the value of explanatory notes

Sharing shortcuts:

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.