One morning around break time, one of my colleagues passed my cubicle and noticed the look of utter defeat on my face. While this is my default look after 3:00pm, it was still early. He approached with caution. “So,” he murmured, “what’s on the docket for today?”
“Well, first, about five new words, then a bunch of typos. Then the job requests. Then I think I’ll finish up by ruining young minds and destroying Western civilization. Again.”
He peered at my computer screen. “Haven’t you ruined all the young minds already? Oh, well. Carry on, I guess?” And he sauntered back to his cubicle, happy in the knowledge that he did not have to answer the editorial correspondence that day.
For as long as there have been editors making citations, writing definitions, and silently despairing over the quality of the coffee in the office, there has been editorial correspondence. The Merriam brothers welcomed it; by the 1860s, they were running advertisements promising a free dictionary to anyone who wrote in with evidence of a word that was not in Webster’s. Hundreds of letters poured in. Times have changed–we don’t give free dictionaries to correspondents, so don’t even ask–but the editorial correspondence is forever. The notion is a simple one: if you have a question about the English language, you can send it in (on paper or through the magical Internet) and an editor will answer it for you.
The first hitch in this grand plan is what exactly is meant by “the English language.” To me–and perhaps this is narrow-minded of me, since my modus operandi is to, you know, focus on the meanings of words and all–the phrase “the English language” refers to a word, speech pattern, usage, und so weiter that appears in the language commonly called “English.” I have discovered, however, that this is crazy talk. “The English language” means anything that can be written using words that appear in the English language (though those words need not exhibit the grammar, syntax, or spelling we associate with standard English). In my many years answering the correspondence, I’ve been asked what to look for in purchasing an Alaskan Malamute, why manhole covers are round, how much wood a woodchuck can actually and literally chuck, if rain on your wedding day is really ironic if you live in Seattle, and whether I can make a rainbow–and that’s just a sample. (Answers: good blood lines, ease of replacement, 2 cords of wood per day, no, and of course I can.)
The second hitch in this grand plan lies in our response: “an editor will answer it for you.” That’s what’s called a “simple declarative statement” or, if you study it longer, ”idealistic and naive in ways not seen since Eden.” We really do try to answer all intelligible questions we receive. We may not answer them to everyone’s satisfaction, but we answer them. Whether we should is another question.
There are three types of e-mails that we commonly get: Enter My Word Into Your Dictionary; Your Dictionary Sucks; and Hire Me, I’m Amazing. Sometimes people economize and use all three types in one e-mail. (“Hi, I noticed you don’t have my coinage ‘flabulous,’ which means ‘tremendously fat,’ in your dictionary. While looking for my word, I also found a typo in an entry. Your dictionary sucks! Do you need a proofreader? You had better hire me. Here’s my resume. I look forward to being your boss.”)
Enter My Word Into Your Dictionary is fairly self-explanatory. These people get my thanks for their intrepid new coinage and an explanation of how a word makes it into the dictionary. If they write back and say, “Yeah, wevs, are you going to enter it or not??” then I usually respond with a little terse note asking them to read the delightful essay we’ve written on this very goddamned subject. Some people persist and think that simply by pointing out the empirical awesomeness of their word, I will come to my senses, delete all the other words in the dictionary, and just print their coinage over and over again as a paean to its sublimity. Haha! Silly correspondent! I am a lexicographer and therefore do not have any grasp on what is awesome, empirically or otherwise.
Your Dictionary Sucks has the most variety and encompasses everything from very polite and apologetic typo reports to flat-out abuse of our products, our persons, and our hygiene. But all of them are marked by one underlying attitude: I can’t believe this is wrong because you are the dictionary!
It always comes as a shock to our correspondents that the dictionary is not a book most holy and inviolate, delivered unto us from On High, verily divine. It is written by real, live, completely fallible human beings. These human beings have been known, while proofreading 2,000 pages of 4-point type, to miss a thing or two. There is no need to panic: the English language is not falling all to hell simply because I yawned at 6:00pm two days before the manuscript had to be at the typesetter’s and therefore missed “falllible.”
