Guestblogging Dictionary Myths (Pt 4):

It’s (Mostly Harmless) Drudgery

If you know the word lexicographer, there’s a better-than-even chance you also know Samuel Johnson’s self-mocking definition of it: “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.”

We should probably set aside, at least for now, discussion of whether or not lexicographers are harmless (at least, harmless when it comes to the language; I have a mean right hook), and instead turn to the ‘drudgery’ part — is lexicography drudgery?

No. It’s a complete myth. It’s disinformation spread by lexicographers so we can keep other folks away from our wonderful jobs.

In my first paying lexicographical gig, way back in the twentieth century, I spent several weeks during which a sheet of transparent plastic, marked with the ghostly outline of a dictionary page, never left my hand. My job was to count the number of characters (including spaces) in the material being added to a page, then count the number of characters (including spaces) in the deletions that the editors had marked on that same page. I used the plastic sheet as an overlay to help me count. If the numbers matched, great! I could go on to the next page. If not, I had to flag it for the senior editors, who would then go back and make further revisions so that the material would be neither too long nor too short, but exactly right. If revisions were so long that the text had to reflow to the following page, that was an added expense, so the editors were highly motivated to work their changes within the page. And even that task, as weird as it sounds to people now firmly in the computer age, was more along the lines of a 3-D word jigsaw puzzle than drudgework.

The truth is that the drudgeworky parts of lexicography — the counting, the alphabetizing, the sorting — have now been farmed out to tireless computers, and the lexicographer is left with the fun parts — the planning of projects, the actual writing and defining, and the arguing. That work is endlessly diverting.

There’s a quote about lexicography from J.R. Hulbert (who worked on the great Dictionary of American English) I haul out whenever I can, because it’s so apt:

I know of no more enjoyable intellectual activity than working on a dictionary. Unlike most research, lexicography rarely sends one in fruitless quests; one does not devote days, months, or even years to testing an hypothesis only to decide that it is not tenable, or to attempting to collect evidence to prove a theory only to have to conclude that sufficient facts are no longer in existence to clinch it. It does not make one’s life anxious, nor build up hopes only to have them collapse. Every day one is confronted by new problems, usually small but absorbingly interesting; at the end of the day one feels healthily tired, but content in the thought that one has accomplished something and advanced the whole work towards its completion.

That’s the beautiful thing about lexicography: it’s important, and you work hard to make the best dictionaries you can, but it’s not (as the joke goes) rocket surgery: the odds of someone dying because there’s a typo in an entry are very, very low. There might be ridiculous deadlines, and budgets that wouldn’t allow for the publication of a suburban high-school yearbook, and occasionally, the sinking feeling that you have overlooked something very important (but you can’t remember what it is), but at the most basic level, at the level of the word, the definition, the phrase, the work is almost exquisitely satisfying. The lexicographer, more than anyone else, can see the underlying network that both connects and distinguishes the words of English, and gets a perspective on language that would be difficult to achieve from any other vantage point.

In fact, I think Johnson might have been the first to try to misdirect people away from lexicography by pretending it wasn’t fun. I believe Johnson (as depressed, as sick, as beaten-down as he often was, and if you haven’t read Paul Fussell’s Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing, well, you should) felt the same exaltation, the same endorphin hit, of pinning down the right ‘signification’ of a word. That ‘aha!’ moment in lexicography is almost endlessly reproducible; there’s always the next word, and the next, and the next … All I know is that I am eager to get to work every day.

I think I had half-promised to write something today about norms in English (and what is a ‘rule’ of English and what is just a suggested serving recommendation, the confusion, ironically enough, lying in the word rule) but that might be beyond the scope of a series on dictionary myths — I’ll try to write about it next week at my usual hangout, Dictionary Evangelist. (It’s not quite the kind of topic I usually wrangle over at A Dress A Day.)

I wanted to end this week by thanking Eugene for his kind invitation to guest-blog, and with gratitude to you all for your trenchant comments. (There’s nothing like blogging for an audience of lawyers to help you improve your arguments!) Thank you!