Tag Archives: dictionaries

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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“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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“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

Dear Merriam-Webster

One morning around break time, one of my colleagues passed my cubicle and noticed the look of utter defeat on my face. While this is my default look after 3:00pm, it was still early. He approached with caution. “So,” he murmured, “what’s on the docket for today?”

“Well, first, about five  new words, then a bunch of typos. Then the job requests. Then I think I’ll finish up by ruining young minds and destroying Western civilization. Again.”

He peered at my computer screen. “Haven’t you ruined all the young minds already? Oh, well. Carry on, I guess?” And he sauntered back to his cubicle, happy in the knowledge that he did not have to answer the editorial correspondence that day.

For as long as there have been editors making citations, writing definitions, and silently despairing over the quality of the coffee in the office, there has been editorial correspondence. The Merriam brothers welcomed it; by the 1860s, they were running advertisements promising a free dictionary to anyone who wrote in with evidence of a word that was not in Webster’s. Hundreds of letters poured in. Times have changed–we don’t give free dictionaries to correspondents, so don’t even ask–but the editorial correspondence is forever. The notion is a simple one: if you have a question about the English language, you can send it in (on paper or through the magical Internet) and an editor will answer it for you.

The first hitch in this grand plan is what exactly is meant by “the English language.” To me–and perhaps this is narrow-minded of me, since my modus operandi is to, you know, focus on the meanings of words and all–the phrase “the English language” refers to a word, speech pattern, usage, und so weiter that appears in the language commonly called “English.” I have discovered, however, that this is crazy talk. “The English language” means anything that can be written using words that appear in the English language (though those words need not exhibit the grammar, syntax, or spelling we associate with standard English). In my many years answering the correspondence, I’ve been asked what to look for in purchasing an Alaskan Malamute, why manhole covers are round, how much wood a woodchuck can actually and literally chuck, if rain on your wedding day is really ironic if you live in Seattle, and whether I can make a rainbow–and that’s just a sample. (Answers: good blood lines, ease of replacement, 2 cords of wood per day, no, and of course I can.)

The second hitch in this grand plan lies in our response: “an editor will answer it for you.” That’s what’s called a “simple declarative statement” or, if you study it longer,  “idealistic and naive in ways not seen since Eden.”  We really do try to answer all intelligible questions we receive. We may not answer them to everyone’s satisfaction, but we answer them. Whether we should is another question.

There are three types of e-mails that we commonly get: Enter My Word Into Your Dictionary; Your Dictionary Sucks; and Hire Me, I’m Amazing. Sometimes people economize and use all three types in one e-mail. (“Hi, I noticed you don’t have my coinage ‘flabulous,’ which means ‘tremendously fat,’ in your dictionary. While looking for my word, I also found a typo in an entry. Your dictionary sucks! Do you need a proofreader? You had better hire me. Here’s my resume. I look forward to being your boss.”)

Enter My Word Into Your Dictionary is fairly self-explanatory. These people get my thanks for their intrepid new coinage and an explanation of how a word makes it into the dictionary. If they write back and say, “Yeah, wevs, are you going to enter it or not??” then I usually respond with a little terse note asking them to read the delightful essay we’ve written on this very goddamned subject. Some people persist and think that simply by pointing out the empirical awesomeness of their word, I will come to my senses, delete all the other words in the dictionary, and just print their coinage over and over again as a paean to its sublimity. Haha! Silly correspondent! I am a lexicographer and therefore do not have any grasp on what is awesome, empirically or otherwise.

Your Dictionary Sucks has the most variety and encompasses everything from very polite and apologetic typo reports to flat-out abuse of our products, our persons, and our hygiene.  But all of them are marked by one underlying attitude: I can’t believe this is wrong because you are the dictionary!

It always comes as a shock to our correspondents that the dictionary is not a book most holy and inviolate, delivered unto us from On High, verily divine. It is  written by real, live, completely fallible human beings. These human beings have been known, while proofreading 2,000 pages of 4-point type, to miss a thing or two. There is no need to panic: the English language is not falling all to hell simply because I yawned at 6:00pm two days before the manuscript had to be at the typesetter’s and therefore missed “falllible.”

