Word by Word |
The Secret Life of Dictionaries
Kory Stamper
Ms Stamper tells us she is a and reminds us that Samuel Johnson defined a lexicographer as "a harmless drudge." She is also a very opinionated lexicographer, and no stuffed shirt. But she is careful, which, we would guess, must one day be graved on her headstone stone.

For instance, when she worked on Merriam-Webster's revision of the Collegiate eleventh edition, she is charged by the editors to start working on the letter T. And hen she looks at the galleys - - - two boxes of citations - - - she finds that her batch, "the entire thing was just one word: 'take.'" Two boxes? "The smaller and more commonly used the word is, the more difficult it is to define.

    Words like "but," "as," and "for" have plenty of uses that are syntactically similar but not identical. Verbs like "go" and "do" and "make" and, yes, "take") don't just have semantically oozy uses that require careful definition, but semantically drippy uses as well. "Let's do dinner" and "let's do laundry" are identical syntactically but feature very different semantic meanings of "do." And how do you describe what the word "how" is doing in this sentence?

"It's not just semantic fiddliness that causes lexicographical pain. Some words like 'the' and 'a,' are so small that we barely think of them as words . . . A search for 'the' in our in-house citation database returns over one million hits, which sends the lexicographer into fits of audible swearing, then weeping."

For those of us who use, fondle, and love words - - - especially the very weird collection that came down to us as "English" - - - we find ourselves reveling in books like this. When we reviewed Oxford's The Meaning Of Everything - - - The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, we wrote

    Simon Winchester has given us a smasher here. Who would ever, in their right mind, think that the history of the 54 years it took them to create the first Oxford English Dictionary would be such a treat? We're talking of a delightful précis of a project of lifetimes, where several of the editors up and died before their work was done.

And when we chanced on John Simpson's The Word Detective - - - Searching for the Meaning of it all at the Oxford English Dictionary from Basic Books, we wrote

    The fun comes from Simpson's obvious passion for words, and every few pages, he will take a rest, pulling a jewel from what he has just written and lead us through its origins, its history, and any peccadillos that may lay in its forgotten history. Thus, we are allowed to spend a few moments with "dribs and drabs," "hue and cry," "skanking," "launch," "project," "grok," and even the humble "same."
Like Stamper, he opines that Little words like "same" cause enormous problems for lexicographers. This is, because, however it is used, "same" always means the same thing. Then, "Simpson will take a page or so to examine an obscure word like "burpee," which, as the medical Burpee test, was devised by one Dr. Royal H. Burpee "to measure a person's agility and muscular coordination." I commented in my review that

    We are somewhat disappointed in Simpson's reluctance to comment on the sound of it, its eructative force. I had as a friend back in the 40's, one Leland Burpee - - - perhaps a distant relative of the good doctor. All of Leland's friends had a riotous time as we attempted to belch whenever and however we called him.

We have an equally risible time with Ms. Stamper who we must tell you, is no shrinking violet when it comes to the ins and outs of plain spoken English. As she is doing the letter "S" and she consulting her "pinks" - - - not fingernails but a note jotted by previous editors there in the Merriam-Webster massive word storage space, all at sixes and sevens - - - she chances on a note about the phrases "sex kitten" and "sex pot." The note by a previous lexicographer is "There is no essential difference in these defs [definitions], but they're not the same. Some differentiation shd be made." She comments, "The pink was written by one of our former physical science editors infamous for commenting as brusquely as possible on things beyond his remit." She continues,

    Another one of our science editors who was reviewing the batch later was apparently irritated by this note, and decided to comment on what he no doubt saw as needless meddling. His typewritten response to the note about "sex kitten" reads, "I will no doubt regret saying this but I think you have misconstrued the meaning of 'physical' science somewhere along here.

Her boss "acted on it for the Tenth, adding the word "young" to the definition for "sex kitten."

The most fascinating parts of Word by Word are the casual asides, things that those of us who use and abuse the language daily could scarcely ever be thought to consider. That, for instance, some letters in the dictionary are far more capacious than others. We understand instinctively thatK and Q and V and E are relatively tiny. "H" is long, but, she explains, "we can chalk that up to the surprisingly large number of words that begins with "hand-" and "hyper-." She then tells us about the special problems with S. "It is, to put it in the modern vernacular, the worst. It is the longest letter in the book and an absolute heart-breaker, because you can see the end of the alphabet from it, and you know that once you clear S, you are moving on to T-Z, and half of those are barely even letters.

    But S - - - S goes on for-fucking-ever. Exactly 11 percent of your dictionary is made of words that begin with S. One-tenth of your dictionary is made up of one twenty-sixth of the alphabet.

Like I say, most of us don't think about this, nor do we reflect on the letters we most hate. Me? I was always fond of Z because it occurs in my name, and whenever I was teaching myself signature, I could always fool around with Z, curliques and cross-hatching and throwing in a few below-the-line dips. Q baffled me, because with the cursives that lined the upper part of the class blackboard, between capital P and R, there was a mysterious, lazy 2.

I was rather fond of A, being chipper, at the ready, and M and W took up lots of space on the page. X somehow was menacing, probably associated with the machine with which we could look at our feet which, we found out later, gave some of us cancer. P was a bit vulgar, S sort of snarky (or snaky) - - - whereas D and G and B and R were the worker drudges. T and K and F were a bit suspect, E easygoing, O wondrous, and I suspiciouisly slim. But Stamper notes, "It's not just the length of the letter but the content as well that can get to you." Her lexigraphic companion Emily

    didn't mind S as much as she did D, because D is long and filled with horrible words (like "despair," "dismal," "death "and "dejected.")

She also loves J because it's short and has "jackass" and all its sibling entries . . . [like] "jackass clover," "jackass deer," "jackass fish," "jackass hare," "jackass kingfisher," "jackass penguin," "jackass rabbit" and "jackass rig."

--- Pamela Wylie
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