To Be a Lexicographer Is to Surrender to Folly

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The arrival in the past 30 years of search engines and vast databases of electronic texts has made dictionaries far more comprehensive, but also much more complicated to compile and update (not that the task was easy to begin with). Andrew Dickson’s Guardian piece on the history of the Oxford English Dictionary focuses on the tension between the cumulative, decades-long process of updating the OED and a world in which few people still pay for hard copies and Google reaps most of the ad revenue from online queries. What is it that keeps this endeavor chugging along? There’s institutional inertia at work, no doubt, but also something even more amorphous: the vocational resistance — one might call it love? — of lexicographers who have embarked on a journey whose end they know they’ll never see.

It takes a particular sort of human to be a “word detective”: something between a linguistics academic, an archival historian, a journalist and an old-fashioned gumshoe. Though hardly without its tensions — corpus linguists versus old-school dictionary-makers, stats nerds versus scholarly etymologists — lexicography seems to be one specialist profession with a lingering sense of common purpose: us against that ever-expanding, multi-headed hydra, the English language. “It is pretty obsessive-compulsive,” Jane Solomon said.

The idea of making a perfect linguistic resource was one most lexicographers knew was folly, she continued. “I’ve learned too much about past dictionaries to have that as a personal goal.” But then, part of the thrill of being a lexicographer is knowing that the work will never be done. English is always metamorphosing, mutating, evolving; its restless dynamism is what makes it so absorbing. “It’s always on the move,” said Solomon. “You have to love that.”

There are other joys, too: the thrill of catching a new sense, or crafting a definition that feels, if not perfect, at least right. “It sounds cheesy, but it can be like poetry,” Michael Rundell reflected. “Making a dictionary is as much an art as a craft.”

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