An Introduction to Harmless Drudgery

We might as well start this blog off with a confession: I never planned on being a lexicographer.

Until I got my job, wherein I primarily write and edit dictionary definitions for monolingual English dictionaries, I did not give a single thought to where the dictionary came from. (You’ll notice I say “the dictionary”; I wasn’t even aware that there were different dictionaries made by different companies.) The dictionary just was: if pressed, I might have told you that it had spontaneously generated and crawled out from underneath a pile of damp newspapers sometime in the 1800s. Don’t ask me how new words like “computer” and “automobile” made it into the dictionary—they just did, by, I guess, computer magic? The notion that a group of people sat down and spent eight hours a day writing the damn things was preposterous and absurd.

And yet, here we both are. I know what that says about me.

I almost literally fell into lexicography: I tripped over a book and landed on the newspaper which held the “Editorial Assistant” want-ad I eventually answered. I had a (fun and tremendously useless) degree in Medieval Studies and worked a menial job that was slowly and steadily killing my will to live. Publishing was a field that held some appeal—not because it was high-paying, glamorous, or easy to get into. It is none of those things.

You see, I love words. I love all of them, even the nasty bastardized ones—yes, I even have a love/hate thing for “irregardless.” Their histories, who they’ve been with, where they came from, where they are going. Reading is not just an escape or a hobby; it is a compulsion. I am that person you see on the subway who, upon finishing her newspaper or magazine, begins carefully reading all the ads and graffiti on the train and then moves on to the receipts in her pockets.  If I run out of reading material, I start fidgeting like a coke fiend needing a line or ten. Do not come between me and my words.

I interviewed; I got the job. I had no idea what I was in for.

You see, a love of words—even the unloved, unlovely bastard ones—does not guarantee that one will excel at, or even enjoy, lexicography. The two primary requirements for my job are a good grasp on the rules, requirements, and idioms of your target language, and a willingness to throw two-thirds of that out the window in the face of cold, hard facts about usage.

In learning a language, we each gather a neat collection of rules and regulations for that language, like building blocks. The bottom layers are things that we learn before we actually remember learning: syntax, inflections, basic vocabulary. On top of those, we stack increasingly smaller blocks of knowledge: don’t end a sentence with a preposition; “ain’t” is not a word; “comprised of” is wrong and if you use it no one will ever, ever sleep with you. We pile these blocks up and measure ourselves (and others) by them.

On my second day of work, I began my Style and Defining class with E. Ward Gilman, the granddaddy of defining at Merriam-Webster and the man who would make a lexicographer of me. Gil looked like the Skipper from “Gilligan’s Island” gone to seed—I say that affectionately—and he had been writing definitions since my dad was in short pants.  “GOOD!” he barked. “Is it an adjective or an adverb?”

“Adjective,” I replied dutifully. I HAVE READY ACCESS TO THAT BLOCK, SIR.

Gil shook his head. “What about ‘I’m doing good’? That’s not adjectival, that’s adverbial.”

“Well, yeah, but you’re supposed to use ‘well’ in that instance.”

He peered over his reading glasses at me and sucked his teeth. I was a little afraid that he might fire me on the spot, or perhaps unhinge his jaw and swallow me whole. “I assume you are well-educated. Do you ever say ‘I’m doing good’?”

I paused. I could lie—but I was pretty sure that I had, in fact, said “I’m doing good” just ten minutes earlier, when Gil asked me how I was settling in. “But you’re not supposed to.”

“What does that matter? It is the job of a dictionary to tell  people what a word means and how it’s been used, period. People have been using ‘good’ as an adverb for over 1,000 years. Regardless of what your grammar teacher told you, ‘good’ is used in an adverbial sense and so gets entered as an adverb in our dictionaries.” Then he smiled broadly.

Blocks were falling all over the goddamned place.

I spent the next four months slowly dismantling all my of long-cherished notions of what was “right and proper” and taking a look at how the language was actually used. Terminal preposition? It has been steadily used in English for over 1,000 years. “Ain’t”? It is a word. “Comprised of”? Used by some surprisingly intelligent people who, I have it on good authority, have managed to get laid nonetheless. It’s been 13 years now, and I continue to be disabused of notions left and right.

Dictionaries are not style guides. They are not grammars. They are a painstakingly accurate record of the language as it is used currently and as it has been used historically. That record includes some information on the register of the word (“obscene,” “vulgar,” “informal,” “formal”), and some information on the syntax and grammar of that word (“usually used before another noun”), and often a review of any grammatical brouhaha surrounding that word (“Irregardless is still a long way from general acceptance.”). But that’s it.

