“God,” Guns, and Group Defining

When people want to make small talk with me—before they realize that I am terrible at it and not worth the time and effort—they will ask what I do, and then sometimes respond with, “So, you pretty much know everything, right?”

I have just taken to smiling wearily and saying, “Yes, I know everything.” I have teenagers, and often enough they are happy to disabuse those people of this asinine notion.

No one knows everything, and lexicographers are just like the rest of humanity (only slightly quieter and perhaps a little more openly deranged). There you are as a lexicographer, minding your own business with “harpy,” when you scan downscreen to your next word and encounter “harquebus” in all its Francophonic glory. You flip through your mental card catalog of Words I Have Seen, find the one labeled “harquebus,” and find your memory has only written, “from a novel, maybe Count of Monte Cristo? Is that a novel? SEE ALSO: sandwiches I have loved.”

Fortunately, the lexicographer doesn’t have to rely on this mental catalog. The lexicographer relies on citations. But what do you do when the citations are less than helpful? Here, for instance, the citations are all variants on “She pulled a harquebus from her corset/stomacher/stocking and shot him dead,” which gives you nothing besides a genus term for your definition (“a gun”) and a ten-minute respite as you ponder whether a gun would even fit inside a corset—or good Lord, a stocking, wouldn’t stockings fall down or even tear under the weight of a what’s-a-hoozy—harquebus? And why are heroines in these novels always pulling weapons from their underwear, anyway?

You return to the citations with a sigh and a determination to carefully study the cover of the next trashy novel you see, just to observe whether the buxom, swooning lass’s dress has pockets in it or not.

The problem with “harquebus” is not just that the citations are maddeningly vague and all pulled from Harlequin novels. The fact is that the word “harquebus” refers to a very specific thing, and you need to know a bit about the thing “harquebus” in order to define the word “harquebus.” Or, at the very least, you need to know enough about the thing to know whether these particular uses for the thing are valid.

You do not know that. But fortunately, there’s a guy on the editorial floor with a thing for Renaissance-era weaponry, and he will know.

You know he knows because of a précis of wonder and beauty: the Specialized Subjects list. This is a document that tells you everything that every editor on the floor knows. It is full of surprises and is one of the best ways to get to know your co-workers without having to actually talk to them. Of course the senior etymologist “has at least superficial familiarity with most European languages, best within Slavic, Celtic, and Germanic,” but did you know that he also is  a mushroom-picking philatelist? Likewise, our French editor is a weapons enthusiast. The quiet health nut, it turns out, loves cigars. I know about the 9th-century Latin Mass, knitting, and muscle cars.

The list is handy for general definers who are stuck with “hot rod,” but it’s also handy for the Director of Defining, who uses it when a group of words (say, music theory terms) should be defined by someone with superior knowledge of the subject. Welcome to “group defining,” the ever-deepening hole into which you daily and hourly dig yourself by proclaiming that you have any knowledge of any subject whatsoever. For the new Unabridged Dictionary, I have been given, as a group definer, all the religion terms. This is what an interdisciplinary degree and a penchant for reading and marking books like “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” will get you: a batch for revision that is about 10,000 entries long. (I’m one-sixth of the way through and am currently stuck on the entry for “god.” See you in whichever afterlife destination you feel like condemning me to.)

There is something very tricky about group defining, because that is where you find yourself balancing the thing-ness and the word-ness of a definition. A harquebus, as I have learned from the guy with a thing for Renaissance-era weaponry, is a matchlock gun that is heavy enough that it was usually fired from a support. Those characteristics are what distinguish a harquebus from a blunderbuss, which was “probably a better choice for stuffing into a corset,” says my colleague. The distinguishing characteristics of a harquebus therefore belong in the definition for “harquebus,” even if the batch of citations I have at hand don’t mention any of them. The group definer has specialized knowledge, as well as a whole raft of odd books they can plunder for citations so our formal evidence matches up with reality.

