How I Became an Amateur Lexicographer

I am so touched by the welcome I have received here at Ricochet. To which I say, “Right back at you.” Get it?

In a later post, I will hold forth some more on the principles of English Language Arts, but for now I want to tell a story. 

When I was a kid, my parents dragged me and my five siblings to mass every week, and I remember very clearly the pastor opening one homily after another with the words, “Webster’s says.”

He would give a dictionary definition of, say, charity or grace and then tell you what he thought the true definition of charity or grace was. From my Holden Caufield-esque perspective, this was kind of hilarious. Here was the pastor, boss of the parish, overseer of the priests, and spiritual leader of the school, picking a fight with the boss of the English language. It was authority versus authority.

It seems germane to mention that in my teens I underwent a major spiritual crisis, but it’s not so germane that I am going to finish that story. But here’s a working hook: In my twenties, while working as an editor and a writer, I came to wonder about the authority of dictionaries.

At the magazine where I worked as an associate editor (a rather junior position in my experience), I was told to steer articles clear of slang. I can’t remember what overly youthful or evanescent bit of phrasing provoked this comment from a senior editor, but I wanted to keep my job, so I went to the dictionary.

One phrase after another that I took to be slang was, however, not so labeled. I consulted another dictionary. This one marked many more words slang or colloquial or informal, but these included many words and phrases I knew to be acceptable for magazine use.

I then tried to reason my way to the answers I needed. I tried to extrapolate from words and phrases I knew to be totally appropriate or inappropriate to judge the fitness of the word or phrase currently puzzling me. But each word got more and more particular the longer I studied it—and less like whatever I was comparing it to.

Finally I got smart and started using search engines to gather examples of sentences in which a suspicious word or phrase was used. The only problem with this solution was that it was so laborious. I quickly realized I could either do my job as a junior editor or compile my own dictionary of usage, but I could not do both. But, finally, I was looking to actual evidence of usage to make determinations about the status or appropriateness of words and phrases.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was reenacting the history of lexicography, relying first on my own feel for the language, then seeking advice from authority, then turning to reason, and then finally looking to the authority of usage itself. This is not so different from what made Webster’s Third, the so-called permissive dictionary, the most controversial dictionary ever published. More tomorrow.