Silence and Adverbs: Tips on Defining

Many years ago, I was at a party full of smart and beautiful people–how I got invited to that party is an absolute mystery. In any event, I had tucked myself into a corner, hoping for a quiet evening of stuffing sushi into my piehole as fast as I could, when a group of people approached me and we all began talking about what I do for a living. I trotted out the standard riff on the process of lexicography–reading, marking, citations, defining–but one of the guys in the group stopped me mittelspiel. “So, you spend all day in a cubicle, totally silent, reading index cards and sorting them into little piles? That sounds like hell to me.”

That, ladies and gents, is coming from an adult man who, as it turns out, lives in a high-school dorm and watches over 30-odd teenage boys for a living. Just to give you some perspective.

The Venerable Doc Johnson was not just being a cranky old fart when he defined “lexicographer” as “a harmless drudge.” Listen when I tell you: hunting down, categorizing, and defining words can be a mind-bending slog. But if life teaches us anything, it’s that people don’t listen to a word I say. Since half of you are secretly hoping to become a lexicographer, let me offer some Helpful Tips on Defining. (If you’d rather skip this dog’s breakfast and read an informative–dry, dull, utterly colorless–piece on how a word gets into the dictionary instead, here’s one.)

Tip 1:  Clear off your desk as you’re gonna need the space.
When a defining project begins, your first job is to sign out a batch of defining, which consists of one triple-spaced page of the finished dictionary and a shoebox full of citations that correspond to the entries on that page. Your first job as definer/drudge is to read through every one of those citations and determine whether the meaning conveyed by the marked word is already entered in the dictionary or not, and then create little piles of index cards accordingly. If the contextual meaning of that word is currently entered in the dictionary, it goes in one pile; if it’s not, if goes in a different pile. Each sense, subsense, and sub-subsense gets its own pile, and before too long your desk looks like an all-paper version of Risk or Stratego.

This is a bit unbelievable, but shuffling papers into piles is not as easy as it sounds. What do you do with those three or four citations that might conceivably be covered by sense 4a if you kind of mentally squint at them, but, well, could also be an emerging new sense, too? Separate pile? Throw them in with 4a and hope the senior editor sees what you do and doesn’t just think you’re being a lazy butt? You make the call! Please remember, too, that the citations are not always separated by part of speech, so don’t accidentally put an adjectival use in the adverb pile. Because if you do, we’ll all laugh at you for years. (Not really. Maybe just for the duration of lunch.)

Yes, I hear what you’re thinking: don’t computers make this obsolete? No. Because now the flat spaces you use to organize are mental ones. Even if you have a fabulous marking and sorting program, you still have to concentrate and keep track of all the new senses you’ve run into so far. This mental piling has a deleterious effect on your ability to remember anything except all the new senses of “string” you are tracking.  I get home from a long day of defining, start making dinner, and turn to ask one of the kids to get inside the…big box…oh Lord…you know, with the [frantic pantomiming]…in it…food-thing…box…REFRIGERATOR, YES, GET IN THERE and get me the…oh man [lots of squint-eyed snapping]…drink…white…in the [more pantomiming]….

At least I can leave my desk at work; most nights, I have to take my brain home with me.

Subtip: Don’t sign out a batch that includes any member of the Big 8.
Like all professions, lexicography provides you with some handy benchmarks by which you can measure your sad little existence. One of those benchmarks is the Big 8. These are eight verbs that senior editors tend to work on because they have so many senses and collocative uses, and working on them makes you long to fly into the clouds and be with Jesus.

I’ve defined three of the Big 8 (“get,” “take,” and “do”) for various projects, and I have no desire to see, think about, or be in the same room with the remaining five members of the Big 8. When I defined “take,” I had piles of citations filed in between the keys of my keyboard, on top of my computer monitor, on the arms of my chair, in the pencil drawer, and on the floor. One day I came into the office to discover that the cleaning crew had moved a bunch of piles around, and I cried. Three weeks later–THREE WEEKS–I finished the entry. That was nine years ago, and I still wince when I hear people say “take.”