Let’s be perfectly clear here: all the glamour and intrigue that most people attach to lexicography is a fiction. Samuel Johnson, in his great dictionary of 1755, defined “lexicographer” as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge,” and he is not lying. My day consists of sifting through citations of words in context and puzzling over how to succinctly describe the glob of dust and crud that makes up a dust bunny. (I settled on “aggregate.”) Lexicographers do not sit in sleek conference rooms and make your language. That’s what you—the reading, writing, speaking public—do. Language is democratic, not oligarchic. That’s where the real glamour is.

There are a number of great people on the Internet who are much smarter than I am, and they will be delighted to give you advice regarding style and usage.  All I can offer is a journeyman lexicographer’s look at the language as it grows and changes.  It’s not always pretty and it’s rarely tidy. But I love it all the same.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to reading these 5,000 citations for the word “get.”


Filed under general, lexicography

39 responses to “An Introduction to Harmless Drudgery

  1. The story of how you “fell into lexicography” is marvellously serendipitous; it reminds me of a scene in The Hudsucker Proxy when the wind blows a newspaper sheet after Norville Barnes with a coffee-cup stain around the ad he is fated to answer.
    I’m delighted to see you blogging, and what a wonderful opening post. It’s as if Christmas came early and delivered a talking, wise-cracking dictionary.

  2. I followed you here from a tweet. I was expecting the traditional “Is this thing on?” first blog post. You jumped right in, and that’s the mark of a writer’s reader. And a reader’s writer. Welcome to blogging. I can’t wait to read more.

  3. Pingback: harm•less drudg•ery: a new language blog « Sentence first

  4. I wouldn’t have found this blog had it not been for the post written on it by Stan, with whom I agree; this is an excellent opening entry. I look forward to reading more about lexicography here.

  5. I am excited that you’ve decided to launch your own blog. Ever since I began following your Twitter account, I have been thinking that I’d love to read longer posts from you. Now, this dream is reality!

  6. This protopost portends good bloggery.

    I look forward to more, slightly-embarrassingly fanboyishly.

  7. Marc Leavitt

    Congratulations on a fine beginning. I’ve already added your blog to my favorites list. Coincidentally, and non sequiturally, I happen to be in process of reading(dipping into) Jack Lynch’s wonderful edition of “Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary.” I called up your blog after reading Stan’s latest post.

  8. Rachel Galloway

    Awesome Kory!

  9. I’m yet another faithful (added you to my feed reader even before reading your opening post) reader, guided here by Stan. Fully enjoyed that first post, and looking forward to more!

  10. Great post, Kory, and I think you’ve managed to touch on my frustration with most other copy editors. Real usage is fascinating, but everyone’s too busy piling up those little blocks to stop and take a look around at the facts. And they tend to eye you a little suspiciously when you suggest that a lot of the rules we follow are bogus and just a waste of our time.

  11. korystamper

    Thanks, all! Extra thanks go to those of you who urged me to blather about this on the Internet (as opposed to cornering you at parties and going on and on about the dative of agent while you nervously try to make eye contact with someone–anyone–who might come rescue you).

    • Barbara

      What an elegant post. I look forward to more. My honors class (across the street at STCC) will be following you in the Spring. We heart dictionaries.

  12. Dictionaries are not style guides. They are not grammars. They are a painstakingly accurate record of the language as it is used currently and as it has been used historically.

    I just blurted out “Right on!” when I read that. Very well said!

  13. Well, in theory they’re painstakingly accurate. Painstaking in pursuit of accuracy might be a more pedantic way of putting it. But every dictionary has at least one entry that makes me want to throw it across the room shouting, “No, it doesn’t mean that, you idiot”, which is one reason why I don’t use a print dictionary. (Online dictionaries don’t bother me so much, partly because it’s easier to think of them as components of something bigger, which makes the definitions I disagree with seem more dilute.)

    (I could give examples, but that would make this a long comment.)

    Congratulations on the blog, BTW. I’ll keep an occasional eye on it. You’ll know me from the comments on Stan Carey’s blog, especially the octopodes poetry post.

    • korystamper

      If it makes you feel better, every dictionary I’ve picked up contains an entry like that. Sometimes they are entries that I’ve ended up writing.

      This is an issue I’ll touch upon eventually, and then I’d love to hear your examples. I will even fess up if I wrote one of them!

  14. Pingback: » The glamorous life of the lexicographer

  15. Consider yourself bookmarked. As an amateur language fool (a title I just now made up), I’ll be watching you for entertainment.

