Category Archives: making word sausage

Repossession: Reclaimed Slurs and Lexicography

[Ed. note: this post contains language that is considered extremely inflammatory. Caveat lector.]

People forward language articles to me all the time–usually the same article multiple times, until my inbox is nothing but language links and plaintive requests from to buy more booze, please. But no one forwarded me Talib Kweli’s recent Medium post on language, probably because it was about the history and uses of the word “nigger.” I asked one of my frequent-forwarders if he had seen the post. “I had,” he wrote, “but I figured you’d have already seen it. I was not going to be the one to forward you a post on the n-word.”

The n-word. I think about slurs on a regular basis, in part because I have to explain to people why they’re entered in some of their dictionaries. It’s not unusual for me to open my email in the morning and see a message with the subject “NIGGER”; after a decade of answering these emails, I still wince when I see the subject line, stark in black and white. Continue reading


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The Times, They Are A-Changing (And So Should Your Dictionary)

I was on an airplane heading to Georgia for a conference when I got into my usual “take my mind off the possibility this plane will suddenly plummet from the sky” conversation with my seatmate. Talk turned to dictionaries, and my seatmate began heaping praise on her old one. She had, she told me proudly, a Webster’s Second, and there was no way in heaven or on earth she was going to give it up for one of those silly modern dictionaries. “My son keeps trying to get me to use a dictionary on my phone, but I tell him, ‘Those new dictionaries aren’t the same quality as the one I have at home.'”

I opened my mouth to say that, nice though the definitions in the Second are, they are almost 80 years out of date, when the supercell we were flying past let out a little meteorological burp and the plane flew right through it. I am not entirely sure, but I believe we may have flipped over several times, and I am certain that the sound that came out of my mouth was not a spirited defense of the modern dictionary (though it was certainly “spirited” in the “possessed by banshees” sense). Our bounce through North Carolina airspace lasted only ten seconds, and afterwards my seatmate excused herself to the lavatory, so our conversation was over.

Had the conversation continued, I would have said this: old dictionaries are nostalgia bombs in more ways than one. The heft of the Second and the Third are glorious: tooled leather and gold-leaf embossing, that powdery vanilla smell of old paper as you smooth the pages back. Then you see this: Continue reading


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“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. Continue reading


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Seeing Cerise: Defining Colors in Webster’s Third

When you spend all your time in a book, you think you know it. All the editors at Merriam-Webster know the Third, but now that we’re undertaking a revision of the beast, we’re ears-deep in it, drowning in stuffy single-statement definitions. Each of us breathes a bit shallower when we start futzing around with Philip Babcock Gove’s defining style, waiting for his ghost to dock our pay or perhaps cuff us upside the head as we sully his great work. Add to this the fact that, it’s true, familiarity does breed contempt. At least once a batch, I look at a perfectly constructed definition, accurate and dispassionate to the point of inhumanity, and wish I could add a wildly inappropriate example sentence just to liven things up a bit, like <Doctors suggest you eat kale until your pee is neon green with excess micronutrients.> So you may understand why, while I was slogging my way through a B batch, I was delighted to run across this:

begonia n3 : a deep pink that is bluer, lighter, and stronger than average coral (sense 3b), bluer than fiesta, and bluer and stronger than sweet william — called also gaiety Continue reading


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Assembling the Treasury, Wordhoard, Synonymicon, Thesaurus

All lexicographers, regardless of where on the prescriptivist/descriptivist spectrum they fall, like to tell you they are totally objective when writing their dictionaries. They get worked up into a veritable froth if you suggest otherwise, maybe even raising their voices to conversational levels and daring to make eye contact when they tell you that you are utterly wrong. Lexicography’s underlying tenet is complete objectivity! Get thee behind me, John Dryden!

Notice how they conveniently fail to talk about thesauruses when objectivity comes up.

Unlike dictionaries, there is no one approach to compiling a thesaurus, no Unified Theory of Synonyms. The main goal that all of them have is to present an entry word and a group of words related to that entry word, but how those words are specifically related to the entry–and how they are presented–is varied, to say the least. Continue reading


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The Impossible Task: Cross-Referencing the Unabridged

As I mentioned on the Twit Machine recently, I have been working on a very exciting project: a new edition of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.

“About frickin’ time!” fans of the Third hollered in one thunderous voice, and with good reason: the Third was released in 1961. It has been updated by means of an Addenda Section once every seven or so years, but an A-Z revision has been long overdue. We will be the first people to tell you that, longingly, as we peer out from underneath the production schedule.

And so we’ve begun the long, slow work of revising and updating. There is a stately surrealism to stripping down and refurbishing of one of America’s most celebrated and controversial dictionaries, kind of like taking the Pope underwear-shopping. When you get right down to it, you are left there in your small mortality, looking at the boxer-briefs of something that has been revered and hallowed for longer than you’ve been on this earth, and that is unsettling.

Nonetheless, here I am, staring intently at the varicosities of the Third and doing my best to patch them up. Continue reading


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“Take”: My Life? (Please.)

We had finally finished the never-ending slog through S. You’re always relieved to be done with S–it is both the longest letter in the dictionary and the harbinger of the end of your project. After S, it’s a downhill glide to Z (with a small bump at W), so when you sign in that final S batch, you are giddy. Lexicographers have not adapted to survive extended periods of giddiness. In the face of such woozy delight, the chances are good that you will do something rash and brainless.

It took me a few minutes of flipping through the galleys of my next batch before I realized my rash brainlessness: I signed out “take.” But the rush of giddiness had done permanent damage: I didn’t trot the batch back to the galley table and sign something else out.

There are eight (sometimes nine) verbs that get pulled from most defining projects and given to senior editors, and “take” is one of them. As is the way in lexicography, the simplest words are often the hardest to define, and the Big 8 are hard six ways to Sunday: they’re used in phrasal verbs, idioms, collocations, with multiple parts of speech, and in ways that can be hard to define lexically. Handling them requires the balance of concision, grammatical prowess, and fortitude usually found in wiser and more experienced editors. Continue reading


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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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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.) Continue reading


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Unreading: Citations, Corpora, and Craziness

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.” Continue reading


Filed under famous lexicographers, lexicography, making word sausage