Thursday, April 24, 2008

Smokin' ACES: Words will be words, unless your dictionary says otherwise (but it probably doesn't)

I can't remember, but I think Erin McKean was looking up a word on a BlackBerry as I snapped this. ... Sorry, Erin. But look! She's got letters, which make words, on her dress.

Words are surprisingly entertaining. So that means a book of words, also known as a dictionary, could be a good piece of literature to curl up to on a cold January afternoon.

Not necessarily. As I will explain later, there's danger of death when you do that.

But dictionaries do offer some fuel for debate and are often the main weapons of copy editors when attempting to shoot holes in a reporter's deranged word usage.

But copy editors should remember: Just because a word is in the dictionary, we don't necessarily have the right to use it.

Erin McKean, the dictionary evangelist and chief consulting editor at Oxford University Press, asked copy editors at their 2008 geek fest in Denver what they want in a dictionary.

For me, all I ask for is a sound compilation of words with definitions that are easy enough for a reporter to understand.

But copy editors often use the dictionary as ammunition against readers, too.

My boss has mentioned on a few occasions that readers have complained about using the word "tank" to describe a team or business that founders.

Yes, dear reader, the noun "tank" is a sort of military vehicle, but it also is a verb meaning to decline, to sink or to otherwise fail miserably. It's in the dictionary. Look it up.

But the dictionary doesn't have your back 100 percent of the time. You can't always interpret it literally. McKean's example was "hackles," which a dictionary might say are the hair on a dog's neck. But the entry might not say that it means temper or anger that becomes visible when you see the neck hair stand up. The sentence "The boy pets the dog's hackles" would just be wrong.

Even though the definition of a word is technically correct, it's use as such in a sentence just may not fit. But the dictionary doesn't tell us that. In this case, a copy editor can't point to a dictionary when saying, "I told you so," to a reporter who insists on using "hackles" in that manner.

A case for online dictionaries

So, copy editors need something to explain why a sentence is "just wrong."

That's where extensive etymologies and usage dictionaries could come in handy. But the space needed to print them would be mind-boggling.

"The paper book is just too limiting," McKean said. "They can't show the supporting evidence."

Newspapers have found the print product limiting, and dictionaries should follow their lead by migrating online. Cyberspace offers forums for comments on words and their various usages, sometimes depending on regional dialect. They also offer efficient searchability, a time saver that would help the copy desk.

Probably the best online dictionary is Merriam-Webster. Some of my fellow copy editors are known to look up more words on than in the proper, Associated Press-sanctioned Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

This is too bad, of course. Though Merriam-Webster bills itself as the direct descendant of legendary lexicographer Noah Webster, many circles see it only as the "slut" dictionary: It allows almost everything between its binders.

Ironically, Merriam-Webster seems rather bitter on its Web site. Under the frequently asked question "Are all Webster's dictionaries alike?" (which is answered "no"), it says: "In the late 1800s and early 1900s, legal difficulties concerning the copyright and trademark of the name Webster arose, and eventually many different publishers — some rather unscrupulous — began putting dictionaries on the market under the Webster's name."

I don't care. You're still a slut.

Words are fun when they're hopped up on caffeine

Where McKean really shined was in her humor and insight. Dictionaries can be fun.

She mentioned two words that irk her: "slacks" and "moist." I don't see their irksome nature. Of course, in Florida, if you dress up in a suit during the humid summer months, what do you get? Yup, moist slacks, and I guess they are a bit irksome.

McKean exposed a little-known fact about lexicographers. Because they guard their work closely, they make up words to see if other
lexicographers will steal them. A good example is "esquivalience." Go to this New Yorker article for more.

Also, the Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE, contains definitions from all the great sections of the United States. McKean mentioned the long-debated words for a soft drink.

These are my theories behind the soft drink variations:
  • pop (Upper Midwest)
  • coke (Lower Midwest and South, specificallyespecially Atlanta)
  • soda (Northeast)
  • tonic (Canadian border regions, such as my hometown)

Safe and deadly ways of improving vocabulary

This was the only session I attended with co-worker Beth. As we listened to McKean, I asked Beth, "What do you think she scored on her SAT?"

So, to get smart like her, McKean suggested two methods. One is safe. The other is fast and dangerous, possibly deadly.
  • Safe: Up your reading. Buy a bunch of magazines you wouldn't normally buy, ones that are out of your comfort zone. If you're the Vanity Fair type, buy Forbes. If you're the Forbes type, buy Vanity Fair.
  • Fast and dangerous: Buy a word-a-day calendar (or look at The Offlede's "Word of the Day" feed on the right sidebar). The danger is that you won't have the context to the use the word in a proper sentence. McKean said a child once told his librarian, "My family erodes a lot," because he learned that the definition of "erode" is "to eat away" or "to eat out." The boy meant to say, "My family eats out a lot." Also, high-security inmates with access only to dictionaries, not real books, are guilty of memorizing words without context. "You don't want to sound like someone writing from death row," McKean said.
Session information
  • Title: "Tell Me What You Really Want From Your Dictionary"
  • Time: 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday
  • Presenter: Erin McKean
  • Description: Once you really get some traction as a copy editor or journalist, you start to see the holes that all dictionaries—even great dictionaries—have. Words you can’t find. Unclear usage information. Ambiguity abounds, and trying to get a definitive (no pun intended) answer can be tricky, especially on deadline. But dictionaries can’t fix what they don’t know is broken. Come to this session and vent to a real-live lexicographer ... and learn about some new and exciting (and more importantly, more helpful) dictionary features that are just around the corner!
Smokin' ACES home


Anonymous said...

Erin McKean is hot.

Anonymous said...

Actually, she has letters and numbers on her dress. Not words.

And coke is not limited to Atlanta in the South. It's all over.

You limit her magazine example. Her point wasn't to try a new mainstream publication, but to expand to technical publications like Popular Science.

I don't know about Erin being hot, but she's certainly adorable.


Andrew Knapp said...

I said "specifically" in Atlanta because that's where Coke originated. I didn't limit it to Atlanta.

I understood her point about the magazines was to get out of your comfort zone. If people read technical magazines all the time, they wouldn't get anything out of reading more technical magazines. Right?

I see words when I see letters, though they may be jumbled.

Andrew Knapp said...

I changed it to "especially" to soften it.