Monday, November 16, 2009

Erin McKean Redefines the Dictionary- Live Blogging as Proofreading Practise: Jennifer Kerr

Erin McKean is trying to redefine the dictionary. Here is what she had to say:

Have any of ya'll ever looked up lexicographer? How about Lexicography? It means the practice of compiling dictionaries. Dictionaries are made of of bits, which are words. A perk of being a lexicographer is that you get to say lots of fun words. It has a double dactyl. Lexicography is like iggledypiggledy, which is fun to say. But people don't have a warm snuggly image of a dictionary. They think of lexicographers as traffic cops. I don't have a whistle. People think I keep bad words out of the dictionary. I don't want to be a traffic cop. I don't do uniforms. Deciding what words are good and bad are is not fun or easy. I look for an excuse not to do it.

I would rather be a fisherman, throwing my net into the ocean of English and seeing what words I can dig up. I blame the Queen for this, because it's funny. Dictionaries have not changed since Queen Victoria's rein. The one difference is that the eff word is in there now. This is James Murray. I don't have that guy's hat. He is responsible for the dictionary. It's a problem because he looks like that. He could get any dictionary job because there would be no learning curve. But, you might ask, what about computers? I love computers. I would go on a hunger strike before they took away Google books. But computers don't change the end result of dictionaries. It's still Victorian design. It's an electric velocipede. The design has not changed.

What about online dictionaries, like Oxford online? Online dictionaries are paper thrown up on a screen. There are two links- not much going on. Online dictionaries replicate the problems of print, except search ability: this creates serendipity. What we have here is a ham butt problem- the butt of the ham is perfectly good, but you throw it away- because your mom did, because her mom did, because her mom's pan was too small. When people think about a place and it's not on the map, they think the map sucks. If the place is not in the guidebook it must be cool. If the word is not in the dictionary, it's not the word's fault, it's the dictionary. The English language is as big as it is, you just need a bigger pan. Paper is the enemy of words. How can this be? I love books. But the book is not the best shape for the dictionary. When we got cars, we didn't round up the horses and shoot them. The book shaped dictionary is not going to be the only one, or the prototype, but it will still exist. What if biologists could only study animals that made people go awww..? We wouldn't know much. I think this is a problem. We should study all the words, because you can make beautiful expressions from humble parts.

We are studying the tolerances of the materials that you use to build the structure of your expression. How do I know how this word is real, people ask? If words are the tools we use to build the expressions of our thoughts, how can you say a hammer is better than a screwdriver? Love makes things real. If you love a world, use it. That makes it real. A dictionary is an artificial distinction. If we're not worrying about directing traffic and we've transcended paper, worrying less about control and more about description, we think of English as a beautiful mobile, and every time you change it, you make it move, which does not break it.

There can only be so many traffic cops before you confuse the traffic. But if you are just counting the cars, more is better. We really need help. Library Congress has seventeen million books. Half of them are in English. In every book I read, there are words that aren't in the dictionary. If one word in every book wasn't in the dictionary, we would have seventeen million new words. We have a lot of words and we need help. Lexicography is not rocket science. If we think of the dictionary as the map of the English language, the bright spots are the words we know. In old maps, we're missing California, and don't even know it. It's not rocket science, but even if it is, rocket science is being done by amateurs. There's this guy called Mike Oates who directs an electroplating company. He found 148 comets without a telescope. Shouldn't we be able to find words?

The internet is great for collecting words. It is made up of words and enthusiast, which is the recipe for lexicography. There are a lot of good word collecting sites. But they don't show context. A word is like an artifact, but if you don't know the source, its not science, but a pretty thing to look at. This whole time I've been saying 'the dictionary' not 'a dictionary', 'the dictionary' stands for the whole language. We could make the dictionary the whole language if we have a bigger pan. We could have all the meanings. Doesn't everyone want more meaning in their life? I'm hoping that my son will barely remember that dictionaries used to look like this- they will be like an eight track tape- a format that died. If we put in all the words, without a distinction between good and bad, I can spend all my time fishing and I don't have to be a traffic cop anymore.

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