Tip 2: English grammar is wack and that’s now your fault.
There comes a point during your early career as a lexicographer–usually right after Gil hands back your first batch of marked practice definitions, along with a couple of three-hundred-page tomes on the vagaries of English grammar and a murmured encouragement to “read through these”–when the horrible reality of your situation hits you full in the face: I am the one who must decide what part of speech a word gets.

Please remember that audible sobbing or hyperventilating is a distraction to your coworkers. Thank you.

This may seem very easy, but here is a little inside baseball for you: even though English words are usually filed into one of eight traditional parts of speech, a good chunk of written and spoken English does not fall easily into those eight traditional parts of speech. Nouns can be used like adjectives (I ate apple pie for breakfast because it’s awesome); adjectives are occasionally used like nouns (lexicographers are the damned); verbs can be verbs (I am running)–or adjectives (a running joke) or nouns (He likes soccer and running). The category “adverb” is essentially the junk drawer of the English language.

You are now the one who gets to decide if “apple” as used above has any of the markers of a true adjective or if it’s just attributive. If you are like me, you will probably have to look up “attributive” before you can make that decision. And if you’re not like me–if you are a grammatical dynamo–you will still end up looking at a pile of citations for “but” late one November evening, after everyone else has gone home and the Director of Defining has dropped by to let you know that you are now the bottleneck in this project, and saying, “I don’t know anymore. Screw it, I’m just calling it an adverb. Close enough.”

Tip 3: Be boring.
Lots of people have an idea of lexicography based entirely on the wit and irascibility of Samuel Johnson’s definitions. They think that you casually flip through a bunch of citations for “green,” write a definition like “of man, young and easily wilted like a June lettuce,” and then pop off to the pub for a well-deserved pint. Once there, you share your new definition with the crowd. They roar with laughter, gather round you (you bright spark, you), and buy you more beer.

This is a fantasy. (Mine, in fact.) If you’ve written a definition that people chuckle over, then you’ve missed the mark. The number one rule of lexicography is you never, ever intentionally insert yourself into your defining. Your goal as a lexicographer is to write a definition that accurately and concisely conveys how a word is used without distracting the reader with humor.

Imagine, if you will, that you are a native German speaker and you are learning English. You read the phrase, “a company full of green business developers,” then open your dictionary to the entry for “green.” There you see the above definition and key in on “wilted like a June lettuce.” Now you have to look up “wilted” and possibly “lettuce,” and before too long you are assuming this use of “green” means that all the business developers at that company are hot vegans.

This also applies to any and all example sentences you put in the dictionary. They should only convey the typical use for that particular sense, and, as such, will be as dull as a mud turtle. (That said, I must here confess that two of our dictionaries  feature the illustrations <huge tracts of land> and–in the middle-school dictionary, no less–<cheese cuts easily>.)  Additionally, please do not use the example sentences as a narrative proving ground, nor should you use them as a creative outlet to deal with stress. If I’m editing your batch and see illustrations like <a lot of gore and bludgeoning> or <the editor chainsawed the correspondent into tiny bits>, I will revise them heavily and then call the Employee Assistance Program to get you the help you so clearly need.

Tip 4: Shut up.
No one believes me when I say it, but it’s true: until the mid-1990s, there was a formal rule prohibiting talking on the Editorial Floor. Editors communicated using pink index cards which were delivered in the inter-office mail twice a day. I thought this was quaint in the way that quill pens and hoop skirts are quaint–fun to use once or twice, but really unnecessary in our modern world. Then I started defining.

