licking lexicogriphobia

I used to pay attention to sports. Prior to living in Connecticut I loved baseball. Our street was quiet enough that in the evenings we could play stick ball right out in the front yard and on the street without too many interruptions from cars. Just like the pros hitting a home run meant hitting it over the fence. Of course in our case it was the fence of our neighbors across the street. Stick ball was much more interesting that baseball because there were some considerable technique changes when your bat is uneven. This made the game much more fun.

My lawn mowing money in those days went to baseball cards and even the kids’ club of the local team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Joining that club meant I’d get regular mail once a month in the mailbox while the season was going just like an adult. Getting something in the mail always feels good. Dodgers games would come on the TV and dutifully plan our day to make sure we could sit and watch. When they’d call a player to bat I’d look through my humble stack of baseball cards to see what a player’s stats were. I didn’t really understand how they were calculated, but I knew some numbers were better than others.

Then there was a strike and the sport I love wasn’t as important. If the pros didn’t see why they loved the game, why should I? In addition we moved and were trapped between Yankee and Red Sox territory. Scared that my nonexistent popularity would decrease further if I picked the wrong camp to join, I didn’t join any camp. To this day I don’t know sports players as well as most of the people I’ve worked with. I don’t have a favorite pitcher in base ball, quarter back in football, winger in hockey, forward in soccer, or bowler in cricket. But I do have a favorite lexicographer.

Yes, I have a favorite lexicographer.

In short a Lexicographer is someone who puts the words in the dictionary.

One might think that before selecting my favorite of anything I would come up with complex metrics like they do in the sports area and develop stats for each potential candidate. I did consider this as a method, but I didn’t know how to evaluate the degree of difficutly in conjunction with numbers of words. For example, a word like gongoozle only has one meaning. Adding that to the dictionary is rather simple.

Gongoozle verb

1. to stare at the activity in a canal

Ah, but try being the lexicographer who unluckily has to update the entry on the word keep which already has approximately 60 entries in the dictionary. As a lexicographer you’d have to verify each one of those existing meanings to ensure they’re current and also look for any new uses of the word. This significantly increases the level of difficulty, and while I could have come up with complex formulas and put them in a spreadsheet to narrow a pool of lexicographers down to only one it just seemed like too much effort, besides I’m sure they’d prefer not to be rushed in the process.

In order to become my favorite in this area one doesn’t have to be on the road to the hall of fame among the Dictionary Society of North America (DSNA). It’s not a contest, it’s just what I get to choose. At the time of writing this chapter my favorite lexicographer is Erin McKean. She’s a darling lady who took the time to write a couple of books and record a few TED talks on the subject of lexicography. She’s the one that helped expose a fascinating field of interest that I was able to bring into my life. She’s publicly stated that she wants to “help make every word in the English language ‘lookupable’ – including the 52% of unique English words that aren’t currently in any dictionary.” Certainly a noble goal, because those obscure words are simply delightful.

One of the most beautiful things about selecting a favorite lexicographer over a favorite football player is that there’s really no hall of fame or Heisman Trophy competition with statistics for anyone to dispute your claim. You just pick a favorite and that’s your favorite. As long as you can explain why, you’re good to go. Although it’s still a bit of a shame that there isn’t a Nobel Prize for lexicography. It might help more people be aware of the vital part of our society these people play and to appreciate them more.

One might imagine from my description of a lexicographer above that these good people sit around all day dreaming up words to force us to use. The reality is quite the opposite. Language is much more federated and dynamic than it is hierarchical. Most things are created when there’s a need. The same is true with words. When there is a need a word is invented. But a word invented for the use of one person doesn’t mean the word gets added to the language. Others have to approve and adopt the word as well. Lexicographers are the archaeologists searching out the use of these words in context to communicate their meaning to a broader audience.

You can imagine how with today’s technology language is changing meaning faster than it ever has before. Let’s take a look at a rather humble word, Priority. For the first 500 years of its existence it was a singular word.1 Think of it’s original meaning as first thing. Then in the 1900’s it got pluralized. An s was added to the end and now there were multiple first things. We had multiple priorities. Once you have multiple priorities there must be a verb to organize them. Thus in 1972 during a televised presidential debate2 one of the candidate introduced the word prioritize to the audience. Now we had a name for the verb that means to organize a list based upon importance. Its quick adoption by many who watched gave lexicographers plenty of artifacts to enable them to understand its meaning and add it to the dictionary.

How interesting that for the first 500 years this word had only one entry in the dictionary and no conjugation. This means that if you were to use priority everyone understood its meaning. There would be no discussion about the context of the word. In could express a singular thought beautifully. Words with multiple definitions can lead to some interesting discussions, especially in a court of law were definitions of things matter significantly. There was another time in the 1990s when a president responded to a question one day with the reply “it depends on what the meaning of the word is, is.3

Interestingly enough, there’s only one definition for is in the dictionary, but there are 7 definitions for the verb to-be.

