Tuesday, September 20, 2011
One of my writing projects I've been working on is a play called Definition. The main character is a lexicographer. Maybe this should be embarrassing to admit, but... I find that job fascinating. An editor of the dictionary. That sounds extremely important with lot of responsibility.
I've always been into words. I look forward to my word of the day email. I love playing "dictionary" at family gatherings. When I was about 10 I was obsessed with cool words and phrases. I still have all these old poetry books where I circled stuff I liked. I guess it's no surprise I enjoy writing. So when my play idea first dropped into my head I was very excited. Then I realized quite quickly that as much as I admired lexicographers, I know nothing about this profession and this character I'm writing is smarter than me. Now I'm no dummy, but I'm going to need some help here.
I found some articles online which were helpful, but found the most valuable information on a TED talk (I love TED talks!) given by senior editor at Oxford, Erin McKean .
Please watch! It is so worth your time. She talks about how we need to redefine the dictionary and how we interact with language itself. Fantastic. I learned a lot watching this, but I still wanted more. So I tried a shot in the dark. I emailed her. I pushed send and figured Erin, who I've dubbed the rockstar of the word world, would have much better things to do than respond to some playwright in LA.
Then she emailed me about a week later. Whoo hoo! I thought I'd share a few of her answers to some of my questions. Thanks again Erin!
What is a typical day for a lexicographer?
EM: t depends on the day, and the skills of the editor. There's planning
meetings, there are rote tasks (pulling lists of entries by category,
such as chemical elements, or checking all the currency entries to make
sure that they're up to date -- this was a big deal after the Euro was
created), there is new-word finding (people talk a lot about this, but
the truth is that there are so many more new words than most paper
dictionaries have space for, so it's mostly not finding new words, but
winnowing them out!), there is definition writing, there is checking
pronunciations (usually experts do this, but everyone pitches in). If
there are biographical entries (common in American dictionaries, but not
in UK dictionaries), they have to be updated.
A big part of dictionary work is pouring old text into new bottles --
for instance, taking a big dictionary and creating a new smaller edition
(like a desk dictionary) out of it.
Are their any inside jokes within the dictionary world?
EM: We usually call everything by short names: etymologies are etys,
definitions are defs, and pronunciations are "prons" -- which is also a
common misspelling for "porn" online, so there are some jokes about that.
People who write definitions are either "lumpers" or "splitters" -- they
want to cram as much meaning as possible into a single definition, or
they want to have a different definition for each possible shade of
What is the most satisfing thing about your job? Why do you love it?
EM: I love words, but I really love systems, and the idea of systematically
describing all the words was very, very seductive. I have wanted to be a
dictionary editor since I was eight years old ... but I also love
I have had co-workers for whom is was more of a job than a vocation;
they were usually people who loved literature or research, but disliked
teaching, so they didn't enjoy university life.
Words are infinitely changeable, and the task of trying to pin them down
is both frustrating and exhilarating.
*** And while writing the interview email to her I told her paranoia was taking over while I wrote it thinking about my sentence structure, spelling and grammar. She was very sweet and assured me that lexicographers were not grammar nazis. They are too interested in variation and how people really use language.
Research is awesome! I love it. Thank you Erin McKean! Now back to the rewrite...