Post Classifieds

Word nerd

By Chris Daniels
On March 3, 2011

  • There are four “clouds” hanging from the ceiling in the league of Invisible Scientists exhibit at the campus art museum. photo By Thien Phung | staff

Love, hate, anger and laughter — those are just four words in the English language that would have no meaning without lexicographers.

James Blythe, a history professor at The University of Memphis, worked part time as a lexicographer, someone who authors or edits dictionaries, during his graduate years at Cornell University in the early ‘80s.    

"The reason I applied for the job was because I'm interested in words, and it sounded like an interesting job to do," he said.

Working for a company called Wordsmyth, he helped create a new college-sized dictionary that would be used by the international company Brother in one of its word processing machines. Ten writers and five editors worked together for four years to compile that dictionary.

"For some reason, they thought it was cheaper to write a new dictionary than license an existing one," Blythe said. "So it wasn't a huge dictionary, but it was a substantial one."

Blythe said lexicographers generally have mathematical minds and can think logically and analytically, breaking down subjects into their fundamental components.

"Some people are more intuitive thinkers, and that's not very good for writing dictionaries," he said. "You have to really think about the word and think about all the ways it's been used and try to divide those into reasonable categories for the definitions."

Words that sounded more interesting and "weirder" words were actually easier for Blythe to define, but he said one of his major issues was trying to figure out words that have several meanings.

"The harder words to do are the more common ones because they have many different senses," he said. "A word like ‘run' could mean to move your legs fast, or it could mean to take a lot of tricks in a card game. It could mean you operate something."

Blythe said he and his coworkers underwent intense training on how to write definitions for a dictionary and were assigned words to define each day they came to work.

Although Blythe said he put a lot of time and hard work into each word, his definitions were often refined during the editorial process and sometimes never saw print.

When asked what his favorite word was, Blythe stopped and thought for a moment.

"A favorite word of all words," he said, pausing. "I don't know if this is really my favorite word, but it's a nice word and it sounds good — ‘crepuscular.' It means pertaining to twilight."

Before his lexicography experience, Blythe spent time playing a "dictionary game" with his friends. Players took turns picking unfamiliar words out of a dictionary, then all would write out what they imagined the word meant.

"The person with the dictionary writes down the real (definition) and collects all of them and reads them off," he said. "And you get one point if you vote for the right definition, and you get one point if anyone votes for yours."

John Bensko, English professor at The U of M, said his knowledge of lexicography pertains to Samuel Johnson, who created one of the first English dictionaries.

Bensko said formulating a dictionary an important step for all languages and a historical marking point for any culture.

"Dictionaries capture a core sense of what a language is," he said.

From a writer's standpoint, Bensko said, the Oxford English Dictionary helps its users discover the origin of a word and allows readers and writers alike see how a word has change over time, which he believes "gives you a deeper sense of the word."

Bensko, who described himself as a poet, said poetry relies heavily on the connotations of words. A word's connotation provides an understanding about the cultural connection of the word, whereas denotation gives a literal meaning.

Earl Ingram, junior English major, said he had never heard of lexicography or considered the people behind the words in a dictionary. When he learned about the job lexicographers perform, he said had a new appreciation for them.

Ingram said he uses a dictionary fairly often, and while he's writing, he keeps the website open, frequently looking up word meanings, but lexicography isn't the field for him.

"I mean, that is a lot of reading to do — with absolutely zero plot," he said.

Blythe said lexicographers typically require advanced degrees in humanities or linguistics, but he thinks talent is the most essential factor in lexicography.

"Because of the nature of the kind of thinking it takes, I have a feeling a lot of companies are looking for a certain type of person rather than a particular qualification," he said. "You do really have to be a unique kind of person."

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