But even a good raft of odd books can’t catch everything. I spent about two weeks revising three related theology entries because each of those words was used, for quite a long time, very deliberately incorrectly. They were employed by one side of a theological argument as rhetoric and epithets to discredit the legitimacy of the other side. It’s as if the whole early Christian church was at a hockey game together and someone started a “Monophysites suck” chant that went on for roughly 1,000 years. But if you aren’t someone who knows about the initial theological brouhaha and the way it resonated through the Middle Ages–perhaps because you never had to write a paper on the Nestorian and Eutychean controversies, because you chose a better degree than I did–you wouldn’t know that was the case.

Lexicographers talk with a sort of heavy-breathing fetishism about the corpus, the citations, the data. It will give us all the answers. But every corpus in the world has holes in it, limitations. That’s part of why a good dictionary is compiled by people–living, breathing, awkward people who can look through that corpus, give advice, and do some citational spackling based on the knowledge and experience they gleaned from outside the office. Lexicographers may throw around the size of their corpus, but it’s the people sifting painstakingly through that corpus, like archaeologists weighing potsherds, that make all the difference.

When my children were little, they learned that the word “wedgie” referred to “the condition of having one’s clothing wedged between the buttocks,” as the Collegiate so toffishly puts it. They were absolutely ecstatic: here was a word for this thing that happened to them pretty much constantly! And it was a good word, too, a word that had great screechability and ended in a long-e for maximum sustain. Best of all, it had to do with butts. For about three days, both the six-year-old and the two-year-old hollered the word “wedgie” constantly.

Now, like most parents with young children, my husband and I were desperate for some little veil of ivoried respectability to drape over this big, nekkid waller of parenthood that was so often punctuated (primarily in public spaces, usually with a finger or two up a nostril) with “MAMA! I HAVE A WEDGIE!” So I told my kids not to call it a “wedgie”—I told them to call it “an issue.”

They did, for many years. And while people may have cocked their heads to hear a worried-looking preschooler say, “Mama, I have an issue,” the veil of respectability slid artfully into place. For a while.

The day soon came when both my children learned that when other people use the word “issue,” they are not referring to wedgies. They are referring to vital and unsettled matters that generally require discussion.

“Yes,” I answered, as my eldest explained this to me in tones of deep-purple mistrust, “but isn’t a wedgie basically the same thing in our house? Besides, no one else knew what we were talking about. They thought that you were just deeply interested in the election.”

She frowned so deeply that the tip of her nose met her eyebrows. “But you write dictionaries: you knew it wasn’t like that in the real world.”

It’s a refrain I call to mind every time I read endless citations for “god” that use the word vaguely at best, and it is my mumbled offering of thanks for a team of editors who have wide, varied experiences and specialties I can draw on when the citations leave me hanging. When people come to the dictionary and look up a word like “harquebus” they expect you to give them the definition from the real world: the world where women don’t stuff a gun the size of a musket into their corsets, no matter what the citations tell you; the world where “Monophysite” is not a politicized slur; the world where a wedgie is a wedgie.


Filed under lexicography, making word sausage

23 responses to ““God,” Guns, and Group Defining

  1. I’m not sure what it says about me that I laughed out loud, more than once, while reading an article about the process of defining a word. I do know that, a) my wife would not be surprised, and b) Kory Stamper is a remarkably witty (and erudite) woman!

  2. Fade Manley

    Perhaps the women in question had exceptionally large and robust corsets? Suitable for use as support for firing such a thing!

  3. Perhaps there are enough of those Harlequins now that an additional definition of “harquebus” is in order, something like “In fiction a small gun suitable for personal defense generally carried within a woman’s unmentionables.”

    Another useful quotation from the Doctor: “He who would take all of knowledge as his province must frequently write of what he does not understand.”

    A decade or so ago, I was speculating in an email on why the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches on the one hand, and the Catholic and Assyrian churches on the other, are moving only glacially towards intercommunion. I said something like this:

    The gap between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches is not so large, but perhaps each is reluctant to tie itself to the ends of a long stick to which the Assyrian Church of the East and Oriental Orthodoxy have been tied for most of the last two millennia, permanently out of each others’ reach, but endlessly shouting “Monophysite dog!” and “Nestorian pig!” at each other.

    (The O.O.s claim that “monophysite” does not properly describe their Christology, which they call “monothelite”; the Assyrians honor St. Nestorius but deny that what the West calls “Nestorianism” characterizes their Christology — which is not only difficult, but written in Aramaic to boot — properly either.)

