condition of having one’s clothing wedged between the buttocks,” as the Collegiate so toffishly puts it. They were absolutely ecstatic: here was a word for this thing that happened to them pretty much constantly! And it was a good word, too, a word that had great screechability and ended in a long-e for maximum sustain. Best of all, it had to do with butts. For about three days, both the six-year-old and the two-year-old hollered the word “wedgie” constantly.

Now, like most parents with young children, my husband and I were desperate for some little veil of ivoried respectability to drape over this big, nekkid waller of parenthood that was so often punctuated (primarily in public spaces, usually with a finger or two up a nostril) with “MAMA! I HAVE A WEDGIE!” So I told my kids not to call it a “wedgie”—I told them to call it “an issue.”

They did, for many years. And while people may have cocked their heads to hear a worried-looking preschooler say, “Mama, I have an issue,” the veil of respectability slid artfully into place. For a while.

The day soon came when both my children learned that when other people use the word “issue,” they are not referring to wedgies. They are referring to vital and unsettled matters that generally require discussion.

“Yes,” I answered, as my eldest explained this to me in tones of deep-purple mistrust, “but isn’t a wedgie basically the same thing in our house? Besides, no one else knew what we were talking about. They thought that you were just deeply interested in the election.”

She frowned so deeply that the tip of her nose met her eyebrows. “But you write dictionaries: you knew it wasn’t like that in the real world.”

It’s a refrain I call to mind every time I read endless citations for “god” that use the word vaguely at best, and it is my mumbled offering of thanks for a team of editors who have wide, varied experiences and specialties I can draw on when the citations leave me hanging. When people come to the dictionary and look up a word like “harquebus” they expect you to give them the definition from the real world: the world where women don’t stuff a gun the size of a musket into their corsets, no matter what the citations tell you; the world where “Monophysite” is not a politicized slur; the world where a wedgie is a wedgie.

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Seeing Cerise: Defining Colors in Webster’s Third

When you spend all your time in a book, you think you know it. All the editors at Merriam-Webster know the Third, but now that we’re undertaking a revision of the beast, we’re ears-deep in it, drowning in stuffy single-statement definitions. Each of us breathes a bit shallower when we start futzing around with Philip Babcock Gove’s defining style, waiting for his ghost to dock our pay or perhaps cuff us upside the head as we sully his great work. Add to this the fact that, it’s true, familiarity does breed contempt. At least once a batch, I look at a perfectly constructed definition, accurate and dispassionate to the point of inhumanity, and wish I could add a wildly inappropriate example sentence just to liven things up a bit, like <Doctors suggest you eat kale until your pee is neon green with excess micronutrients.> So you may understand why, while I was slogging my way through a B batch, I was delighted to run across this:

begonia n3 : a deep pink that is bluer, lighter, and stronger than average coral (sense 3b), bluer than fiesta, and bluer and stronger than sweet william — called also gaiety

I lit up like a used car lot. As I was at my desk on the editorial floor, and my cubemate was in a foul mood owing to an e-mail he had received about the thesaurus entry for “love,” I very carefully laid my palms flat on my desk to keep myself from clapping and merely mouthed the words “average coral (sense 3b)” four times. It was, as far as I could tell, an accurate definition–but it was so evocative and full of personality that I began to wonder if it had been slipped in after Gove shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the editorial floor invisible.

So began a deep-pink goose chase through the Third, as I looked for “fiesta,” then “sweet william,” and then “average coral.” I eventually ended up at “coral,” where sense 3c yielded up the fresh wonder, “a strong pink that is yellower and stronger than carnation rose, bluer, stronger, and slightly lighter than rose d’Althaea, and lighter, stronger, and slightly yellower than sea pink.” Carnation rose was clearly the color of the pinkish flower on the tin of Carnation Evaporated Milk, and Rose d’Althaea was clearly Scarlett O’Hara’s flouncy cousin, but it was the last color that captivated me. “Sea pink,” I murmured, and incurred the harumphing wrath of my neighbor. As he stalked off to find a quieter corner, I wanted to stand up and shout, “I grew up 1500 miles from an ocean! I didn’t know the sea was pink!”