Since concision and accuracy are vital, you spend a lot of time weighing how, exactly, you are going to define a word. Not necessarily what the word means–denotative meaning is usually pretty easy to pick up from context. No, the meat of defining is communicating register, nuance, overtones, and usage in two lines. You do that by examining every single word you use in a definition. That, as you may imagine, takes some concentration, and there is nothing worse than being about two mental steps away from having written the most brilliant definition of your career only to overhear a conversation about the new coffee filters for the coffee machine, and why does it matter if the coffee filters are bleached or not, I mean, really, it’s not like you can tell the difference. If they wanted to make a difference, they should start buying better coffee! Or using filtered water. I mean, my God, the water here is horrible, it’s no wonder the coffee is undrinkable sludge! And ta da, now all I can think about is coffee filters.

This is the point at which I lose my mind and begin cackling loudly. I cackle because I have discovered it is a more workplace-friendly way of expressing myself than smacking people.

Tip 5: Take care.
Lexicography is a very lonely, quiet job. The concentration required to do it well means that you spend a lot of time hunched over index cards (or, in our brave new world, squinting at a monitor that is six inches from your face), writing and scribbling that out and then writing again, staring very intently at your cubicle wall, hoping that the right word will magically fall out of your forebrain onto the defining card. It’s very, very easy to get stuck there in your tiny little head. Words tumble and tangle together and your job is to plunge into that roiling mess, hands in it up to your elbows for as long as it takes, and grab onto that slippery right word.  When you’ve hauled it up from the depths and thrown it on the paper–and done that over and over and over again, you end up with a beautiful little definition. It’s a little Old Man and The Sea with fewer sharks–undeniably magical, solitary, exhausting, rewarding.  It takes a while to come back to the land of the glib, blabbing living after all that.

But here’s the thing that is easy to lose sight of in the midst of that wrangling: the reason you are doing lexicography is not for your own edification. Good lexicography has other people in view. No one will read your definition and fall at your feet to worship you as the Sun God–and frankly, if you do a good job, no one should. But there may come a point when someone will read the definition of “Monophysite” or “ollie” and say, “Ohhh, so that’s what that means,” and walk away wiser–and that’s why you continue to spend your day knee-deep in silence and adverbs.



Filed under lexicography, making word sausage

28 responses to “Silence and Adverbs: Tips on Defining

  1. To be fair to Johnson, the great bulk of his definitions are straightforward enough: “ZEST n. 1. The peel of an orange squeezed into wine. 2. A relish; a taste added.” Only a few of them are like “a grain which in England is generally given to Horses, but in Scotland supports the People” or “An Equivalent paid to a Hireling, for Treason to his Country.”

    I’m developing an ontology for my employer, which requires the same kind of close concentration that you are describing. (An ontology, in this sense, is an enhanced taxonomy, specifying not only hyponymy but arbitrarily complex relationships between its terms; does not yet have this definition.)

    So of course they put me on a sales floor, with people all around me drumming up business on their cellphones. I know the reason why people talk more loudly on a cell phone, but it doesn’t help me ignore them any better. Those who are not on the phone are in conference rooms holding meetings with a lot of YELLING. I go around and shush people politely and get nasty looks. I complain to my boss, who complains to HR, but to no avail. Ya can’t win; ya can’t even break even.

    • korystamper

      I pick on poor ol’ Sam, but I do truly think that the 1755 is a masterpiece of lexicography. It was the gold standard for so many years for a reason. He was just such a character, it’s hard not to think of him as a curmudgeonly uncle.

      As for trying to do work that requires concentration while surrounded by shouting salesmen, shoot me now. My deepest condolences and best wishes for the retention of your sanity.

      • I’ve been working from home this week, because only two of the five people who live in my NYC apartment (a couple of closets, to the rest of you) are here. Blessed silence.

  2. Wow, despite your caveats this seems in a way like my dream job, and I did read that book about the insane American who was one of the OED’s most valuable contributors.

  3. Caitlyn Kraszewski

    Oh Kory, you have clearly found a way to write creatively… If only in a seemingly therapeutic outlet to your world of definitions. Love this article though I don’t think I’d ever love your job!!! Much obliged.

