I used to pay attention to sports. Prior toliving in Connecticut I loved baseball. Our street was quiet enoughthat in the evenings we could play stick ball right out in the frontyard and on the street without too many interruptions from cars.Just like the pros hitting a home run meant hitting it over thefence. Of course in our case it was the fence of our neighborsacross the street. Stick ball was much more interesting thatbaseball because there were some considerable technique changes whenyour bat is uneven. This made the game much more fun.
My lawn mowing money in those days went tobaseball cards and even the kids’ club of the local team, the LosAngeles Dodgers. Joining that club meant I’d get regular mail oncea month in the mailbox while the season was going just like an adult.Getting something in the mail always feels good. Dodgers gameswould come on the TV and dutifully plan our day to make sure we couldsit and watch. When they’d call a player to bat I’d look throughmy humble stack of baseball cards to see what a player’s statswere. I didn’t really understand how they were calculated, but Iknew some numbers were better than others.
Then there was a strike and the sport I lovewasn’t as important. If the pros didn’t see why they loved thegame, why should I? In addition we moved and were trapped betweenYankee and Red Sox territory. Scared that my nonexistent popularitywould decrease further if I picked the wrong camp to join, I didn’tjoin any camp. To this day I don’t know sports players as well asmost of the people I’ve worked with. I don’t have a favoritepitcher in base ball, quarter back in football, winger in hockey,forward in soccer, or bowler in cricket. But I do have a favoritelexicographer.
Yes, I have a favorite lexicographer.
In short a Lexicographer is someone who putsthe words in the dictionary.
One might think that before selecting myfavorite of anything I would come up with complex metrics like theydo 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 evaluatethe degree of difficutly in conjunction with numbers of words. Forexample, a word like gongoozle only has one meaning. Adding that tothe dictionary is rather simple.
1. to stare at the activity in a canal
Ah, but try being the lexicographer whounluckily has to update the entry on the word keep whichalready has approximately 60 entries in the dictionary. As alexicographer you’d have to verify each one of those existingmeanings to ensure they’re current and also look for any new usesof the word. This significantly increases the level of difficulty,and while I could have come up with complex formulas and put them ina spreadsheet to narrow a pool of lexicographers down to only one itjust seemed like too much effort, besides I’m sure they’d prefernot to be rushed in the process.
In order to become my favorite in this area onedoesn’t have to be on the road to the hall of fame among theDictionary Society of North America (DSNA). It’s not a contest,it’s just what I get to choose. At the time of writing thischapter my favorite lexicographer is Erin McKean. She’s a darlinglady who took the time to write a couple of books and record a fewTED talks on the subject of lexicography. She’s the one thathelped expose a fascinating field of interest that I was able tobring into my life. She’s publicly stated that she wants to “helpmake every word in the English language ‘lookupable’ – includingthe 52% of unique English words that aren’t currently in anydictionary.” Certainly a noble goal, because those obscure wordsare simply delightful.
One of the most beautiful things aboutselecting a favorite lexicographer over a favorite football player isthat there’s really no hall of fame or Heisman Trophy competitionwith statistics for anyone to dispute your claim. You just pick afavorite 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 thatthere isn’t a Nobel Prize for lexicography. It might help morepeople be aware of the vital part of our society these people playand to appreciate them more.
One might imagine from my description of alexicographer above that these good people sit around all daydreaming up words to force us to use. The reality is quite theopposite. Language is much more federated and dynamic than it ishierarchical. Most things are created when there’s a need. Thesame 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 wordgets added to the language. Others have to approve and adopt theword as well. Lexicographers are the archaeologists searching outthe use of these words in context to communicate their meaning to abroader audience.
You can imagine how with today’s technologylanguage is changing meaning faster than it ever has before. Let’stake a look at a rather humble word, Priority. For the first 500years of its existence it was a singular word.1Think of it’s original meaning as first thing.Then in the 1900’s it got pluralized. An s was added tothe end and now there were multiple first things.We had multiple priorities. Onceyou have multiple priorities there must be a verb to organize them.Thus in 1972 during a televised presidential debate2one of the candidate introduced the word prioritize to the audience.Now we had a name for theverb that means to organize a list based upon importance. Itsquick adoption by many who watched gave lexicographers plenty ofartifacts to enable them to understand its meaning and add it to thedictionary.
Howinteresting that for the first 500 years this word had only one entryin the dictionary and no conjugation. This means that if you were touse priority everyone understood its meaning. Therewould be no discussion about the context of the word. In couldexpress a singular thought beautifully. Words with multipledefinitions can lead to some interesting discussions, especially in acourt of law were definitions of things matter significantly. Therewas another time in the 1990s when a president responded to aquestion one day with the reply “it depends on what the meaning ofthe word is, is.3”
Interestinglyenough, there’s only one definition for isin the dictionary, but there are 7 definitions for the verb to-be.
Governments, while well intentioned, aren’talways run by the most ideal people. So, instead of functioning asthe society’s operating system they tend to operate with theinterests of the government in mind.
Government education generally carries with itcertain traits. One, the history books they purchased by thegovernement tend to focus on the government’s history instead ofthe history of the people. Two they see everything as geographybased. Three they introduce jobs that tend to have heavy ties to thegovernment. Ask a group of students in elementary school what theywant to be when they grow up and you’ll get a bunch of firemen,police men, teachers, lawyers, astronauts, and doctors. Every one ofthose industries is heavily involved or subsidized through thegovernment. I’m probably a little more sensitive to this issuethan most parents, but there is a part of what my kids were beingexposed to at school that seemed nothing more than a marketingcampaign for public sector jobs.
So, I decided to do something about it.
Right around the same time that I learned aboutlexicography and Erin McKean was precisely the same time my secondson was getting asked what he wanted to be when when he grew up, atschool. So I trained him that if he ever gets asked that question heshould respond with ‘I want to be a Lexicographer.’ Then explainthat it’s the person who puts words in the dictionary. I then wentthe next layer knowing that my son would probably get asked what hisfavorite 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.