Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Nerds That Make English

Henry Hitchins, Wall Street Journal

image from article

The Merriam-Webster editor informs us that the German word for a lower-back tattoo is “Arschgeweih,” which literally means “ass antlers.” Henry Hitchings reviews “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” by Kory Stamper
‘Lexicographer” is not a seductive word. Samuel Johnson famously defined it, more than 260 years ago, as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.” His own “Dictionary of the English Language” belied this impression of soulless passivity, but the image has stuck. There is a common assumption that dictionaries are put together by faceless dullards. In the judgmental world of online dating, saying that you’re a lexicographer has all the aphrodisiac potency of admitting that you enjoy reorganizing your sock drawer.
Yet the reputation of lexicography is starting to change, and the main reason is the emergence of a new generation of word mavens who brighten social media with linguistic curios and discussion points. Among these is Kory Stamper, an editor at Merriam-Webster. That venerable firm of course takes half its name from Noah Webster, and one of Webster’s key statements was that “the business of a lexicographer is to collect, define, and arrange, as far as possible, allthe words that belong to a language.” As Ms. Stamper comments, modern practitioners shift the emphasis: Today the aspiration is “to collect, define, and arrange, as far as possible, all the words that belong to a language.” After all, no dictionary can document everything. 
Ms. Stamper’s responsibilities at Merriam-Webster include defining new words and revising out-of-date entries. She also appears in its “Ask the Editor” video series, where she holds forth on matters such as the correct plural of “octopus” and the question of whether Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic” actually has anything to do with irony—two topics beloved of half-informed pedants. Meanwhile, on Twitter, where wholly uninformed pedants outnumber any other group, she is a voice of sassy realism, apt to celebrate “badass word-nerd women” or proffer golden nuggets of trivia, such as the fact that the German word for a lower-back tattoo is “Arschgeweih” (which literally means “ass antlers”).
In “Word by Word,” Ms. Stamper maintains this “nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty, worm’s-eye view.” We learn that her suitability for her chosen career revealed itself when she was a child. Growing up in Colorado, she devoured her parents’ hoarded catalogs. At age 9, having gorged on a medical dictionary, she alarmed her father by announcing, “I’m reading about scleroderma.” Though she doesn’t say so, learning about an ailment that causes hardening of the skin may have been useful preparation for a life of being teased by people who think that logophilia is itself an illness, not an endowment.
Later she was beguiled by Jane Austen and Bram Stoker. But it was the vocabulary of English, not its literature, that excited her most. “The more I learned,” she writes, “the more I fell in love with this wild, vibrant whore of a language.” That love eventually took her into professional lexicography—a world in which, to preserve an air of studious quiet, there are no phones at people’s desks and a worker arranges to meet her colleague for lunch not by sauntering over to her cubicle but by sending her an index card in the internal mail.



By Kory Stamper
Pantheon, 296 pages, $26.95
Yet this politely bookish atmosphere shouldn’t fool anyone. Although making dictionaries demands a range of subtle skills and talents, including what Ms. Stamper repeatedly calls “sprachgefühl” (“a feeling for language”), it is also a politically charged and commercially sensitive undertaking. What’s more, while those caught up in it spend a lot of their time immersed in texts—more likely Popular Mechanics than Melville or Poe—their reading habits have an almost lascivious urgency: She pictures etymologists “pawing” through records, and the availability of a vast corpus of linguistic data inspires “heavy-breathing fetishism.”
Occasionally Ms. Stamper strains too hard to make her work seem Fun with a capital F. She describes the word sleuth William Chester Minor (the subject of Simon Winchester’s “The Professor and the Madman”) as a “murderous nutbar,” jauntily writes about the “burbling” of editorial angst, and refers to the 16th-century scholar and sometime lexicographer Thomas Elyot as having “farted around a bit.” She portrays herself “hoovering up words” like “a dog snarfing up spilled popcorn,” relishes terms such as “foofaraw” and “futzing,” and can claim that, thanks to her hungry striving for knowledge, she is “the world’s biggest epistemophilic dork.”
The desire to dramatize the everyday processes of lexicography is born of frustration, for dictionaries tend to make it into the news only when they accommodate previously undocumented words. The addition of a voguish item such as “microaggression” or “post-truth” is widely misunderstood as a seal of approval. It is guaranteed to prompt correspondence from folks who proudly identify themselves as purists and complain that the language is being allowed to go to the dogs. This delights publicists but tends to bore lexicographers, who find themselves explaining for the umpteenth time that it’s their job to register words, not comment on their desirability.
“Word by Word” cherishes the dexterity involved in making dictionaries, and while it doesn’t delve deep into the philosophical underpinnings of the craft, it proves refreshingly attentive to its human stories. Part of its quirky charm is a delight in the idiosyncrasies of others—not least Merriam-Webster’s many correspondents. Some of these are assertive, like the Mississippian who insists that “irregardless” is simply the superlative form of “regardless.” Others have a cheering faith in lexicographers’ omniscience, asking: “What should you look for when purchasing an Alaskan malamute?” and “How long does love last?” The latter warrants an official reply from one of the dictionary’s editors: “Questions about the nature and permanence of deeply felt human emotions . . . are a little outside our field.”
Mr. Hitchings is the author of “Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary.”

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