There comes a point in every career when you realize that your job has changed you irredeemably, for better or for worse. That point came for me the day I bolted up mid-meal from the dinner table, turned the radio up, and began a scrabbling search for pen and paper. “What are you doing?” my daughter asked.
I shushed her. “Someone on the radio said ‘ho-bag.’ Mama’s taking a citation.”
At Merriam-Webster, every editor spends part of their workday reading a wide variety of print and online sources, looking for words that catch their eye. When you find a word that makes you stop short–could be a new word, could be an old one–you underline it and bracket the context. That chunk of language eventually ends up on a 3×5 index card which is filed alphabetically with others of its kind. BOOM: you have just created a citation.
Allow me to indulge in some lexicographical wiener-measuring for a moment: our citation files are enormous. The files are split between the old-school paper citations, which go back to the 1800s, and the new citation database. The paper files take up about 40% of the editorial floor and are tended by an Editorial Librarian who, until she retired, spent almost 30 years on a kick-stool in front of the catalogs, filing away citations, moving citations from one drawer to another, relabeling catalog drawers. Between the two citation sets, we’ve collected well over 100,000,000 indexed words. Well, so what? Here’s what: each of those 100,000,000+ words in our corpus was read and collected by a living, breathing editor.
I know what you’re thinking, because it was the first thing I thought when I heard about reading and marking: HELL YES SIGN ME UP FOR THAT. Get paid to read? Not edit, not revise–just read?? Let me give you a couple of well-intentioned warnings (Happy Holidays!).
When I began reading and marking, I would begin reading an article and get halfway through it before realizing that I hadn’t marked a thing. I had made the classic rookie mistake of engaging with the content. If you’re on the hunt for interesting vocabulary–and particularly if you’re reading something that piques your interest–you need to intentionally miss the forest for the trees. You must focus only on the language used without caring at all about the point made with that language. But you can’t just skim. No, you need to be able to read closely enough to catch a subtle grammatical or lexical shift in a word, but not so closely that you forget your primary objective (MAKE CITATIONS). It’s not reading, and it’s not not-reading. It’s unreading.
You also don’t always get to read things that you would, well, want to read. I would rather shove a dull grease pencil into my eye than read political rhetoric. Yet for 6 years, I read and marked both The Nation and National Review (balance!). Everyone wants to read the fun stuff, but someone’s got to read Today’s Chemist at Work or the latest batch of minutes from the UN Human Rights Task Force, and Noah Webster help you if the editor in charge of reading and marking happens to pass your desk and see that your pile is lacking or manageable.
There’s a more insidious and lasting difficulty that comes from reading and marking, though: once you do it, you can’t stop. (This also applies to proofreading, defining, copyediting, and eating FunYuns.) I attempted to re-read Dracula recently and was pulled up short on page 1, when Stoker used “thirsty” in a way I wasn’t familiar with. “Hmm,” I thought, “do we have this in the files?” I had to–was compelled to–log on to our system and search the corpus until I was sure that we had, in fact, indexed this use of “thirsty.” By then, I had forgotten about Bram and his fear of female sexuality and was mindlessly, reflexively searching for other things to mark.
Here’s a short list of unusual things that I’ve seen marked for the cit files:
- TV dinner cartons
- beer bottles
- diaper boxes
- photos of store signs (seriously, though, how could I not? “Route 66 Dinor”! That’s an amazing and very specific regional spelling of “diner,” you guys!)
- orchestra/ballet/roller derby programs
- VHS and DVD covers
- the Yellow Pages
Allow me to reiterate my point: relating to the printed word like this is not normal. This is not something you should aspire to.
When you spend your day taking words apart and describing their every movement in painful, meticulous detail, you develop a very strange relationship to them. I imagine it’s not much different than being a doctor: an attractive person comes into your office and takes off all their clothes, and you stare at the sphygmomanometer. (That’s a piece of medical equipment, by the way, not the name of an anatomical structure.) Spending eight hours a day in relative isolation with only disembodied, stripped-down words will change you, and not always for the better.
Case in point: William Chester Minor, the famous madman of Simon Winchester’s book The Professor and the Madman. If you’ve read the book, you know that Minor was integral to the production of the Oxford English Dictionary and batshit crazy to boot. But here’s a little tidbit Winchester’s book omits: two years before the battlefield event that precipitated his nervous breakdown, William Minor was a lexicographer at the G. & C. Merriam Co. His name is in the 1864 edition of The American Dictionary of the English Language. Joshua Kendall, in his excellent Nation article on Minor and the 1864, notes that “mental instability would also plague numerous nineteenth-century American lexicographers, including [Noah] Webster and his sole assistant on the 1828 dictionary, James Gates Percival, as well as Webster’s successor as editor, his son-in-law Chauncey Goodrich.”
What a track record! What a profession! WTF!
There is a little hope, however. Just because you aren’t reading exciting things doesn’t mean you won’t stumble on something that another editor marked that redeems the day. For the last edition of the Collegiate Dictionary, I worked on “heavy.” It was…heavy. Lots of the citations dealt with dreariness, death, and gloom: I read dozens and dozens of citations for everything from “heavy injuries” to “heavy depression” to “heavy rain.” And then I flipped over the next citation and read this:
“When it comes to heavy studio-craft, Bon Jovi is no Def Leppard.”
The juxtaposition–the sheer inanity of that statement when read immediately after “troops sustained heavy casualties”–was just the sort of bad-taste-in-a-loud-tie palate cleanser I needed to keep going. I finished the batch and didn’t require a long rest in a mental hospital afterwards. Thanks, editor who had to mark Rolling Stone that year.