Tag Archives: lexicography

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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A Letter to a Prospective Lexicographer

We regularly receive letters from people who want an editorial job at M-W and ask for more information on lexicography. It’s my job to answer those letters. Here is the response I wish I could send.

Thank you for your interest in becoming an editor at Merriam-Webster.  I am happy to share some information on the field of lexicography with you.

There are only three formal requirements for becoming a Merriam-Webster editor. First, we respectfully ask that you be a native speaker of English. I think I should break this to you now, before you begin shopping for tweeds and practicing your “tally ho what”: we focus primarily on American English. It’s not that we don’t like British English and its speakers. Indeed, we have an instinctual, deep love for any people who, upon encountering a steamed pudding with currants in it for the first time, thought, “The name of this shall be ‘Spotted Dick’.” But since we are the oldest American dictionary company around, and we are located in a particularly American part of the world, we feel it’s best to play to our strengths.

Second, we ask that you have a degree from an accredited college or university. It needn’t be an advanced degree, nor does it need to be a linguistics degree. Dare I say it? I dare: most of us got degrees in things other than linguistics. While you are gasping in outrage, incredulity, and a little bit of disdain, allow me to say that all Merriam-Webster lexicographers end up dealing with words from a wide variety of fields–economics, business, physics, math, cooking, music, law, ancient hair-care techniques, and so on–and it helps to have a cadre of trained experts in those fields who will look up at you dolefully from their own defining batch when you too-nonchalantly wander over to their cubicle and ask them for their opinions on “EBITDA.”

If you feel that this information on degrees is so broad as to be unhelpful, know that we seem to collect medievalists for some reason. Our costume parties are awkward, rare, and yet entirely historically accurate.

Third, you must be possessed of sprachgefühl. This is an innate sense of the rhythm of language, as well as one of those delicious German words you’ll hear thrown around the office a bit (but not as often as you’ll hear “weltschmerz”). How do you know if you have sprachgefühl? You don’t know. Even if you think you might have it, you won’t really know if you are possessed of it until you’re here, letting the sentence “It’s time to plant out the lettuce” pad around inside your head, paying careful attention to how it rubs up against the language centers of your brain. Sprachgefühl is also evidently one of those things, like eyesight and hearing, that can dull with overuse: after several decades of working here, you will find that occasionally you go a little deaf as regards the natural rhythm of English, and you’ll trudge to your car at the end of a very long Thursday convinced that you are actually a native speaker of some weird Low German dialect and not English.

It’s okay if sprachgefühl eludes you; once you make this life-changing discovery, you are free to quit and pursue a career where your average weekly wage will not be a buck-fifty and as many Necco wafers as you can nick from the receptionist’s candy bowl at the end of every work day.

Those are the formal requirements for a job here. I would add these caveats regarding the lexicographical lifestyle:

1. In addition to sprachgefühl, it is also a good idea to be possessed of what the late lexicographer Fred Cassidy called “sitzfleisch.” Lexicography is so sedentary a calling that it makes load-bearing walls look busy by comparison.

2. It is not a good idea to come in thinking that you are All That as regards grammar and usage. You will have to set aside your grammatical prejudices in light of evidence, and if you are nothing but swagger and self-aggrandizement, then you will fall particularly hard the first time the Director of Defining tells you it’s totally idiomatic to use “nauseous” to mean “feeling sick.” Swagger and self-aggrandizement are not part of the lexicographer’s idiom. Fidgeting, social awkwardness, and a penchant for bad puns are.

3. “I knew that the work in which I engaged is generally considered as drudgery for the blind, as the proper toil of artless industry; a task that requires neither the light of learning, nor the activity of genius, but may be successfully performed without any higher quality than that of bearing burdens with dull patience, and beating the track of the alphabet with sluggish resolution.”

Heed the words of His Cantankerousness Samuel Johnson, the patron saint of the lexicographer. This passage is excerpted from his 1747 letter to the Earl of Chesterfield in which Johnson proposes writing a new dictionary of the English language. “Bearing burdens with dull patience,” “beating the track of the alphabet with sluggish resolution”–and that’s what he thought before he started writing his dictionary.

