Tony Luong/The New York Times/Redux (photograph) and Joel Holland for Reader's Digest (hand lettering)The vast majority of people give no thought to the dictionary: It merely is, like the universe. To one group of people, the dictionary was handed to humanity ex coeli, a hallowed tome of truth and wisdom as infallible as God. To another group of people, the dictionary is a thing you picked up in the bargain bin, paperback and on sale for a dollar, because you felt that an adult should own a dictionary. Neither group realizes that the dictionary, whether online or leather-clad, is a human document, constantly being compiled, proofread, and updated by actual, living, awkward people.
In what is euphemistically known as a “transitional neighborhood” (drug deals occasionally happen in the parking lot, and there are bullet holes in the safety glass at the back of the building) in Springfield, Massachusetts, there are a couple dozen people who spend their workweek doing nothing but writing dictionary definitions—for Merriam-Webster, to be exact—sifting the language, categorizing it, describing it, alphabetizing it. (This word has the most definitions in the entire dictionary.) They are word nerds who spend the better parts of their lives thinking deeply about adverbs and slowly, inexorably going blind. They are lexicographers. This is the song of my people.
At Merriam-Webster, there are only two formal requirements to be a lexicographer: You must have a degree in any field from an accredited four-year college or university, and you must be a native speaker of English.
People are surprised (and perhaps slightly appalled) to hear that we don’t require lexicographers to be linguists or English majors. The reality is that a diverse group of drudges will yield better definitions. Most lexicographers are “general definers”; that is, they define all sorts of words from all subject areas, from knitting to military history to hot-rodding. And while you don’t need expertise in every field conceivable in order to define the vocabulary used in that field, there are some fields whose lexicon is a little more opaque than others.
Consequently, we have a minyan of English and linguistics majors on staff, but we also have economists, scientists of every stripe, historians, philosophers, poets, artists, mathematicians, international business majors, and enough medievalists to staff a Renaissance Faire.
We require that our lexicographers be native speakers of English for a very practical reason: That’s the language we focus on, and you need mastery over all its idioms and expressions. It is a sad reality that in your daily work as a lexicographer, you will read some good writing and a lot of mediocre and terrible writing. You need to be able to know, without being told, that “the cat are yowling” is not grammatically correct whereas “the crowd are loving it” is just very British. (These are the grammar rules you didn’t know you’ve been breaking.)
There are some additional unmeasurable and unstated requirements to be a lexicographer. First and foremost, you must be possessed of something called sprachgefühl, a German word we’ve stolen into English that means “a feeling for language.”
Sprachgefühl is a slippery eel, the odd buzzing in your brain that tells you that “planting the lettuce” and “planting misinformation” are different uses of plant, the eye twitch that tells you that “plans to demo the store” refers not to a friendly instructional stroll on how to shop but to a little exuberance with a sledgehammer. Not everyone has sprachgefühl, and you don’t know if you are possessed of it until you are knee-deep in the English language, trying your best to navigate the mucky swamp of it. I use “possessed of” advisedly: You will never have sprachgefühl, but rather sprachgefühl will have you, like a Teutonic imp that settles itself at the base of your skull and hammers at your head every time you read something like “crispy-fried rice” on a menu. The imp will dig its nails into your brain, and instead of ordering take-out Chinese, you will be frozen at the take-out counter, wondering if “crispy-fried rice” refers to plain rice that has been flash fried or to the dish known as “fried rice” but perhaps prepared in a new and exciting way. That hyphen, you think, could just be slapdash misuse, or … And your Teutonic imp giggles and squeezes its claws a little harder.
You must also be temperamentally suited to sitting in near silence for eight hours a day and working entirely alone. There will be other people in the office—you will hear them shuffling papers and muttering to themselves—but you will have almost no contact with them. In fact, you are warned of this over and over again.
Tony Luong/The New York Times/ReduxWhen I interviewed for my first job, as editorial assistant, I met with Fred Mish, Merriam-Webster’s then-editor-in-chief. He cast an eye over my résumé and asked with some incredulity if I enjoyed interacting with people, because if I did, then I should understand this job promised nothing of the sort. “Office chitchat of the sort you’re likely used to,” he grumped, “is not conducive to good lexicography and doesn’t happen.”
Emily Brewster, who has been an editor at Merriam-Webster for more than 15 years, sums up the secret longing of every lexicographer: “Yes, this is what I want to do. I want to sit alone in a cubicle all day and think about words and not really talk to anybody else. That sounds great!”
There’s a good reason for the quiet. Lexicography is an intermingling of science and art, and both require a commitment to silent concentration. Your job as a definer is to find the exact right words to describe a word’s meaning, and that takes some serious brain wringing. (Use these funny words to improve your own vocabulary.) Measly, for example, is often used to mean “small,” and you could get away with simply defining it as such and moving on. But there’s a particular kind of smallness to measly that isn’t the same sort of smallness associated with the word teeny. Measly implies a sort of grudging, grubbing smallness, a miserly meagerness, and so as a definer you begin wandering the highways and byways of English looking for the right word to describe the peculiar smallness of measly. There is nothing worse than being just a syllable’s length away from the perfect, Platonic ideal of the definition for measly, being able to see it crouching in the shadows of your mind, only to have it skitter away when your coworker begins a long and loud conversation that touches on the new coffee filters. (Measly is defined in the Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, as “contemptibly small.” Brewster thinks it might be the best definition in the whole book.)
There is actually a third personality quirk required to do lexicography: the ability to quietly do the same task until the universe collapses in on itself like a soufflé in a windstorm. It’s not just that defining itself is repetitive; it’s that the project timelines in lexicography are traditionally so long they could reasonably be measured in geologic epochs. Our last printed unabridged dictionary, Webster’s Third New International, took a staff of almost 100 editors and 202 outside consultants 12 years to write.
Lexicography moves so slowly that scientists classify it as a solid. When you finish defining, you must copyedit; when you finish copyediting, you must proofread; when you finish proofreading, you must proofread again, because there were changes and we need to double-check.
The process is magical, frustrating, brain wrenching, mundane, transcendent. You must set aside your own linguistic prejudices about what makes a word worthy or beautiful to tell the truth about language. It is ultimately a show of love for a language that has been called unlovely and unlovable. When a dictionary does surface, there is no grand party or celebration. (Too loud, too social.) We’re already working on the next update, because language has moved on. There will never be a break. A dictionary is out of date the minute that it’s done.
Buy Kory Stamper’s book, Word By Word.Courtesy penguin random house