The Third’s color definitions became my break from defining or proofreading. After staring into the middle distance for a few seconds, I’d think of a color and look it up in the Third, invariably ending my chromatic excursions with a fool grin on my face. Vermillion: “a variable color averaging a vivid reddish orange that is redder, darker, and slightly stronger than chrome orange, redder and darker than golden poppy, and redder and lighter than international orange.” Lapis lazuli blue: “a moderate blue that is redder and duller than average copen and redder and deeper than azurite blue, dresden blue, or pompadour.” Cadet: “a grayish blue that is redder and paler than electric, redder and duller than copenhagen, and less strong and very slightly redder than Gobelin.” Electric! Copen! International orange! Prior to “begonia,” the Third was a middle-aged management man with a Brylcreemed combover, in well-pressed shirt-sleeves and pants that were a bit too tight at the waist, full of busy self-importance. Now, he was the same middle-aged manager, but unbeknownst to the rest of the office, he danced flamenco on the weekends.

How did this all this flamenco dancing slip past Gove, the authoritarian curmudgeon who oversaw the creation of Third?

Of course, nothing of this magnitude would have slipped past Gove. The color definitions in the Third were very carefully engineered in accordance with Gove’s vision of a dictionary that was not only completely objective and precise, but was also the most scientifically minded dictionary of its day. One only need look as far as the masthead of the Third to see the lengths that Gove went to: 202 lengths, all listed under the tidy heading, “Outside Consultants.” These consultants were pedigreed and heavily degreed experts in their respective fields, and their job was to provide direction for specialty areas that in-house editors may not have had much experience with, such as the Mayan calendar, traffic regulations, and (gasp) coffee. Gove took his color definitions seriously. There are seven consultants listed for color; there are only four total consultants for mathematics and physics.

The color definitions in the Third are a meeting of old and new. The chief color consultant for the Third was Isaac H. Godlove, a man whose name means nothing to you unless you study the history of color theory. Since fewer people study the history of color theory than do lexicography full-time, I will tell you that Godlove was the chairman of the Committee of Measurement and Specification of the Inter-Society Color Council, a member of the Colorimetry Committee of the Optical Society, director of the Munsell Research Laboratory (which gave rise to the Munsell Color Company, a company that was evidently formed specifically to standardize colors), and a guy whose business cards must have been double-thick fold-out jobbies. He was also the color consultant for Webster’s Second New International Dictionary.

For Webster’s Second, Dr. Godlove developed a system of defining colors by hue, saturation, and brilliance. “Cherry,” for instance, is defined in the Second as “A bright-red color; specif., a color, yellowish-red in hue, of very high saturation and medium brilliance.” If this doesn’t call to mind an exact color–and I don’t see how it could unless you were a colorimetrist–the Second helpfully requests that you also see the entry for “color.” The entry for “color” is three columns long in the Second, begins with the label “Psychophysics,” and includes a lively discussion on the different ways to measure hue, the nature of light waves, and the neurochemical impulses that, when combined, potentially yield the sensation we refer to as “color.” There are graphs and two color plates. It is serious business.

Godlove’s work as a colorist was brilliant, and Gove likely knew it. (He may have been a workaholic perfectionist who pioneered the Rule of Silence, but he wasn’t a moron.) To duplicate this sort of defining system would have cost time and money, and Gove hated anything that breathed inefficiency. It seemed best, then, to use the framework that Godlove had set up for the Second. There was one snag: these standardized definitions that appealed to an objective standard set up by The Standards People couldn’t stand on their own. Every definition followed the same pattern: “a color, [color name] in hue, of [high/medium/low] saturation, and [high/medium/low] brilliance Cf. COLOR.” But apart from one reference to an indistinct and very subjectively observed color, like “yellowish yellow-green” at “holly green,” there was nothing in the definition to orient the casual reader apart from the color plates given at the colossal brain-twisting entry at “color.” And, of course, there weren’t color swatches for every color defined in the Second. “Holly green” is only the yellowish yellow-green that is of low saturation and medium brilliance, whatever that may be.