It may well be that none of this dissuades you. That’s fine: slight derangement is not grounds for disqualification from a career in lexicography.

You should know, however, as you move forward in your search that jobs in lexicography are few and far between. Our late Editor in Chief used to tell people it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. This is so vague as to be maddening, so I am happy to clarify: it is a matter of being in one of the offices of a dictionary company just as the Editor in Chief says, “I think we may need to hire some more lexicographers.”

Take heart: one of my coworkers wrote once every three months for over a year about editorial jobs until finally our Director of Defining hired her. She’s a fabulous editor and we are lucky to have her. She also has a linguistics degree. All God’s critters got a place in the choir.

It’s worth noting that, though lexicography moves so slowly it is technically a solid, it is nonetheless changing. New online tools mean that you have more information at your fingertips, which means you must engage that sprachgefühl a lot more and know how to use a computer. (You’d be surprised.) Modern lexicographers have the luxury of writing for an online medium, where space is not at a premium and no one has to proofread the dictionary’s end-of-line breaks in 4-point type on blue galleys ever, ever again. When I came on, all new editorial hires were required to read and take extensive notes on the front matter to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. This is no longer required, thanks to the tireless work of Amnesty International. And, of course, we’re allowed to talk inside the building now.

I hope this information, while not particularly encouraging, is helpful. If you are still interested, against all better judgment, in a career in lexicography, do feel free to send us your cover letter and resumé. We will keep it on file for a year, occasionally taking it out to marvel at your enthusiasm and shake our heads in wonder.

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The Art of Conversation and Falling in Love: A Lexicographer’s Journey into Talking

The stool was a bit too high, the headphones were a bit too big, and the volume was a bit too loud. The host turned to me and said, “Okay, on in 30. We’ll have about three minutes. Are you ready?”

“You bet.”

“Just be yourself, this’ll be great.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, mentally reviewing some of the noteworthy words we had just entered into that year’s update of the Collegiate Dictionary– “SARS,” “convergence,” “gastric bypass,” “blog,” “pop-up,” “psyops.”

When the radio station came back from commercial, the host turned to his mic, introduced me as an editor from Merriam-Webster, and began our conversation on important new words with, “I’m looking at your list of new entries for this edition, and the one that really caught my eye was ‘bikini wax’!”

The co-hostess piped up. “Did you have to do field research on this? I mean, did you all go out and get bikini waxes?!”

“Now THAT is job dedication!” the host hee-hawed.

In the microsecond before my brain cobbled together a vaguely coherent reply and sent it down the answer-chute, where it would fall out of my already-open mouth, I thought, “No wonder no one else volunteers to talk to the public.”

Language is a marker of our culture, our thoughts, our predilections. Its use is highlighted in articles and interviews, and sometimes quoting a dictionary isn’t enough: sometimes you want to talk to the people behind the dictionary, the ones who can shed light on language trends. This–conversation on a topic of shared interest–is a natural, human exchange. Therefore, it is scary as hell to the Merriam-Webster lexicographer.

It’s not that we’re patently afraid of personal interaction; it’s just that we’ve forgotten how to do it–an occupational hazard that comes with all that solitude and deep concentration. You sit in your cubicle reading the citations for “run” for days, weeks, epochs, and when you finally push back from your desk for a good stretch, you find that your vocal cords have atrophied and trilobites rule the earth (again).

Even if you escape the Big 8, there comes a point in your career when you realize that the idea of lexicography is infinitely sexier than the reality of lexicography. This happens at different times for each of us. Maybe it’s the 8,000th time you have to answer the question “So, how does a word get into a dictionary?” Perhaps it comes when you get home from work and even your dog looks at you with eyes that plead, “Please do not tell me about your day.” Or maybe it happens while you are trying to impress someone into sleeping with you, and the only way you can think to woo them back to your place is to talk about your sexy, sexy job–which is not sexy at all, as will be revealed (along with your pallor and flab) in the milky light of morning over an awkward coffee. It’s wonder-fatigue. My boss sums it up thus: “I’ve done this long enough that I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

In short, the people you think are the absolute best people in the world to discuss words and lexicography with are the ones who are least enthusiastic about doing so.