  16. I, too, popped over from Stan’s. Jolly good first post; I’ll be looking forward to the next.

  17. Found you via a post in the LMB mailing list. I really enjoyed this post, elegant and erudite and amusing. I look forward to more!

  18. Last night at the pub, I cited your story of Gil.

    Someone was complaining about the “Ain’t” songs in the karaoke book, so I included your narrative, and then said, “Someone said a thing, you knew what that thing meant — pretty sure that makes it a word. A slangy word, but still a word.”

  19. I found your blog via “A Way With Words,” and I expect you’ll get many more subscribers that way. I envy you your serendipity, and wish I had had the same good luck to fall into lexicography. I’ll just have to settle for being, like kitchenmudge above, an amateur language fool.

  20. George Grady

    I need to get back to reading these 5,000 citations for the word “get.”

    This is something I’ve always wondered about. Where do such citations come from? Or, more precisely, how do you get appropriate lists of citations to read through? Does someone read through Northanger Abbey, writing sentences on note cards as they go, and then filing the cards under the words in them? That would be a “harmless drudge”, indeed!

    • Exactly. Of course, this process is no more infallible than any other part of lexicography. Whoever did the reading of Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies for the OED was, I regret to say, only semi-competent: he missed some lovely words, including peth-winds ‘convolvuli’ and bloke in the sense ‘fool’, which thereby failed to make it into the OED at all.

  21. Brian C.

    Dictionaries don’t have some sort of copyright-like protection on their definitions, do they? If, say, you were to steal Random House’s definition of dust bunny (“a loose, tangled ball of dust…”) what would be the repercussions? I’m very interested in how people come up with the actual language of the definitions—I imagine it could be very challenging for the more abstract words.

    • Dictionaries don’t have some sort of copyright-like protection on their definitions, do they?

      I’m sure they do; why wouldn’t they? Otherwise you could just pass somebody else’s dictionary off as your own work.

      • johnwcowan

        Individual definitions probably aren’t copyrighted, and certainly dictionaries have always referred to (and sometimes even quoted) older dictionaries: a dictionary made completely from scratch would be riddled with errors and omissions, especially the latter. Of course, whole dictionaries are certainly copyrighted.

  22. I got here from Fritinancy. Love your first post and the idea of your blog. What a nice Christmas present for we word lovers. I hope you corrected Gil that it should be “more than 1,000 years,” not “over 1,000 years.” Perhaps not on your first day, but eventually.

  23. Matthew Hill

    Five thousand citations on “get.” Oh make a logophile happy and tell me that there was some minute impetus to do this based on an entry in the mw open dictionary for “get” meaning an outstanding booking of a guest for a media production (such as a TV show).

    Also, thank you for teaching me that the past tense of “goddamn” is probably preferable in the context you used it. I just never thought about it. You will be my source for proper use of profanity in the future.

    Great job with the blog!

  24. “I am that person you see on the subway who, upon finishing her newspaper or magazine, begins carefully reading all the ads and graffiti on the train and then moves on to the receipts in her pockets.”

    That sentence warms the cockles of my grammarian heart. (Yes, I used the noun “grammarian” as an adjective, though I considered “grammarian’s heart” for roughly 4 seconds. However, I didn’t mean “the cockles of a heart of a grammarian” but instead “the cockles of a heart residing in the grammar-minded part of me” and, perhaps, others like me. Or something like that. So, there.)

    I also like fragments for effect and rhythm, which is perhaps as blasphemous as it is true. Blame it on my early exposure to Emily Dickinson, a near obsession with Annie Dillard and workday wrestling with advertising copy.

    Thanks for starting this blog — I look forward to visiting often!

    PS. Do you, like me, read cereal boxes too? And have you noticed that sometimes text is printed INSIDE the flaps? A delightful surprise every time.

  25. Susie

    What do you mean, “comprised of” is wrong??? What “should” I say, then?

    • Uly

      Well, it’s not wrong. But if you want to be the sort of person who speaks as though it is wrong, you would say comprises or is composed of. As in:

      A standard chess set comprises 32 pieces. Each side is composed of eight pawns, two knights, two bishops, two rooks, a queen, and a king.

      It really is a tedious and nitpicky distinction, and nobody really cares. They just carry around that “rule” in the back of their heads so they can vaguely feel bad about their speech now and again.

  26. Pingback: Lies! Murder! Lexicography! « By The Soles of My Feet

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  29. One of those lost hangover days… I have read your entire blog. Please post more, drudge.

  30. Pingback: When all else fails, read the dictionary - Mintedleaf

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