  4. nancylebovitz

    For what it’s worth, I saw harquebus and thought that it was probably a variant spelling for arquebus, but isn’t that a sort of crossbow?

    I was probably think of arbalest.

  5. marc leavitt

    Better than figgy pudding!

  6. Pingback: Weekly Linkroll « M. Fenn

  7. Ø

    When I saw your phrase “group defining”, I thought it was going to be about definitions written by committee, or by one of those basement cabals that came up in another recent post. Implausible, I know, but sometimes we outsiders forget for a moment that you lexicographers are such solitary creatures.

  8. Hank G.

    Somehow it seems entirely appropriate and karmic that the children of a lexicographer would suffer from wedgies, even if they are not the kind imposed by others.

  9. Thank goodness for lexicographers. When I don’t know the meaning of a word, I look it up in a, you know, dictionary. 🙂

  10. Ø

    I’m not sure what Hank G. is getting at, but I think that “cuneiform problem” might have done very well as a euphemism for “wedgie” in your family, Kory.

    • Hank Gillette

      I was trying to whimsically suggest that a lexicographer is the ultimate nerd (speaking as a nerd myself) and since nerds are subject to receiving wedgies, of course the children of an ultimate nerd would be prone to getting wedgies. However, since I had to explain, I failed. No offense intended.

  11. Aha, I can ask this question (which came up in the LH thread linked by ) of an actual lexicographer! This nGram strongly suggests the form without h- is considerably more common in both US and UK English, which raises the question: why do US dictionaries have the entry form with h-?

    • (Oops, that should be “linked by Ø” — I didn’t mean to leave the empty set quite so empty.)

      • korystamper

        For a really boring, plain-vanilla reason: “harquebus” still has plenty of usage in current English prose.Our in-house corpus shows a 2:1 preference (looking at current and historical usage) for “arquebus,” but we’ve got substantial enough use of “harquebus” to enter it as a variant spelling in the Collegiate.

        Interestingly, COCA gives more hits for “harquebus” than they do for “arquebus,” which makes me wonder if the spelling preference is slowly shifting. (Given how often you see “harquebus” in print compared to, say, “gun,” it’s going to be a veeeeeeeeery slow shift if it’s happening at all.)

        • Thanks! As an etymologist manqué, of course I’m rooting for “harquebus.”

        • I guess the NRA will insist they need to use the correct spelling when banning them harquebuses. Or they would overdramatize the case and try to stage a “harquebus boycott”.
          Love your writing. As a non-native indulging in English (dictionaries) it’s a genuine joy to see the language used so beautifully. It’s also interesting to compare English, German and French ways of language care and hygiene.

  12. at university i read zoology….my weary smile is followed by, ‘yes, i know how to run a zoo…’

  13. Basil Nestor

    Cupla thoughts bout your essay… You write extremely well, so I doubt that making small talk with you is “not worth the time and effort”. Indeed, I bet your husband and kids both treasure and (occasionally) curse your wit. I just saw your video for “irregardless” today. Had no idea who Kory Stamper was until that moment, but instantly realized what the bosses at MW clearly already know… that they stumbled onto a goldmine. You’re a brand. The MW bosses have a celebrity employed for (I suppose) a regular editor’s salary. If that’s the case, you deserve a raise. Well… I’m way beyond a cupla thoughts, so I’ll close with these… (1) I’m a writer, and for the first time in a long time, I’m a bit self-conscious. You’re probably judging me for using slang like “cupla”. (2) “Irregardless” may be a word, but my MS Word program stubbornly insists on redlining it as a word misspelled, and keeps trying to make me change it to “regardless”. Irregardless, I’m so glad to have discovered you. Happy Holidays!

  14. citational spackling, Lovely, so lovely I think I will try it myself.

    Just browsing your interesting thoughts. Thanks


  15. issue…”They are referring to vital and unsettled matters that generally require discussion.” LOVE THIS. I would never have been able to define “issue” this well! ha ha ha. so clever. enjoyed the post!

  16. “She frowned so deeply that the tip of her nose met her eyebrows.”
    I have laughed for a long time over that description. It still makes me chuckle.

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