Category Archives: lexicography

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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A Letter to a Prospective Lexicographer

We regularly receive letters from people who want an editorial job at M-W and ask for more information on lexicography. It’s my job to answer those letters. Here is the response I wish I could send.

Thank you for your interest in becoming an editor at Merriam-Webster.  I am happy to share some information on the field of lexicography with you.

There are only three formal requirements for becoming a Merriam-Webster editor. First, we respectfully ask that you be a native speaker of English. I think I should break this to you now, before you begin shopping for tweeds and practicing your “tally ho what”: we focus primarily on American English. It’s not that we don’t like British English and its speakers. Indeed, we have an instinctual, deep love for any people who, upon encountering a steamed pudding with currants in it for the first time, thought, “The name of this shall be ‘Spotted Dick’.” But since we are the oldest American dictionary company around, and we are located in a particularly American part of the world, we feel it’s best to play to our strengths. 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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The Art of Conversation and Falling in Love: A Lexicographer’s Journey into Talking

The stool was a bit too high, the headphones were a bit too big, and the volume was a bit too loud. The host turned to me and said, “Okay, on in 30. We’ll have about three minutes. Are you ready?”

“You bet.”

“Just be yourself, this’ll be great.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, mentally reviewing some of the noteworthy words we had just entered into that year’s update of the Collegiate Dictionary— “SARS,” “convergence,” “gastric bypass,” “blog,” “pop-up,” “psyops.”

When the radio station came back from commercial, the host turned to his mic, introduced me as an editor from Merriam-Webster, and began our conversation on important new words with, “I’m looking at your list of new entries for this edition, and the one that really caught my eye was ‘bikini wax’!”

The co-hostess piped up. “Did you have to do field research on this? I mean, did you all go out and get bikini waxes?!”

“Now THAT is job dedication!” the host hee-hawed.

In the microsecond before my brain cobbled together a vaguely coherent reply and sent it down the answer-chute, where it would fall out of my already-open mouth, I thought, “No wonder no one else volunteers to talk to the public.” 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

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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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