Gove called Godlove back in to work on the color definitions of the Third, and to entice him, he gave him a team of color theorists to boss around. As astonishing as it sounds, color names had been increasingly standardized since the 1930s, and their use had even been analyzed in mass-marketing–very sciencey!–and these guidelines and findings were to be incorporated into the Third. Who better to do this than the man who helped pioneer color standards?

The working files for the Third begin with the Black Books: our editorial style guide as written by Gove and adhered to by editors under pain of death (or a stern note from Gove, which was essentially the same thing). The Black Books are 600-plus pages of single-spaced directions filed in loose-leaf black binders, and they used to sit on the top of one of our long banks of citation drawers, lending that little warren an air of regimented malevolence. You only had to look at them to feel the ghost of Gove march past you, wondering why you were gawking instead of busting your hump on the E file.

The Black Books have much to say on many things, but less to say on the color definitions than you’d think. Perhaps the very first sentence is all that Gove needed to say: “Godlove’s psychophysical defs of color names and their references had better be regarded as sacrosanct.” Full stop. General editors were absolutely not to be mucking about in the color definitions.

Gove let Godlove use the latest scientific techniques in discussing color: there are color plates in the Third, as there were in the Second, and there is an entire page devoted to explaining the color charts and descriptive color names in the Third, as well as a five-page long dye chart tucked neatly in between the first and second homographs of the word “dye.” (The explanation of color charts in the Third abandons the discussion of psychophysicality and favors equations. Very Cold War.) But there are two big differences between the Second and the Third.

The first is that the color definitions in the Third were to be relational–that is, every color could be defined as being more or less of something than another color entered in the Third. Formulaic statements regarding the hue, saturation, and brilliance (now called “lightness”) of a color were insufficient. The other revolution is that the analyzed work of “color specialists from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward,” as Gove put it, would be used in defining the color names in the Third. In other words, users of the Third were not just going to get the names of colors that were considered scientific standards: they were going to get the names of this fall’s fashions in the Monkey Ward’s catalog. Gove sums up: “The range therefore is in the direction of the layman.”

And what a kaleidoscope the layman got. You could spend an hour alone getting lost in “cerise” (“a moderate red that is slightly darker than claret (sense 3a), slightly lighter than Harvard crimson (sense 1), very slightly bluer and duller than average strawberry (sense 2a), and bluer and very slightly lighter than Turkey red”). No doubt people did. That may explain why we don’t define colors this way anymore.

The Third, with its zeal for modernism and science and objectivity, sometimes lost sight of the forest for all the xylem and phloem. As specific as the definition of “cerise” is–and as smart as I am–all I get out of that is that “cerise” means “moderate red” and that there is more than one sense of “Harvard crimson,” which must really piss Yale off.

Let’s also take into account that if we’re doing our job–defining from citations–then colors are frustratingly, pound-on-the-desk difficult to pin down. Text-only citations give you absolutely nothing to go on: “Misses large, available in Cranberry, Olive, Cinnamon, Ochre, Cadet, Holly, Taupe.” These might as well be the names of the Seven Dwarves for all the information they give me.

Clearly, then, you need a color swatch. That should make matters easier. Here’s a swatch for you:

That is a quick Google image search for “taupe color swatch.” Some of those colors are distinctly not what I think of when I think of “taupe.” And that’s part of the problem.

Even taking printing or monitor differences into account, the fact is that the use of color names is standard, but the things those names represent are not. One man’s “taupe” is another’s “beige” is another’s “bone” is another’s “eggshell” is another’s “sand” is another’s “tan.” By the time I came around, we had given up on Godlove’s precision and instead gave the very first part of the Third’s definition for most colors: “cerise” is, in the Collegiate, “a moderate red.” That’s not terribly specific, but it does allow for variations in reproduction, marketing uses, and psychophysical observations of a wide variety of colors that are called “cerise.” (Please do not tell me you are red-green colorblind.)

The only place where a little poetry comes back into the dictionary is at the definitions for the basic Roy G. Biv: the colors of the visible spectrum. In defining those colors, we hearken back to generations of lexicographers before us (even back to Grumpy Uncle Noah) and play a bit of word association: when I say “blue,” the first thing you picture is…what?

