Category Archives: Dictionaries

A Whole New Kind of Politically Incorrect

Sometimes I speak to men and women just as a little girl speaks to her doll. She knows of course that the doll doesn’t understand her but she creates for herself the joy of communication through a pleasant and conscious self-deception. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

In these times of poverty, foreclosures, fear, and anger, most people are somehow able to afford Smartphones and Kindles. I understand that Kindles come with a dictionary, with larger downloadable versions available should the default not be adequate. I envy those with Smartphones and the ability to quickly research any question on their mind no matter where they are. When I am reading a book I am never far from a dictionary, but what a joy it must be to have a Smartphone handy instead of a cumbersome tome.

Yet we are not smarter. Our vocabularies dwindle as abbreviated text and computer-driven writing advice increases. Error-ridden blogs, newspapers, and even books are now acceptable. I just read a post that began: So here’s some info about a blogging workshop I’ll be facicilitating next week. With a facicilitator like this, would you sign up?

We fear appearing intelligent. In a world of flamers, trolls, and Wall Street Occupiers, we don’t want to stand out. Eloquence has become politically incorrect. We’re afraid we’ll be seen as arrogant if we use any more than the several thousand words used by teenagers, if we publish works that we proofread first, or if we dare use a word that the least articulate reader may not know. We’re uneasy asking readers to learn something new. What a drag.

We need not pen periphrastic phrases or long-winded circumlocutions, recondite riddles or abstruse analogies, bombastic observations or cryptic correspondence. But I say, writers (and speakers): mutiny against the mundane. Not by making a spectacle of your composition with specious synonyms that have strayed from the concept you are trying to convey, but by choosing from the powerful array of options available to us all. Our language is the richest in the world. Lexicographers are reluctant to report a number, but with derivatives and inflections it is estimated to be around a million words.

We are free to describe our thoughts with unimaginable ardor, animation, and artistry. If readers are insulted by this, you have no need to apologize. Instead, instruct them how to use their Smartphones for something productive.

New Word Rants—Don’t Kill the Messenger

Oxford University Press periodically publishes new words, and they recently announced a small sampling from the list of 400 new words that appear in the now-available twelfth edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. These words will not appear in print for a while in OUP’s flagship American dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary, as the 3rd edition was just released last fall (with the addition of about 2,000 new words and senses), but updates are available online. As I browse blogs, I encounter indignant rants from folks who just don’t get it.

I am proud to be part of the New Words Program. Each month, a group of readers submit 20 new words. Our job is to read, read, read—and though we are all assigned specific subjects, any new submissions are accepted. Sometimes we find older words that slipped through the cracks, sometimes new senses of old words emerge. OUP in no way inserts as actual entries all the submissions they receive—after the group submits them, the lexicographers further research them to determine the number of times they are used in everyday language.

So you’re mad that “sexting” went in. Lexicographers don’t create new words or make judgments on their suitability, unless they are considered too obscene. The lexicographer’s job is to record the language. If they don’t define new words, the dictionary becomes stagnant and unhelpful to a person needing a definition. Without new words, we’d still be speaking like we did hundreds of years ago. Many words become dated or archaic as new words dominate our culture. That’s progress.

If millions of idiots are sexting every day, it has to be in the dictionary. I’ve read angry posts calling for a stop to this—this is the downfall of English! They’re ruining our language! No, they’re not—our culture is. What they don’t realize is hundreds of new words are defined each year from the fields of technology, science, medicine, computers, government, cosmetics, mental diseases, weather catastrophes, fashion, architecture, culture, and a host of other subjects. Note that not long ago, even “blog” was a new word, and someone had to research it and make a decision whether to insert it as an entry. I wonder if the people who are now fuming about “retweet” were also mad about “blog” ten years ago.

Yes, some new words are a sad reflection of our times, but a dictionary has no need to apologize. If you don’t want to see sexting in the dictionary, then make it obsolete. If you don’t want to see jeggings, stop wearing them. If you can put an end to cyberbullying, then we won’t have to record it. If you don’t want to see social media terms in, then check your obsession with Facebook and Twitter. Because this is what people do, it must be documented. If these words bother you, there are still hundreds of thousands of other exquisite words in our beautiful language you can use to express yourself.

The Week in My World 4-5-11

A week of frustration, at the government, the news, a famous local “comedian” emailing me “don’t give me shit asshole” after asking a question about a sketch I found disturbing. Sometimes I think I don’t live, I fester. I keep my head down and squirm in my own slipstream.