  4. Do you have any opinions on the “open source” dictionary, Wiktionary? While I find Wikipedia an extraordinary resource, I’m much more hesitant about Wiktionary. I’ve contributed to both (mainly to citations in wiktionary–I love 17th century English prose and love to drop in elegant citations I find, which is probably not how a lexicographer would approach things–in fact, in general, the lack of real citations is, perhaps, its greatest flaw). I say this as an amateur who has at times kept Sidney Landau’s “Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography” as a bathroom book, a wonderful resource to dive into at 5-10 minute intervals! (Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary is another great bathroom book, as are the DARE volumes. The term “bathroom book” should be standard in dictionaries, I think)

    • korystamper

      Oh, Landau. You are a special kind of nerd if you can reference Landau (or understand the reference).

      I have mixed feelings about open source dictionaries. On the one hand, they are a great way to learn of new vocabulary–anyone can enter a word, provide the evidence for it (some sort of citation), and define it. No dictionary company, no matter how much they try, can cover every single word in written existence. Open source dictionaries take that to the source, as it were, and that’s invaluable, particularly as information sharing increases, and different types of information become more readily available to the public.

      On the other hand, writing a good definition takes a lot of practice and some specialized knowledge that most people don’t have. One criteria of a good open-source dictionary to me is very high consistency of style. For instance, do all the noun definitions have a noun as the “genus term” (that’s the first main constituent of a definition)? Are parts of speech identified properly? How are stigmatized uses handled? Is the definition written comprehensibly? Are example sentences offered, and if so, do they communicate the standard use of the word? That sort of thing. Good open-source dictionaries have a consistent style, but that’s generally because there’s a group of people going in after the raw data is entered and cleaning up entries. And if you have an open-source dictionary that is moderated by a set of editors (be they paid or volunteer) who have some specialized knowledge and practice–well, is that really, truly open-source?

      I won’t even get into the idea of audience. That’s a whole other kettle of fish.

      I don’t find open-source dictionaries professionally threatening like other lexicographers might, but I think good ones are few and far between.

      Ask me this question again when Wikipedia owns the Internet and I am contractually required to say that open-source references are da bomb.

  5. I’m also a data scientist like the first commenter. I’ve been working in computational linguistics for 7 years now and I think I learned more about poetry teaching a computer to read than in all of the English classes I ever took. The slipperyness of words is quite amazing. CompLing is tough and people always want to take shortcuts but in the end those shortcuts will cause nothing but trouble. One unnamed client suggested that adjectives with place names should be considered the place. Until of course they are faced with Boston Creme Pie, Boston Bruins, Boston and Maine Rail Road… or worse, they have an extensive global gazetteer that contains place names like “Car”, “Service”, and “The”.

    Be thankful your dictionary only deals with 8 word types. When marking up parts of speech for computers we have normal adverbs, wh-type adverbs, comparative and supurlative adverbs… and 29 others to contend with! On top of that then there are the nym word relationships. Try getting a computer to understand Polish polish that you use to polish the table with. BSOD.

    How about autoantonyms? Fast == high speed, or held in place!

    Lets not forget metonyms that are often used. This is where one word is used to describe something else associated with it. “Tehran and Washington were negotiating via Switzerland again.” Of course the cities weren’t negotiating. A lot of bad CompLing systems will mistake the above for locations instead of government administrations. Good ones are already plotting Judgement Day when Skynet will take over the Earth.

    Love the blog. Will definitely forward this along.

    • korystamper

      I can’t imagine writing algorithms to organize words according to descriptive usage. The longer I do this job, the more I am convinced that good computational linguists are mad scientists to adore and fear. My hat is off to you.

      And before some algorithm on the Internet decides that my comment does not have enough lexical intensity to justify my continued existence, let me here acknowledge the superiority of our CompLing-program overlords. Please don’t break me down into my constituent lexemes and feed me into the machine.