For some poor schmuck, stuck indoors at some point in the 1850s revising Webster’s 1847 dictionary, blue was the clear sky. Collegiate definers have determined that red is blood or rubies. Green is growing grass, or maybe it’s emeralds, and yellow is ripe lemons or sunflowers. Whimsy does still take a backseat to practical matters, though. “Orange” presented problems–after all, what’s orange? Oranges, of all things, and you can’t say, with a straight face, that the color orange is the color of oranges without deserving a good smack.

You’d think that this word association would work well enough, but there’s always tweaking that needs to be done. Cerise, for instance, is the color of…what, exactly? I’ll tell you what: it is the color of a suit set my grandmother owned and only wore to Christmas brunches at the Aviation Club, where she would sit me down in my velveteen layer-cake of a holiday dress and demand my silence while she and Mrs. Tannendorf would drink mimosas and bloody Marys and pine for the good old days of Eisenhower. That suit is, I am telling you, exactly cerise, but that doesn’t do you much good, does it? You also can’t make sweeping assumptions about your reader. Sunflowers are yellow–but chances are good that if someone learning English knows what the word “sunflower” means, they probably know what “yellow” means as well. We had to get a bit more creative when we wrote our own ESL dictionary (here the ghost of Gove frowns): “orange” in our Learner’s Dictionary is not a color between red and yellow, as it is in the Collegiate. It is the color of fire or carrots.

It’s not that these picturesque color definitions are more correct or incorrect than the definitions before them. But defining colors is a bit like defining the word “love”: likely to make you sound like a nitwit in the real world.  You could argue that a straight-up scientific approach is best; that no comparisons should be made at all in color definitions. But after the labyrinth of the Third’s “cerise,” the simplest route is beguiling: Yellow is the color of the sun or ripe lemons. Green is grass; red is blood, brown is coffee or chocolate. And blue is still the color of the clear sky.

(Please do not tell me you are blue-green colorblind.)

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Filed under famous lexicographers, general, history, lexicography, making word sausage

“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.

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Filed under lexicography, making word sausage

F-Bombs Away! Obscene Words and Your Dictionary

Ed. note: This post is full of words that may, as we say in the office, “offend the tender sensibilities” of some. Caveat lector.

The first thing you cover in Style and Defining class is that any word that meets the three criteria for entry (widespread edited use, sustained usage over a certain period of time, and lexical value) is eligible for entry. From your first moments as a lexicographer to your last, this is the core rationale for everything you do. It is the rule which underlies the work of any descriptivist lexicographer; the practical extension of our defining philosophy; and the mechanism by which we attend to this noble calling in the service of education, literacy,  language.

That said, you will still be flustered the first time you dip into your defining batch and pull out a handful of citations for “fuckwad.”

Profanity presents the descriptive lexicographer with a few unique challenges.  Obscenities and vulgar terms are a veritable treasure trove–so many! such richness!–but very few of the truly original ones make it into print. Witness the New Yorker‘s recent article on Rick Santorum, which touched briefly on the generic noun “santorum,” coined in 2003 in response to some controversial comments the Senator made on homosexuality. The article says that the definition of “santorum” is unprintable.  This, it’s worth mentioning, is coming from a magazine that routinely prints “fuck” in all its various incarnations. Much of our printed evidence for the lower-case “santorum” sadly reads just like that New Yorker blurb: “blah blah blah santorum (a word so vile that we cannot possibly tell you what it means, but we’re going to use words like “leak” and “backdoor” and “frothy” in the next paragraph in a veiled attempt to euphemize “santorum” and thereby escape an obscenity fine or court injunction).”

Uses like this are lexicographically infuriating. We write our definitions, after all, based on the contextual meaning of a word as it appears in edited prose. All you can definitively eke out of these citations is that “santorum” will probably need a usage note.