There’s no work here on the border in AZ. I ran a housecleaning ad in the paper for a week ($55!) and on Craigslist  (spam!) but nobody’s calling. Spent the week begging for bottom-of-the-barrel low paying shit jobs, and glad to get them.

A couple days ago I walked off a jobsite of a horrible old hoarder couple who hate each other. The husband didn’t want me there, the wife followed me around in her wheelchair telling me not to touch stuff. Every surface in the house was piled with debris. The wife was bitter, the husband wouldn’t speak to me. Every question was met with sarcasm and bile. The toilet had so much shit in, on, and around it I almost puked. I packed up my stuff and walked out with no pay. I bugged everyone I know and harvested some other work, draining and scrubbing a huge dirty Jacuzzi, raking a pricker-laden yard while unprepared for sunburn, slithering through crawlspaces.

The search terms on my stats page about the boobs post continue to roll in. This week’s pervs found my blog by searching for “Pakistini girls breasts show in running positon,” and “big booobs fucking .com in age 14and 16” (inserted as is, copied and pasted from stats). You sick bastards.

But, as I was frantically scavenging for scraps, a dictionary freelance job arrived. It’s actually thesaurus work, my task is to fit, where applicable, 1500 new words as synonyms into existing data. It’s heaven. If only I could do this all day, every day, I would be such a good girl.

My friend Janice, who rescues mostly pitbulls, is trying to find a home for her latest rescue, Bonnie, also known as Bon Bon.

Bonnie is beautiful, loving, and smart. She's had a tough life. She'd make a wonderful companion to someone who doesn't have any other dogs.

Bonnie just wants someone to love.

She's full of kisses and snuggles.

A glorious bright oriole came to our feeder, but didn't stick around.

This old mesquite has a heavy infestation of the parasitic mistletoe plant. The mistletoe berries are dropped by birds into the mesquite, where they become embedded and take water and nutrients from the host tree. Eventually they cause the decline of the tree.

Mistletoe takes root inside the branches of the mesquite and actually grow from it. Mistletoe is a Christmas tradition, and is supposedly romantic and lovely, but we think it's a nuisance. They never look pretty, they just look like parasites.

Part of a decaying prickly pear killed by the February freeze. It's beautiful, death's artwork.

Closeup of decayed prickly pear, victim of February freeze

Some Unconventional Words

My friend and colleague Christine Lindberg is a senior editor of dictionaries and reference books at Oxford University Press—my nickname for her is “Wise One.”  She also writes a bi-weekly language column called  Let’s Look at the Language for a local newspaper near her home in upstate New York. One of her New Year’s resolutions was to choose twelve unusual words and use one in a column each month.

The words are:

digitabulist—n.    a person who collects thimbles
ensorcell—v.  to enchant or fascinate
fricative—n. or adj.   the sound of consonants such as f and th
gaberlunzie—n.   a strolling beggar of medieval Scots origin
haruspex—n.   a religious official in ancient Rome who interpreted omens by inspecting the entrails of sacrificed animals
longanimous—adj.   long-suffering, patient
noisome—adj.   smelly (a word frequently mistaken to mean noisy)
salvific—adj.   leading to salvation
scop—n.   an Old English poet or minstrel
treen—n.   articles, usually antique, made of wood
ugsome—adj.   a Scottish expression for horrible or loathsome
Usonian—adj.   relating to the United States

What word nerd could resist writing a bit of flash fiction using all of these delicious words? Not I.


Trust me, as a longanimous Usonian digitabulist, I know what hard times are. I have little choice but to embark upon a salvific journey, hoping for enlightenment. First stop, town haruspex, of course, who predicts an ugsome odyssey and hands me some sticky, noisome treen he claims has the power to ensorcell—which I don’t believe for a minute, but I thank him politely as it’s expected.

Weary and disoriented after a month’s peregrination, I seek guidance from a group of scops. Entertaining, yes—but by their refusal to communicate in anything but iambic pentameter, they simply confuse me further. I toss them the treen. “Fricative!” I cry. Am I doomed to the life of a gaberlunzie for eternity?


Write Less, Mean More

Scrolling recently through my feeds, I discovered the six word story. There are several websites who post these tiny but mighty stories exclusively, and many bloggers with posts inviting readers to respond with their own versions, which I hope readers will do here.

