Lexicography, as I may have mentioned, is a very solitary job, and as such, it generally draws the type of person who is delighted to work in near isolation for years on end and in silence so deep it makes monks fidgety. The lexicographer requires only the corpora, the pinks, the project. The only triumphant score that accompanies their work is the mouth-breathing drone of the HVAC system punctuated occasionally by a borborygmus rumble from the water cooler. From this quiet, white egg of industriousness hatches a rara avis in pasteboard plumage: a dictionary.
This is a conveniently trumped-up mythology. True, there is an overwhelming amount of isolation and quiet on the second floor of our office. But look closely at the egg: it is riddled with hairline cracks, its sticky insides only held intact by the taut, thin membrane under the shell. It has been slowly, softly battered, beaten with a million question marks: your egg has been done in by answering editorial correspondence.
You sign up for a job in the Scriptorium, and you rejoice: no more dealing with people, praise Samuel Johnson! Then once you are lulled into a sense of security by the HVAC and given your own customized date-stamp, we spring it on you: people will write in with questions, and you, our expert, will spend a little time each day answering them. Upon hearing this, some new hires slump like deflating balloons; some widen their eyes in surprise until you can see nothing but animal-fear sclera; and some blink furiously, as if holding back tears and recriminations.
I was a fool and just nodded. I was doomed.
With correspondence, as in all other parts of dictionary life, we specialize: science queries are handled by our science editors, the pronunciation editor handles pron queries (and by “pron,” I really do just mean “pronunciation”), and so on. But there is a whole class of correspondence that is not doled out by subject area yet still requires special handling, and very few editors have the training, skill, and experience to handle this type of correspondence. I speak, naturally, of the nutbars.
Every profession has its crazy fringe, but the crazy fringe of lexicography is a blazing corona that overwhelms its dull core of fusion. They shine bright and write often. And sometimes they even have questions about the English language that require response.
The first time I was asked to answer one of these emails, I was so taken aback that I actually got up from my cubicle and bothered my boss. “I just got the email you forwarded,” I murmured. He spun around in his chair and looked at me flatly. I continued, “Do…do you really want me to answer this?” It was a mess of rainbows, numerology, political conspiracies, and religion, all wound tightly around one question: why the alphabet is in the order it’s in.
“Well, answer the alphabet question.” He paused. “You don’t need to address the correspondent’s obvious issues with reality.”
So I did. I wrote a little lecture on the development of the Latin alphabet and sent it off. The reply was immediate. “I was 5 years old. My family gave me the encyclopedia about Infinity to become immortal. I call upon Infinity from the book. I lost the books and seeking info or someone that help me locate information on infinity and call upon it again to become immortal. Please call me at number below!!”
I rubbed my face and gave silent thanks that I don’t have a phone at my desk. While I was trying to set my brain to right with deep tissue massage, another email came in. It was from my boss, and all it said was, “That was handled very well, Kory.”
I know my doom when I see it.
My own nutbar flavor has turned out to be the angry conspiracy theorists, people who think that the word “left” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word with negative connotations and is therefore offensive to people who are left-handed, or who read the entry for “door” and feel that it is Communist. I am tasked with sending courteous replies:
Thank you for your e-mail. We are sorry to hear you are offended by the travel ad on our page, but I can assure you that its appearance was truly coincidental. We do not keep track of your IP address, nor do we track your movements on the Internet and force our ad servers (and ad servers on other sites) to show you ads for international travel. We appreciate that you wish to stay without the boundaries of the continental United States for the rest of your “natural-born life,” as you say, but our ads should not be taken as part of a conspiracy to lure you away from our country. They are merely ads, nothing more.
Thanks for your e-mail. I must admit I am confused by your assertion that our definition of the noun “camp” is a lengthy denigration of Elvis Presley. His name does not appear in–or even near–the entry. If you’d be so kind as to give me the full title of the dictionary you are using, I would be grateful.
Thanks for your response. The title of your dictionary will appear on the front cover of the book, or along the spine. If you are not sure what words are part of the title and what words aren’t, it is safest to send me all the words on the front cover of the book or on the spine.
Thanks for your e-mail. The pronunciation we give at the word “croissant” is correct. Though the word is a borrowing from French, the English word “croissant” has its own meaning and pronunciation, as do all words borrowed into English from another language, and the anglicized pronunciation has been in use since the late 1800s. I am not sure where you got the idea that George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress ordered us to change the pronunciation of “croissant,” but it is false.
We do understand that you dislike the word “floor,” but we will not be removing it from our dictionaries as it has widespread, sustained use in current and historical English. I also regret to say that, even if the White House gets involved in the matter, we will still not be removing the word “floor” from our dictionaries.
The dictionary search engine is a small computer program whose sole job is to analyze an input into a field (in this case, the word you are attempting to find an entry for) and search our database for an exact or near match to the inputted word. “Democratic” is given in the suggested entries list when you entered “democrasy” because it is orthographically similar to the word you entered. We can assure you that the dictionary search engine was not written by Bolsheviks, nor is it programmed only to return Socialist or “unAmerican” words, as you suggest.
My boss says I am unflappable–in fact, this adjective has appeared in every one of my annual reviews since I took up my citations and followed Webster. I have my own ways for maintaining the integrity of the mythic egg: I type out the responses that I dearly want to send and save them to a folder on my computer called “Nobody Knows The Trouble I Seen.” I craft marketing taglines out of some of the most offensive or ridiculous emails I receive (my favorite: “Merriam-Webster: ruining Steve Martin’s Christmas since 1843″). I also spend a lot of time silently mouthing “OMG” and “WTF” at my monitor.
If I am unflappable, it is because these emails are a reminder of my own idiocy: my memento morons, if you will. I am an expert on this hot mess of a language, a rara avis in my own right, but even I make dumb mistakes. And even further, I understand the impulse to rage against perceived authoritarianism and injustice. But it’s hard to picket the English language: it doesn’t have an office, it doesn’t have a phone number, and it will not respond to your petitions. Combine those factors, and it’s not that big a leap from “this word describes something I find horrible” to “the dictionary that enters this horrible word is horrible” to “this ivory-tower elitist is defending something horrible and NEEDS TO BE STOPPED.” Who doesn’t want to stick it to The Man, even if he’s made of straw?
We all tend towards our very own kind of crazy. Just a few days ago, my daughter was browsing the Internet and found a store that makes custom wedding-cake toppers. “Some of these are great,” she said, and I peered over her shoulder. One caught my eye: a horse in a tux standing side-by-side with a chimp in a wedding dress. “Oh, nice,” I harumphed. “Make the bride a chimp. Yes, just another fabulous portrayal of women.”
My daughter looked up at me with a face I recognized: the same “WTF?” face I make at my nutbar emails. “Mom,” she said carefully, “neither the bride nor groom is human. The artist is just having fun. She is not saying that men are horses or that women are monkeys. You just need to calm. Down. GEEZ.”
Lexicography is solitary, but humans are social creatures, and sometimes we need a good, hard “WTF is wrong with you” to bring us back to humanity. I blinked at my daughter and mentally tore up the angry letter I was composing. Memento moron, Kory: remember you’re an ass, too.