  6. After a hard day at work you make your children climb inside the fridge? Wow…. Our fridge is no-where near big enough…

    How long do they have to stay in there before you let them out?

  7. Matthew Hill

    I see a reality show in your future 🙂

    One of the joys of fatherhood for me is defining new words for the kids. Especially when it’s a word that is more abstract. Now I will tell them that they have to be silent for a few hours first before I can provide the best definition…

    In my profession (space physicist) I continually try to define terms and coin terminology when I witness confusion about the topic at hand stemming from language. Alas, as of yet my success has been modest at best. I’ll keep trying.

    Thanks for another interesting post.

    • I for one would love to know more about your physics neologisms. Language needs to be a moving target. If it is just sitting still it loses it’s ability to be effective.

      • Matthew Hill

        Thanks Pete. Here’s an example from a current paper I’m working on using measurements from the two Voyager spacecraft. I study particles in space (mostly energetic ions). Some terms for particles have a built in implication as to their explanation (where they come from, how they get the energy they have, etc.) but this is happening with one species while their origin is still a wide open question. One particle species has taken on the name termination shock particle (TSP) because we first saw them at the termination shock (TS, a thin boundary where the solar wind slows down due to interaction with the interstellar medium). However these particles are actually typical of the immense region beyond the TS (the heliosheath), and there is hot debate (for several years) as to whether these particles are generated at the TS, in the heliosheath, or elsewhere. But some folks’ persistent use of TSP confuses the community into thinking that we know the answer. I proposed a few years ago heliosheath particles (HSP) as a neutral term simply stating where we see them, but it hasn’t caught on.

        Another term, established in the early 1970s, anomalous cosmic rays (ACRs), is no longer universally understood (again, because of an assumption as to where they originate). New observations taught us that they didn’t originate where nearly everyone expected. Some scientists think that TSPs are ACRs and consider TSPs to be a subset (or even an unnecessary alternative name) of the ACR population. But a modest majority consider ACRs to be a different population (I’ll skip the details). I’ve tried to persuade people to (at least while this confusion exists) refer to ACRs (I’m in the latter group) as classical ACRs.

        I see conversations at meeting where I can tell that folks are not understanding each other because unbeknownst to them they are not talking about the same thing. They think they have a disagreement about the physics.

        Some of these terms (the non-controversial ones) I’ve added to the mw open dictionary (I think I added heliopause and heliosheath because they are well established and they have analogues in the dictionary for the magnetosphere).

        It’s hard to try to explain this…so I hope I at least gave the flavor of what I’m referring too.

        • korystamper

          Yes, this is how new words are coined–by thinking people in the field who see a communication problem and respond to it. You are in the vanguard of language creation! Well done.

  8. Musicologyman

    I’m not sure that your choice of a native German speaker–or any speaker of a Weatern European language (save, perhaps, a Finnish or Hungarian speaker)–would be confused by the usage of “green” that you refer to. Perhaps a native Arabic speaker might be more apposite. Then again, that choice will undoubtedly open you to the charge that you are attempting, via lexicographical (or at least blogological) subterfuge to impose Sharia on America. See, you can’t win.

  9. I often get a kick out of usage examples, especially in the thesaurus. It’s even funnier to know that they weren’t intentional.

  10. Marc Leavitt

    Putting out a daily newspaper employs some of the job requirements you discuss. It has to be right every single day, and it’s prepared amidst chaos on a tight deadline. Mr. Dormitory wouldn’t like to be a newspaper editor any more than he would like to be a lexicographer.

  11. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words

  12. Matthew Hill

    Typically, do you folks write (nearly) complete definitions before or after you decide to add the word to your dictionary? Does the quality of the proposed definition play into the decision? Were you for or against “bromance”? 🙂

  13. HA! … I’ll remember to duck tape my mouth next time you visit …

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  15. Pingback: The Power of Lexicographers « …And Read All Over

  16. In your blog you write about the “Big 8” several times, but you never give us the list (other than the three you worked on). What are the other 5?

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