One website takes “the best” of their daily submissions and displays them in bigger type on a separate page. That’s a problem for me. The “best” entries are judged by standards that do not apply to me.

Consider the best submission of yesterday:

“Pregnant thrice. Still a childless parents.” It’s not grammatically possible to be “a childless parents.” It’s only six words, how can “the best” not even be proofread?

Meanwhile, many fine submissions that incite my curiosity are rolling by untapped. Plus, I’m just not interested in anyone’s pregnancy attempts. So here I am writing a post.

Paring ideas down to their leanest form is a freeing exercise, and as a dictionary editor it appeals to my compulsion to strip away the bullshit and try to create one uncluttered incarnation of words of equal substance.

It’s an empowering workout. I have a lot to learn.  Here are a few I wrote over the weekend. Feel free to add your own—the only rule is they must be no more than six words.

Man provoked dog. Daisy put down.

Disconsolate surrogate defaults, hatches shifty changeling.

Blood sisters. No family of mine.

Focused on good fortune, but digressed.

Please don’t leave, I promise lies.

Masquerade party. I pose as pleasant.

Indiscretion’s booty: hours lost, money gone.

Dead driver claimed right of way.

But Mom, I pet Buddy yesterday.

Eat Pray Love. Bite me. Hate.

Hot bath unhelpful. Edited shampoo bottles.

Another shameful failure—enter into database.

Statute of limitations enacted. Shut up.

Others are worse off, no consolation.

Climax resonates, crescendo of sorrow deafening.

Wounds ache, passive aggressive arsenal blamed.

Price of knowledge claims another casualty.

Been twenty years. Didn’t miss you.

Personality vacuous. Breasts bogus. Success enormous.

I tried to reach you. Liar.

Plumber’s butt. Pretty girl. Got photo.

Gaze. Kiss. Lie. Dirty weekend. Divorce.

Dictionary Vagabond

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.

Bragging Rights

Today is the official release day of the New Oxford American Dictionary 3rd edition.  I can’t describe it better than OUP’s website:

As Oxford’s flagship American dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary sets the standard of excellence for lexicography in this country. With more than 350,000 words, phrases, and senses, hundreds of explanatory notes, and more than a thousand illustrations, this dictionary provides the most comprehensive and accurate coverage of American English available.

I am proud to have worked on the first edition, and this one, the third. I was art editor and editorial assistant for the first edition and contracted out 1200 illustrations by several amazing artists back in Connecticut—and many of the illustrations, including some new ones,  are mine. There’s no room in dictionary illustration for cheating or sentiment. They must be absolutely accurate. To draw dictionary illustrations an artist must seek out excellent references on the subject, and that’s often not easy. The pictures don’t fall out of our heads.

No one who loves and uses dictionaries would believe how much work goes into creating one—every tiny revision has consequences. Thousands of new words are assessed, others deleted. There are hundreds of editorial tasks to be done including a huge proofreading effort by a stable of some of the most experienced dictionary proofreaders in the US, including yours truly! I have never written about working on dictionaries before so it’s tumbling out! I think the main point about dictionary work is this: anything included must be true. Think of the thousands of subjects a dictionary covers—making sure every definition is the truth requires an enormous amount of research but it’s an obligation taken very seriously. And deadline time is as crazy as in any job with late nights, too much coffee, and blurry eyes for all involved.

This dictionary is also available as an online subscription.

Recent Dictionary Illustrations

I do freelance editorial work and illustrations for Oxford University Press (OUP), whom I was employed by back east through the  ’90s. Our US Dictionaries Department was closed after 9/11 and all employees but one were let go.  After an eight-year hiatus, I am fortunate to be working for them again.

OUP’s flagship American dictionary is the New Oxford American Dictionary, known as NOAD. I am proud to have contributed to the first edition (2001) as art editor, proofreader, and editorial assistant—now I’m excited to be a part of the third edition, available any day now.

They requested that the new illustrations represent the American southwest, a category that could be enlarged. I was more than happy to oblige. Above all else, dictionary illustrations must be accurate. For flexibility and forgiveness I use a .005 Micron drawing pen and an x-acto knife on coated stock. Here are a few samples…

Gambel’s quail by Debra Argosy © 2010 Oxford University Press
Greater roadrunner by Debra Argosy © 2010 Oxford University Press
Cholla cactus by Debra Argosy © 2010 Oxford University Press

Cactus wren on cholla branch by Debra Argosy © 2010 Oxford University Press