Governments, while well intentioned, aren’t always run by the most ideal people. So, instead of functioning as the society’s operating system they tend to operate with the interests of the government in mind.

Government education generally carries with it certain traits. One, the history books they purchased by the governement tend to focus on the government’s history instead of the history of the people. Two they see everything as geography based. Three they introduce jobs that tend to have heavy ties to the government. Ask a group of students in elementary school what they want to be when they grow up and you’ll get a bunch of firemen, police men, teachers, lawyers, astronauts, and doctors. Every one of those industries is heavily involved or subsidized through the government. I’m probably a little more sensitive to this issue than most parents, but there is a part of what my kids were being exposed to at school that seemed nothing more than a marketing campaign for public sector jobs.

So, I decided to do something about it.

Right around the same time that I learned about lexicography and Erin McKean was precisely the same time my second son was getting asked what he wanted to be when when he grew up, at school. So I trained him that if he ever gets asked that question he should respond with ‘I want to be a Lexicographer.’ Then explain that it’s the person who puts words in the dictionary. I then went the next layer knowing that my son would probably get asked what his favorite word was, I proceeded to teach him the word absquatulate.

The word means, to leave quickly. And so, to avoid making this any more political than necessary we should quickly leave this post.


Word by Word Book Review

When I retired from the Army I did so with very little fan fare.  My boss at the time asked me how we could celebrate my departure and if I wanted anything.  In my last few months in the building one of my activities was to rummage through lesser used portions of our office space and clean up the clutter.  One item in the clutter was a 1980’s printing of Webster’s 3rd Unabridged, A Dictionary.

I told my boss that I’d just like to take the dictionary with me and if folks wanted to write nice things on the inside couple of pages, I’d be happy as a clam.  They did, and I have very lovely sentiments on the inside few pages.

20 years in the military.  2 deployments to Iraq.  One deployment to Afghanistan.  Retirement, and I chose the dictionary.

Why?  Because I love words and the process of how they’re created and added to the language.  So, when my favorite language podcast (yes there is such a thing) featured an interview with a lexicographer, I pay attention, add the lexicographer’s book to my Audible wish list, and only just recently got to listening and finishing the book.

Wow!  What a book!

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper is an excellently narrated look at the way dictionaries are created, the controversies created by the results of their formulaic methodology, and the struggle to adapt a company to the digital age.

Calling it the Secret Life of Dictionaries is just about the most perfect name for it because the author truly exposes the system behind how these words got there!  Kory’s telling (she narrates the audio book herself) carries all the excitement and passion of someone who truly loves words and their creation.  I was doubly thankful that she narrated the book herself because the sections on pronunciation of certain sounds would not be the same had they hired out the talent.  There are some real humdingers in the text!

black and white book business close up

Kory manages to successfully navigate the reader through the subject matter with grace and encourage increased curiosity.  Many books of this subject matter or this size tend to expose the author’s laziness in writing, but Kory overcomes these with style.  Her writing was so successful that now the people I work with (I was only technically retired for three days before I started my next job) consider me even weirder than I was already.  Why?  Because I was so engaged with the book that I wanted to share?  Isn’t that just human nature?

When I shared what I was learning with my coworkers their facial expressions were priceless.  I think I’ve had more than a dozen conversations with coworkers that have gone along the lines of…

Tom, I’m reading a new book on how dictionaries are created and did you know there’s a word for that familiarity you have with a language?  It’s called Sprachgefühl.  It comes from German and it’s pretty neat that we’ve adopted it into.. [interrupted]

Wait a second!  Did you say you’re reading a book about how dictionaries are created? [facepalm]

Yes, and it’s fascinating.  Did you know that irregardless is actually a word that’s been in use since the 1700’s?  Ravel, and unravel mean the same thing!  Who knew, right?

I’m no where near close to losing my job over this, but there has been talk in the office suggesting that something must be wrong with me because I fell in love with a book about dictionaries.  It’s not my fault that when I was interviewed for my current position they never asked me what the last job gave me for a parting gift.  If they had, I would have told them.  We could have gotten this out in the open months ago.

Kory’s book warrants addition to the list of books I’d recommend to my mother, and if I’m going to recommend it to my mom, I think it’s safe to recommend it to the fair readers of this blog.  Although, I will warn my mother that her sensitivities to the less than polite words might be triggered as Kory is more free with her vernacular than my mother may be used to.  Still, I did not find the language overly aggressive or inappropriate.  It does figure that someone who is as familiar with words as a lexicographer is entitled to freely use all the words she’s had to define over the years.

abstract board game bundle business

None of this curiosity would have been possible without something snapping a few years ago when I started noticing there was a world of systems around me that had been virtually invisible.  Exploring those systems has increased my gratitude and my understanding tremendously.  Thank you, Mrs. Stamper, for sharing the system that has lead to a new appreciation for the very words I use to dress my thoughts and their shared meaning that we capture like butterflies and place gently into the dictionary.