________ is as much a creative process as it is a scientific one, which means that good ________ relies on the craft of drudges at their desks.
Did your mind immediately jump to copyediting to fill in the blanks? It’s a natural fit. The correct answer, though, is lexicography.
The quote comes from Kory Stamper’s forthcoming book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, available on March 14.
Just as copyeditors have begun to influence the wider world, so have dictionary editors, a.k.a., lexicographers.
Several years ago I couldn’t have said who edited the dictionaries I consulted daily, let alone been able to say that I’ve enjoyed meeting several and learned a lot from their writings, speeches, and videos. It’s made me a better editor.
Now we have a book we can dig into. I’ve always enjoyed Stamper’s writing on her blog, Harmless Drudgery. Stamper has a gift for creating vivid metaphors; long, lyrical descriptions; and witty one-liners that beg to be shared. Word by Word is classic Stamper talking about what she knows best: life as a dictionary editor.
Each chapter looks at a different aspect of lexicography, from learning how to actually do lexicography (“Hrafknell” and “But”) to the sometimes mind-numbing tasks that have piles of citation cards taking over your cubicle (“Take”) to the delightful surprises, such as when Stephen Colbert defends your honor (“Marriage”).
Stamper wants her readers to walk away with an accurate sense of what lexicography is all about. She writes:
Ask any lexicographer who has been at this gig for a while what word had them hunched over their cubicle at 6:00 p.m. on a Friday, hands clutched to their temples, the office copy of Quirk open on their desk while the night janitor loudly scrummed with the big recycling bin, and the answer will not be a polysyllabic hummer like “sesquipedalian.” The answer will be “but,” “like,” “as.”
This is, I think, something copyeditors understand well. Who among us hasn’t agonized over whether the correct phrase is different from or different than? Who hasn’t done the “Comma Pokey,” adding a comma, only to take it out a few minutes later—and possibly put it back in again after polling fellow editors?
As much as Stamper labels lexicography as drudgery, though, the book is anything but. It’s as enjoyable as it is enlightening. I found myself repeatedly sharing lines from the book with my family. Lines like “This complaint, however, was an onion of suck, layer upon layer of problems,” which describes the uproar that followed a BuzzFeed video on the inaccuracy of the definition of nude. (To be clear, Merriam-Webster agreed that the definition was flawed and tackled those layers of suck to fix it.)
In the epilogue, where Stamper has her final say on lexicography, she writes:
“Craft” implies care, repetitive work, apprenticeship, and practice. … Craft takes time, both internal and external. You need patience to hone your skill; you need a society willing to wait (and pay) for that skill.
That’s something copyeditors can certainly understand and appreciate.
You can enter a drawing for a free copy of Word by Word (possibly handed to you by the author herself) at Copyediting’s Freelancer Happy Hour on March 22, before the official opening of ACES 2017.