For those clamoring for computers to take lexicography over, please know that I spent a solid week many years ago hunting down all the programmatic misexpansions of “G” into “German” in the etymologies of the online dictionary (“Germanlobal Positioning System” was my favorite).

There’s a particularly draining variant of Your Dictionary Sucks that appears with regularity: Your Dictionary Is Ruining Young Minds. This is the catty, litigious aunt of Your Dictionary Sucks. It’s generally better spoken than Your Dictionary Sucks, knows more lawyers than Your Dictionary Sucks, and does not care at all what you have to say in your defense because it knows what is best.

Now, I have no problem with people thinking that the dictionary is ruining young minds (as I have so ably demonstrated previously). But at the root of these e-mails is a basic philosophical misunderstanding.

You see, lexicographers are interested in what is generally called “lexical defining.” That is, we aim to figure out and communicate how a word is used and what it means in a particular context. However, many people assume that the dictionary does “real defining”: the attempt to describe, to the best of one’s ability, the essential nature or identity of the person, thing, or idea behind the word. Real defining asks, “What is truth?” or “What is beauty?” Lexical defining asks, “How is the word ‘truth’ used in this particular context?” or “What does ‘beauty’ mean when it’s used this way?”

Some think this is ludicrous hair-splitting or blame-shifting. It’s not. This distinction has very practical applications for the definer. Let me give you an example.

Every year on one mid-May Monday, I open my e-mail program and see a number of angry e-mails that read like this:

“My Sunday school class was working on a Mother’s Day present, and we decided to look up ‘mother’ in your dictionary to find words we could use to describe how wonderful mothers are. You can imagine how shocked/upset/horrified I was to see such terrible language in the dictionary! This is a TERRIBLE way to define a mother! Mothers are kind and generous and loving, and THAT SORT OF LANGUAGE IS RUINING YOUNG MINDS.”

The correspondent has confused real defining (what mothers are) with lexical defining (how the word “mother” is used). The word “mother” is, in some contexts, used to mean “motherfucker,” as anyone over the age of 9 who has ever watched television will (gigglingly) tell you. What we are not saying is that mothers are mofos, though I’m sure some of them are.

Few correspondents, when worked up to that level of indignation, will blithely accept the “real defining vs. lexical defining” response I send them. So they write back and tell me that, unless I remove this egregious entry from the dictionary and replace it with something that would not make my mother ashamed of me, they will boycott us.

I know better than anyone that the dictionary includes words in it that describe horrible, despicable things. After all, I get to read the citational evidence for those words and write definitions for them.  But removing an offending word from the dictionary will not make the thing that word describes disappear. If it were that easy, don’t you think we’d already have done it?

Additionally, I learned that sort of language from my mother.

There is something that is a little unsettling about the correspondence. Despite the fact that I am an unabashed language ho, I have never, ever, thought, “Hmm, why do we park on the driveway and drive on the parkway? I think I’ll hunt down the address for the dictionary and ask them!” Nor have I ever thought, “You know, English is terribly sexist! I think I’ll tell the dictionary to fix that!” And I’ve certainly never thought, “The lawyer said that what I did constitutes felony assault, but he’s just a guy with a $100 haircut and a law degree. What does he know? I think I’ll ask the dictionary to tell me if what I did was really a felony or not!” But there are lots of people in the world who think that this is just fine. I don’t get it–and I am, let us remember, not exactly what you’d call “well-adjusted.”

Correspondence is one of those “other duties as assigned” that no lexicographer thinks too much of until they are drafted into it. It doesn’t take many letters to learn that people don’t have a very good grasp on what the dictionary can and can’t do. You learn right away that people are passionate about language. How can a person not be? It’s the primary mode of communication in our world, the thing underpinning society itself, the means by which we express our very souls, and here is some dictionary totally fucking it up.

If you step back from the inbox full of screeching and look at the correspondence that way, it’s almost hopeful. It means that people are thinking about language, which is ultimately what we want people to do. That thought is almost enough to warm the lump of bituminous coal where my heart used to be.

Correctly spelling your angry screed and refraining from calling me “Satan’s housemaid” helps, too.

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Filed under correspondence, general