When I came to Merriam-Webster, I was enchanted with everything, up to and including the silence. I had just left a job that featured non-stop phone calls from angry people and an office environment that reeked of the bone-shaking, helpless terror you feel when riding a poorly maintained wooden roller-coaster operated by a teenager on meth. Upon realizing my new cubicle at M-W didn’t even have a phone jack, I almost wept for joy. The quiet subhum of pencils and erasers on paper, the soft click of keyboards, the shushing stride of the editorial secretary as she walked the floor, and the quiet, the eggshell-colored, cocooning quiet of it all! It was heaven. I got right down to not talking to anyone ever, ever again.

There were warning signs of what this would lead to–signs I blithely ignored. One colleague thought a good way to start a conversation was to point to a picture from the 1950s that hung in our office and say, “He used to be an editor here, and then one day, he went home and shot himself!” Another dropped off a card at my desk. A coworker had had a baby, and I needed to find another way to say “Congratulations!” that hadn’t already been said. The deliverer intoned, “You need to find something to say, because we can’t send this card half-empty. I, frankly, was at a loss. The baby was born neither on Patriot’s Day nor on the observance of Patriot’s Day, so really, there is nothing you can say.” He nodded, returned to his desk, and didn’t speak to me again for seven months.

Years passed. I had limited interaction with the public through the editorial correspondence, but generally remained in my little box, staring at citations and weighing my use of “directional” in this particular definition, slowly losing bits of my humanity. When someone would stop by my desk, I’d startle and freeze like a mouse watching the owl soar in, fascinated by its pinions. My conversations grew stilted; they now mostly involved me staring at my fellow conversationalists like they were speaking Esperanto backwards. During a dinner out with friends, one of them commented that I was pretty quiet, and the only thing that popped to mind as a response was, “Did you know there was once this editor at our company who went home and shot himself?” Instead of blurting it out, I excused myself to the cool, gurgling dank of the ladies’ room. Oh God, I thought, when will the trilobites come and end this?

Meanwhile, in the office, I retreated so far into my blanket-fort of words that I began to feel stifled. My 8,000th “ZOMG enter my new word!!!” e-mail came in and I couldn’t even be bothered to “meh” about it. Instead of flipping through a new batch with a salacious sort of eagerness, I glanced at the first few words and wrote it off. “You again,” I muttered to “blue-plate special.” “Whoop. Ee.” The list of potential words I had lined up for future Word History of the Day features read like the index of the DSM-IV: “ennui,” “malaise,” “weltschmerz.”

Wonder-fatigue. I was falling out of love with lexicography. I had to take a class to learn how to love it again.

A friend of mine asked me to come in to his high-school English class to talk about lexicography, and I (dutifully, awkwardly) said yes. There is nothing like standing in front of a few dozen tan, polished teenagers while wearing ill-fitting clothes and talking about Samuel Johnson to make you wonder if you should have just called in sick with smallpox. I went through my (boring, dead) presentation on how a word got into the dictionary, then asked for questions.

One hand shot up in the back of the room. “So, there’s ‘cactus’ and ‘cacti,’ right? Why isn’t it ‘penis’ and ‘peni’?”

Shocked snorting and giggling filled the room. This was not going according to plan. The teacher was about to tell this kid to head to the office when I said, “No, fair question. That’s a fair question.”

All eyes were on me. The air was thick with expectation. An adult was going to say the word “penis” repeatedly in class.

“Basically,” I began, “there was a movement in the 17th and 18th centuries to make English more like Latin, because a group of grammarians thought Latin was this beautiful ideal of a language and English was a mess. So they began imposing Latin rules on English. One of the things they did was correct the plurals of words that end in ‘-us,’ because those words were from Latin and needed a Latin plural. ‘Cactus’ got a Latinate plural because it ended in ‘-us,’ but ‘penis’ obviously doesn’t end in ‘-us,’ so no overcorrection was made.”

