writing definitions

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Writing definitions isn’t what I love most about lexicography, which is ironic because I think for many people (both lexicographers and the public) definitions are the first thing that comes to mind when they ponder what lexicography is all about. Philip Gove said in 1961 that “the principle reason for the existence of a general monolingual dictionary is its definitions. All the art and all the scholarship and all the scientific method that the editors can command are required to study meanings and write definitions” (Word Study XXXVII. (Oct. 1961), p. 4).

But what primarily appeals to me about lexicography is systematizing words and tracking down citations. I suppose sense analysis comes in third place, with writing definitions coming in fourth. What, did I back into lexicography through the gift shop since I’m not crazy for definitions? Who knows.

But in the course of my Mixed Blessings project, I have to write a whole lot of definitions, and I’m learning to appreciate the intricacies of the task. I was working on a definition the other day for the portmanteau word jewitarian (Jew + Unitarian).

For this term, there are two sort of subsenses. One is a non-religious Jew or a secular Jew. The other is a Jew who is involved in one degree or another with a Unitarian Universalist church. And there’s probably some overlap since you can be in a UU church without really holding any what you might call “religious” beliefs.

My first idea for the definition was to go with “a non-religious Jew,” but this won’t work very well for a Jew who regularly attends a UU church. Even though you don’t have to be “religious” to attend a UU church, it still counts as a religion. So what should this definition be so it can encompass both these subsenses?

A bit of careful thinking teased out a possibility: “a Jew who is not religious with regard to Judaism.” This would allow for either a Jew with no religion at all or a Jew with a religious expression through the UU church.

A format I’m experimenting with for Mixed Blessings is to pair up an analytical definition with one or more illustrative examples. So the current definition for jewitarian is “A Jew who does not have a strong attachment to the Jewish religion” and the illustrative examples are “a Jew who is not religious” and “a Jew who attends a UU church.” I’m trying to strike a balance between a definition that is crisp and correct and some examples that help the reader get a good idea of what people mean when they use this word.

And of course if someone wants a master class in how people use the word, then they can read through the quotations and contemplate for themselves the same raw data that I used to formulate the definition and the examples.

The current draft of my entry for jewitarian is shown below for your delectation. Enjoy!

sample dictionary entry for jewitarian

resolving bibliographical discrepancies in quotations (or not?)

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Here’s something I came across the other day that my readers may find interesting or at the very least amusing. One of my design goals for my current historical lexicography project is to really nail down the bibliographical details provided in the quotation paragraph. This results in a fair number of mysteries to be solved and challenges to be overcome. The other day I was verifying the year for a volume of an archaeological journal, and I saw that the title page said 1951 but then below it in square brackets it said “Published in 1952.” I checked subsequent volumes, and this off-by-one situation went on for a few years. See below for the title page of volume 14.

Ulster Journal of Archaeology, volume 14 title page

There are a couple of schools of thought on the purpose of bibliographical data in citations, so what do these schools of thought say with regard to lexicography? One school of thought is that bibliographical data is put there to help readers locate the original materials in a library. In this case, the nominal year of 1951 might be most appropriate. But another school of thought is that the year is supposed to say something about when the quotation text appeared in the printed record, and with this in mind the actual year of publication of 1952 is more appropriate. What’s a lexicographer to do?!

I’ll show you what I did, and I invite your comments, suggestions, and anecdotes of similar quandaries. For now I’ve simply supplied a bracketed editorial note in the bibliographical data apprising the reader of the discrepancy in year.  See below (and click to enlarge).excerpt of entry "prescopalian" from Mixed Blessings Dictionary

the use of consultants

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people sharing informationAs the Beatles memorably crooned, and I paraphrase, “we get by with a little help from our friends.” In the making of dictionaries, the number and variety of “friends” needed to bring any project to completion seem endless. But one kind of “friend” in particular, the consultant, is especially valuable.

With that in mind, readers of this blog may be interested in a blog post I wrote for my Mixed Blessings Dictionary blog, entitled “how writing a dictionary can prompt you to talk to strangers.” In the post, I mention that I am using consultants, and I describe two recent encounters with consultants.

the value of explanatory notes

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Readers frequently avoid the lengthy explanatory introductions with which authors and editors optimistically preface dictionaries and other reference books. Most of us prefer to plunge into the contents, reluctantly exploring the introductory material only when we are puzzled by some convention used in the text.
—Donna Lee Berg, A Guide to the Oxford English Dictionary 2/e (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), vii

photograph of explanatory notes in a dictionaryI’m an explanatory notes nerd. I love reading the explanatory notes in a dictionary, because it’s one of the clearest and deepest looks into the mind of the lexicographer(s) who made the dictionary.

I will even go so far as to say that writing the explanatory notes is not just a service to the dictionary’s future readers, though it is certainly that. It is also a crucible in which the lexicographer beholds their work in a revitalized way.

As the lexicographer formulates the sentences and paragraphs and sections that will clearly and cogently explain what they are doing (and in some cases why things were done one way and not another), they can’t help but review (for the umpteenth time) all the various microstructural and macrostructural decisions that have been made along the way. Nothing clarifies one’s thinking like trying to set the thoughts down in meaningful, unambiguous prose.

I wonder: how often has a lexicographer been in the process of writing and rewriting the explanatory notes and in so doing was struck with a mental clarity that revealed some better way to organize or treat an element of the dictionary?

To put all this another way, when the lexicographer writes the explanatory notes, it’s like they are doing reflective journaling and intimately confronting some of their most deeply held goals, rules, and motivations (with respect to the dictionary project anyway). And that kind of writing has profound value both for dictionary makers and dictionary users.

first post

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I’m a self-employed lexicographer. From time to time I’ll post some of my thoughts and ideas here about lexicography and dictionaries.

My current lexicographical project is titled Mixed Blessings, and it’s about blend words (sometimes called portmanteau words) that are combinations of names of religions and denominations. Some of the more than 1,000 words I’m studying are: bapticostal, episcolutheran, fundagelicaljubu, mennocostal, pentevangelical, quagan, quanglican, and sushi. (Can you determine which religions or denominations make up each of those words?)