For those clamoring for computers to take lexicography over, please know that I spent a solid week many years ago hunting down all the programmatic misexpansions of “G” into “German” in the etymologies of the online dictionary (“Germanlobal Positioning System” was my favorite).
There’s a particularly draining variant of Your Dictionary Sucks that appears with regularity: Your Dictionary Is Ruining Young Minds. This is the catty, litigious aunt of Your Dictionary Sucks. It’s generally better spoken than Your Dictionary Sucks, knows more lawyers than Your Dictionary Sucks, and does not care at all what you have to say in your defense because it knows what is best.
Now, I have no problem with people thinking that the dictionary is ruining young minds (as I have so ably demonstrated previously). But at the root of these e-mails is a basic philosophical misunderstanding.
You see, lexicographers are interested in what is generally called “lexical defining.” That is, we aim to figure out and communicate how a word is used and what it means in a particular context. However, many people assume that the dictionary does “real defining”: the attempt to describe, to the best of one’s ability, the essential nature or identity of the person, thing, or idea behind the word. Real defining asks, “What is truth?” or “What is beauty?” Lexical defining asks, “How is the word ‘truth’ used in this particular context?” or “What does ‘beauty’ mean when it’s used this way?”
Some think this is ludicrous hair-splitting or blame-shifting. It’s not. This distinction has very practical applications for the definer. Let me give you an example.
Every year on one mid-May Monday, I open my e-mail program and see a number of angry e-mails that read like this:
“My Sunday school class was working on a Mother’s Day present, and we decided to look up ‘mother’ in your dictionary to find words we could use to describe how wonderful mothers are. You can imagine how shocked/upset/horrified I was to see such terrible language in the dictionary! This is a TERRIBLE way to define a mother! Mothers are kind and generous and loving, and THAT SORT OF LANGUAGE IS RUINING YOUNG MINDS.”
The correspondent has confused real defining (what mothers are) with lexical defining (how the word “mother” is used). The word “mother” is, in some contexts, used to mean “motherfucker,” as anyone over the age of 9 who has ever watched television will (gigglingly) tell you. What we are not saying is that mothers are mofos, though I’m sure some of them are.
Few correspondents, when worked up to that level of indignation, will blithely accept the “real defining vs. lexical defining” response I send them. So they write back and tell me that, unless I remove this egregious entry from the dictionary and replace it with something that would not make my mother ashamed of me, they will boycott us.
I know better than anyone that the dictionary includes words in it that describe horrible, despicable things. After all, I get to read the citational evidence for those words and write definitions for them. But removing an offending word from the dictionary will not make the thing that word describes disappear. If it were that easy, don’t you think we’d already have done it?
Additionally, I learned that sort of language from my mother.
There is something that is a little unsettling about the correspondence. Despite the fact that I am an unabashed language ho, I have never, ever, thought, “Hmm, why do we park on the driveway and drive on the parkway? I think I’ll hunt down the address for the dictionary and ask them!” Nor have I ever thought, “You know, English is terribly sexist! I think I’ll tell the dictionary to fix that!” And I’ve certainly never thought, “The lawyer said that what I did constitutes felony assault, but he’s just a guy with a $100 haircut and a law degree. What does he know? I think I’ll ask the dictionary to tell me if what I did was really a felony or not!” But there are lots of people in the world who think that this is just fine. I don’t get it–and I am, let us remember, not exactly what you’d call “well-adjusted.”
Correspondence is one of those “other duties as assigned” that no lexicographer thinks too much of until they are drafted into it. It doesn’t take many letters to learn that people don’t have a very good grasp on what the dictionary can and can’t do. You learn right away that people are passionate about language. How can a person not be? It’s the primary mode of communication in our world, the thing underpinning society itself, the means by which we express our very souls, and here is some dictionary totally fucking it up.
If you step back from the inbox full of screeching and look at the correspondence that way, it’s almost hopeful. It means that people are thinking about language, which is ultimately what we want people to do. That thought is almost enough to warm the lump of bituminous coal where my heart used to be.
Correctly spelling your angry screed and refraining from calling me “Satan’s housemaid” helps, too.