Titters. She said “penis”!

The teacher put in. “These changes were made to help correct mistakes that were made earlier.” And as he nodded in satisfaction, something odd happened: I got strangely, irrationally angry.

“No,” I said firmly, “these changes didn’t correct anything! They changed things that were not wrong. See, ‘cactuses’ is fine because it follows the rule for how to pluralize a noun ending in -s.” While my friend tried to find a way to spin this–ignore the grammarian behind the curtain, kids!–I went on. “They all loved Latin because it was tidy and lovely, but they ended up missing the loveliness of English.” The kids shifted uneasily. “Don’t you think English is lovely?”

Desks squeaked, shoes rubbed on linoleum, pencils tapped. This is why I should not be allowed out to talk to the people, I thought. Then I had a deeply harebrained idea. “What are you guys reading in class?” I asked my friend.

“Macbeth.”

“Right,” I announced to the bored masses, “I will give ten dollars to the first student who stands up and gives me a good reading of the ‘tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow’ speech.”

The electric potential of capitalism stole over the room. They all grabbed their Shakespeares and began flipping. I upped the ante. “Twenty if you can do it from memory.”

Gasps. First she said “penis” and now she’s offering us money! My friend leaned in and muttered, “I am never asking you back.”

“Yeah,” I murmured, “that’s probably wise.”

One of the kids began. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow–”

“No, there’s rhythm here. Look over the speech–all the way until the messenger enters–and do it again.”

He did, then started in a monotone so flat it made pancakes jealous. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time; / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death.” He paused for a big breath and I jumped in. “Do you hear it? ‘Day to day,’ ‘yesterdays,’ ‘way to dusty death’?” He stared hard at the page.

“Okay, twenty dollars for you to rap it.”

“What?”

“Can you rap? Rap it.”

The class murmured excitedly. This woman was totally off her nut. The shit-stirrer had managed to find the speech and stood. “Yo, yo, boyyyyyz–”

My mom-brain took over, and without thinking, I blurted out, “Nope, I’m not going to pay you to be an ass. Do it right.”

Chastened, he began again, haltingly. And within two lines, he got it–he hit the rhythm, felt the sonorities line up. He made Macbeth’s despair into a tight wad of anger. When he finished, someone hooted.

“Isn’t that powerful?” I gushed. “Do you think that needs fixing? Because one of the chief grammarians of the 17th century would have gone back and red-penned that to death if he had had a chance. All because Shakespeare’s poetry didn’t match what he thought was a better, higher form of poetry.” I paused, trying to bring this all back to how a word gets into the dictionary, but then gave up. “I’m just saying that English may be a mess, but it’s a lovely, powerful mess.”

On my drive back to the office, I was squirmy. There was an odd feeling in my chest, like I had swallowed a cup of warm tea, but instead of feeling sleepy and soothed (because this is what tea does to me), I was jumpy. When I sat in my cubicle, I was excited and breathless, and then it hit me: infatuation. I spent so much time dissecting words in silence that they had lost their proper context. It took talking to other people about this crazy, messy language to redevelop my crush on it.

Suddenly, lexicography was interesting again because it was no longer the end, but a means. The dictionary communicates meaning of words, but it takes talking to people to communicate the story of the language that’s made up of those words. Give me silence when I’m defining, but give me conversation to keep me falling in love.

Of course, just like English, people are unpredictable. My first radio interview, ostensibly about Serious Words like “SARS” and “psyops” began with a disquisition on “bikini wax.” Messy in more ways than one, but it’s all a part of making people fall in love with English.

I had learned a few things, though, in how to keep on topic by that point. By the time the host had stopped chortling over his “job dedication” crack, I had recovered enough to say, “Well, you know, the mark of a good interviewer is that he’s done his homework, so tell me: did your Brazilian hurt?” The co-hostess shrieked in laughter. The host blanched, then grinned, then moved right on to “SARS.”

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