I am bewitched by dictionary work and become immersed in a way that is all-consuming. Sometimes the seduction of research lures me in further than I want or need to go, but I am helpless against its pull—even though I’m on the clock and the fastest minutes known to man are ticking by—the minutes that end in a deadline.
Everything you say in a dictionary must be true. There is no guesswork allowed. I may need to delve into death by auto-erotic asphyxiation. Or burrow out the details of pediculosis, the facts on female genital mutilation, or the widely-disputed claims of the Breatharians. From the birth and death of epochs to history’s bloodiest battles—from azoospermia to zygodactyls—dictionary editors find themselves on adventures impossible to envision beforehand. The monstrosities and atrocities, as well as the greatest accomplishments of humankind are all there, in alphabetical order, waiting to torment with a teaser that often incites the reader to expand their mind a bit. Everything that humans are capable of, every raw act, is manifested through language and must be carefully and accurately described in a lean, clean, concise way, without emotion or bias. But please do not expect us to sanitize the world. Life in general is offensive and the lexicographer’s job is to record it, not judge it.
Another reason that dictionary work is tricky is because the lexicographer has the luxury of knowing the meaning of the word he or she is trying to define (even if they just learned it themselves). But the editor must not let this prior knowledge interfere with defining the word in a plainspoken way. The editors must put themselves in the position of a user who may not have any knowledge at all in whatever subject the word concerns. The definition must not mystify or bewilder the user, though of course the user should seek additional information if needed.
I am not a lexicographer, I am what they call a “utility player,” meaning I have been entrusted to slog through a large variety of mechanical, unglamorous tasks that require steadfast attention to detail, and in the course of that, make decisions that sometimes affect the definition. The kinds of tasks I do are goal-specific, meaning a database is created to address an issue globally (throughout the book), and someone has to go through these entries one by one. There may be hundreds or thousands of entries to cover depending on the task. A recent task for me was to review several thousand geographical entries to update the populations and check for any possible inaccuracies generated by current events. It’s labor-intensive, and easy to get carried away.
How much do we need to know to define a word? That’s a good question, and why the best dictionary publishers, like Oxford University Press, retain experts in specific fields to call upon when needed to help resolve complex concepts, such as in the sciences, medicine, art, computing, etc. Clear, comprehensible definitions must always be written for the general reader, not other experts.
Though my travels through this curious world expose me to disgusting human activities I would prefer to be ignorant of—there is no better place for me. This beloved work filters my depression while I’m busy trying to find out if chaulmoogra oil is still used to treat leprosy. It saves me from obsessing about politics or worrying about my planet or my country or my neighborhood…or at least helps me put it in perspective.