Category Archives: general

Dear Merriam-Webster

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. Continue reading

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Filed under correspondence, general

F-Bombs Away! Obscene Words and Your Dictionary

Ed. note: This post is full of words that may, as we say in the office, “offend the tender sensibilities” of some. Caveat lector.

The first thing you cover in Style and Defining class is that any word that meets the three criteria for entry (widespread edited use, sustained usage over a certain period of time, and lexical value) is eligible for entry. From your first moments as a lexicographer to your last, this is the core rationale for everything you do. It is the rule which underlies the work of any descriptivist lexicographer; the practical extension of our defining philosophy; and the mechanism by which we attend to this noble calling in the service of education, literacy,  language.

That said, you will still be flustered the first time you dip into your defining batch and pull out a handful of citations for “fuckwad.” Continue reading

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Filed under general, lexicography, making word sausage

The Contractually Obligated Post of the Year

The beginning of January is one long, exhausted sigh around here.  We’ve endured months of anticipation accompanied by fervent requests and hints; the news outlets just won’t shut up about the season; and it all culminates in one frenzied evening of eating, yelling, and flying paper. In the morning, you feel bloated and vaguely hungover. Looking at the detritus of the night before, you are filled with self-loathing and weltschmerz. You vow not to do this again next year, but even as the thought finishes sludging its way through your aching head (which you are slowly and deeply rubbing, as if physically reconfiguring your gray matter is the only thing that can help you now), you hear the lie of it. This happens every year.  You let this happen every year. You’d cry if you had any dignity left. As it is, all you can do is moan:

“Goddamned Word of the Year.” Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Filed under general, lexicography