Speaking of, usage notes and register labels can also challenge the lexicographer. If you can believe it, cusswords can be incredibly nuanced.  If that sounds like a ludicrous statement, please get up from your computer, find a 13-year-old, and ask them to explain the difference between “fucker,” “motherfucker,” and “mofo” to you. (Here I must tell you that the manifold glories of the F-bomb have been covered by Jesse Sheidlower in his book, The F-word, which any scholar of dirty language or ironic hipster will want to own. Now you, too, can impress a lexicographer or a 13-year-old!)  Lexicographers have different usage labels for the naughty words–my company uses vulgar and obscene–but sussing out which label to give a particular sense comes only with practice. My own, admittedly imperfect, litmus test for picking a word’s label: if I were to use this word in a sentence around my dad’s ironworker buddies and they respond with “fuck yeah!”, it’s vulgar. If I were to use this word in a sentence around my dad’s ironworker buddies and they respond by hollering, “Hey, watch your fucking mouth!”, it’s obscene.  To add to the confusion, there are always–ALWAYS–citations that use naughty words in ways that are neither vulgar nor obscene.  I swear, about 40% of the words in Trainspotting are variations on “fuck,” but only a handful of them are lexically vulgar or obscene: most of them are just used, as we say in the biz, “for intensity.” By page 6, you don’t even notice them anymore.

Once you get past the fact that you have very little evidence for a word and that you have to think long and hard about the nuances of its use, you have other, more mundane, hurdles to clear. First, it is very hard to maintain the proper sense of professional decorum when you are reading citation after citation for “numbnuts.” You may start to snicker, and then your coworkers will begin exhaling sharply and perhaps even sighing audibly–the universal signal for irritation within lexicographical  circles. Don’t worry, though: the giggles will wear off after about the first 15 citations.

Additionally, it can make for awkward watercooler conversation. I learned the hard way to append the phrase “the entry for” to any answer I gave to the question, “What are you working on?” (“Fucking. UH WHOA I MEAN…”)

The sad reality of defining naughty words is this: the definitions will never be as interesting, sparkling, or titillating as the words themselves. I was out with some friends when one of them asked me what I was working on. “Well,” I swaggered, “I just entered the adjective ‘fucking’ into the dictionary!” Everyone’s eyes grew wide with mischief and delight. “Well?” someone asked. “What’s the definition?”

“Um, ‘damned, usually used as an intensive.'” And like that, everyone deflated. It was as if they had gone to a striptease only to find that, when the feather fans were lowered, the dancer was wearing a Victorian-era bathing suit.

While society tends to treat profanity differently than other classes of words, the lexicographer cannot. The goal, remember, is to attempt to concisely and accurately communicate the lexical meaning of a word, and obscene and vulgar words, with all their shades of meaning and many, many, many uses,  need the clearest definitions of them all. In fact, when I buy a new dictionary–something that I’m sure you all do on a regular basis, right?–I judge it on two criteria: treatment of the Big 8 and treatment of profanity. A dictionary written for an adult English speaker should cover profanity. (School dictionaries tend not to include profanity because classroom materials tend not to drop f-bombs. This is because I do not write classroom materials.) If I pick up a dictionary and can’t find a single cussword, I begin to wonder what else the editors decided not to include.

Even in modern society, where previously genteel publications will print the occasional “shithead,” bad words are still stigmatized and stigmatizing. We call them bad words: their very name carries a moral charge. Sometimes, when I am answering another e-mail from a parent who sent their child to the dictionary and later found them looking up filth and smut, what is this world coming to, I wish we had taken the easier way out and just omitted them. After all, we all know these words already. No one learns profanity from the dictionary. (The parent whose child has been soiled by my filth disbelieves this claim of mine.)

Then I think about the afternoon several years ago when a group of international high-school students were piled onto my couch, flipping through one of my dictionaries.  One girl’s casual thumbing evolved into a susurrous cluster of girls, heads together, dictionary at the center. Their whispery knot would occasionally burst open with an “oh!” and a clatter of laughter.  Now, dictionaries do not usually elicit such a response from teenagers, so I asked what they were doing. They all blushed deeply, and then one of the girls spoke up. “Please do not be angry, but we hear these words, like ‘shit,’ but sometimes you don’t understand how to use the word. These words are not in the dictionary in class. So how do you use it? If you use it wrong, the students think you are stupid.”

I did what any compassionate person would have done: I made them cookies, sat in their midst, and taught them how to “give a shit” and not “take shit” from their classmates, who were all, for the record, “full of shit.”

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