The secret life, and work, of a dictionary’s lexicographer

Friday, 4 April, 2014

Working as a lexicographer might seem like the ideal role for a wordsmith, or writer. Make no mistake, it’s not an easy task, but the work has an aspect to it that I hadn’t quite anticipated

Most of the time, the definition is pretty easy to deduce from the context, but sometimes it’s not. The hardest words to define are the smallest: “but,” “as,” “be,” “go,” “run” – words like that. You can spend months on one of those words, and you get so deep into in that you begin to look a little Uncanny Valleyish by the end of it: real people encounter you, and while you can have a conversation, they are put off by your empty, dead eyes which only stare inward at the diminishing point that was once your humanity.

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Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, cataloguing 2500 years of words in 90

Thursday, 16 June, 2011

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, a 21 volume edition of words used by the Babylonians, Assyrians and other ancient societies residing in Mesopotamia, a region that approximately encompassed present day Syria and Iraq, up to 4,500 years ago, has been completed after 90 years of work by etymologists at the University of Chicago.

Although originally named after the Assyrian language, scholars found that Assyrian was a dialect of another Semitic language, Akkadian. Over the years, researchers filled out millions of index cards with references to the use of 28,000 words. The entries for each word denote various meanings and reference the contexts and ways in which it was used.

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When is it time to officially adopt the change in a word’s meaning?

Tuesday, 12 April, 2011

While efforts are apparently under way to have l33t added to the dictionary (does a “word” that includes numbers even rate as a word?), another question worth considering is how long we should adhere to the old meaning of a word whose definition has changed.

But using a meaning on its way to extinction can be nobler than such exhibitionism. Balancing the possibility that you’ll confuse your audience, and the prospect of appearing pretentious or dorky, is the chance that the old meaning could be a really good meaning, which no other word conveys precisely.

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Sire, My Dame, I present the history of two honourable honorifics

Wednesday, 19 January, 2011

“Sire” and “My Dame” – terms that if used today as honorifics might not see you accorded much respect – were forms of address in use from around about the thirteenth century, that have now been supplanted by the words sir and madam respectively.

The word “sire” is now considered archaic. But it was once used to refer to an authority or a person of general importance. The history of the word “madam” is similar to “sir.” The word derives from “my dame.” While the word “dame” is now usually considered offensive slang, it was once used to address a married woman or one in a position of authority.

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Oxford English Dictionary may be the Online English Dictionary

Friday, 3 September, 2010

The next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED), dubbed OED 3, may not be printed, and could only be available in electronic format.

A team of 80 lexicographers has been working on the third edition of the OED – known as OED3 – for the past 21 years. The dictionary’s owner, Oxford University Press (OUP), said the impact of the internet means OED3 will probably appear only in electronic form. The most recent OED has existed online for more than a decade, where it receives two million hits a month from subscribers who pay an annual fee of £240.

It’s interesting to learn that people are prepared pay £240 (about A$410 or US$370) for an annual subscription for a dictionary though.

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Siphons, ill-defined and misunderstood for almost a century

Thursday, 13 May, 2010

Not an example of a change in the use of language over time though, is the recent discovery by an Australian physicist, Stephen Hughes, that the definition of the word “siphon” has been incorrectly published for almost 100 years by the Oxford English Dictionary, and apparently, other reference books as well.

Dr Hughes claims he has discovered that the dictionary’s definition of the word “siphon” has been incorrect since 1911. The definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, and many other dictionaries, stated that atmospheric pressure was the force behind a siphon. But in fact it is the force of gravity at work.

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New words are often not so new words making a return visit

Wednesday, 24 February, 2010

Words and terms such as “d’oh”, “regift”, and the Wayne’s World-ian use of “not” (this is a new word – not!), rather than being relatively new, have merely emerged from hiatus, according to study of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

“Truthiness” is a great example of a sleeping beauty. Seemingly coined in the debut episode of The Colbert Report in 2005, it was also used back in 1824, as we know from this OED example: “Everyone who knows her is aware of her truthiness.” Like many sleeping beauties, the word’s reinvention included a shift in meaning: the old truthiness was a truly truthy quality, unlike the bucket of BS epitomized by the Colbert version. Homer Simpson’s “Doh!” is about 20 years old – or so 99% of humanity would think – unless YOU check the OED again to see examples going back to 1945. Likewise, the Seinfeld-propelled regift dates to the Larry David-free world of 1727.

Such reborn, or reinvented words, are now being dubbed “sleeping beauties”.

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Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to coin a new word

Wednesday, 17 February, 2010

Alex Horne writes about his quest to have a word he invented accepted into the Oxford English Dictionary.

Just thinking about having my own word in the Oxford English Dictionary gets me giddy. A verbal invention would represent the ultimate achievement, the finest legacy to leave my progeny. It’s exciting enough to have people look up a book of yours in the library but to look up a word of mine in the dictionary would, I think, be the most worthy of all claims to fame.

Inventing a “new” word is easy, seeing it adopted into everyday usage is another matter all together.

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Have search engines become the new dictionaries?

Wednesday, 9 September, 2009

Yes, it’s true Google acts as a dictionary and spell checker of sorts for many people, but care still needs to be taken.

For example it does not always realise a word has been misspelt if enough web pages are using the same incorrectly spelt version of said word, as Google has indexed enough instances of the erroneous version to consider it an actual word.

These days, however, Google is our database of meaning. Want to know how to spell assiduous? Type it incorrectly and Google will reply, in its kind-hearted way: “Did you mean: assiduous”? Why yes, Google, I did. Google then spits out a bunch of links to Web definitions for assiduous. Without clicking on any of them, the two-sentence summaries below each link give me enough to get a sense of the word: “hard working,” and “diligent.”

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Today we censor the dictionary, tomorrow we will burn books

Friday, 7 August, 2009

Ninjawords, an iPhone dictionary app, has apparently been censored by Apple, who have removed words that they feel are “objectionable”.

But Ninjawords for iPhone suffers one humiliating flaw: it omits all the words deemed “objectionable” by Apple’s App Store reviewers, despite the fact that Ninjawords carries a 17+ rating. Apple censored an English dictionary. A dictionary. A reference book. For words contained in all reasonable dictionaries. For words contained in dictionaries that are used every day in elementary school libraries and classrooms.

The mind boggles – and if we take this line of thinking to its logical though thoroughly absurd conclusion – will print dictionaries one day require the same classifications movies have, will booksellers refuse to stock dictionaries, or only sell them to people aged 18 or over, and will some schools ban them from the classroom?

Update: A response from Apple to the Ninjawords controversy has been posted at Daring Fireball.

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