MetroLex

After the DSNA meeting in Vancouver, people were wishing to prolong the good energy that goes with a conference and were disappointed that the next one would be in two years. In that spirit, Katherine Martin, Ben Zimmer, Wendi Nichols, Ammon Shea, and I—all who live in and around New York City—created a DSNA-sponsored series on lexicography. The email messages in December were exploratory, getting a sense of what we hoped to accomplish. At a meeting we clarified the mission and named ourselves. The early winner was DSNY—perfect, until Ben or Ammon pointed out that those are the initials of the Department of Sanitation, and lexicographers aren’t really into sanitizing the language anymore anyway. Being from New Jersey and feeling a bit put upon by NY—as people from New Jersey often do—I suggested MetroDS (rejected because Ben pointed out that DS in NYC stands for Department of Sanitation and we are not in the business of cleaning up our language). Then, Ammon clinched it with MetroLex.

The first meeting in January was three days after an epic snowstorm (for NYC) and we still had around 40 people—amazing what we’ll do for lexicography, wine, and pretzels (they were all good). The talks were on works in progress at Google, OUP, and the Endangered Language Project at CUNY—Queens. The papers were short, casual, and exciting. The theme of the first session was aptly named “Language Documentation and Data Wrangling.” Three speakers made brief but provocative and fascinating presentations about ongoing projects: Daniel Kaufman, director of the Language Documentation Lab at Queens College and co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance; Katherine Martin, head of US dictionaries at Oxford University Press; and Slav Petrov, senior staff research scientist in natural language processing and machine learning at Google.

Ben Zimmer, executive editor of Vocabulary.com and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, moderated. We had a diverse audience: editors, professors, grad students, linguists, lexicographers, and friends. The questions flew, as did the time.

On April 11, Oxford University Press again hosted the second MetroLex–sponsored by the DSNA–in their New York offices. The theme was “Language, Lexicography, and the Law,” and we were fortunate to have three distinguished speakers with a wide range of experience in forensic and historical lexicography.

First on the program was Robert A. Leonard, Professor of Linguistics at Hofstra University and a much-sought-after expert witness on language. He spoke (among other things) about educating students in forensic linguistics, their contributions to the field, and his own experience in supporting legal investigations and trials. Next came Lawrence Solan, Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and Director of the Center for the Study of Law, Language and Cognition. He spoke (among other things) about the fondness of judges for dictionaries and the complexities of using dictionary definitions as authorities somehow free of historical conditions that could profoundly affect the meaning of words. Fred R. Shapiro, Law Librarian at the Yale University School of Law, spoke (among other things) of the process of establishing historical usage, antedating the OED‘s records of earliest printed uses, the history of the terms for tiddlywinks and baseball, discovering and using new corpora, and the many joys of historical linguistics.

After each presentation the floor was open for questions, and lively discussion ensued, moderated by Ammon Shea, lexicographer and author. We are especially grateful to Shmuel Ross for videotaping the presentations (and discussions, which are now available to watch on YouTube). Rebecca Shapiro, Executive Secretary of the DSNA, opened and closed both events.

After two successful meetups last year hosted by Oxford University Press, the first MetroLex of 2017 was held at Columbia University, hosted by associate professor of English and comparative literature John H. McWhorter and by Cambridge University Press. The theme of this session was “Politics and Ideology in the History of Dictionary Making.” Three speakers made brief presentations about research projects:

Jack Lynch, professor of English at Rutgers University–Newark, author of You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia (2016) and The Lexicographer’s Dilemma (2009).

Noah Webster is famous for fighting the nineteenth century’s “dictionary wars” with Joseph Worcester. But before the first shot was fired in that war, Webster was engaged in hostilities with his most important predecessor, Samuel Johnson. Webster had a complicated relationship with Johnson, eagerly disavowing him and his politics while quietly cribbing much of his work. This talk focused on how Webster squeezed the word “American” into Johnson’s title.

Rebecca Shapiro, assistant professor of English at CUNY–New York City College of Technology, author of Fixing Babel: An Historical Anthology of Applied English Lexicography (2016).

We like to think of dictionaries as neutrally explaining what words mean or how they’re used in sentences. They can be general—for students—or specific—for language learners or a profession. But we don’t think of dictionaries as being thinly­ veiled conduct books telling us how low our necklines should be, how to make our own cosmetics, how to talk pleasingly to a man, or even what not to read. The Ladies Dictionary (1694) was just that sort of thing: its aim wasn’t to make women smarter, but to make women prettier.

Donna Farina, professor of multicultural education at New Jersey City University.

The focus of this talk was on usages in the Russian language that arose during the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, such as krymnash ‘the Crimea belongs to us.’ We discussed the lexicographic strengths and weaknesses of some contexts with the new usages. Our goal was to gain insight into connotation, the Ugly Stepsister of the Dictionary. In a world where online presentation of lexicographic material provides possibilities not available previously in print dictionaries, how exactly should connotation, given its propensity to change so quickly, be treated in lexicographic definition and in illustrative examples?

To see the presentations, go to https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLABhWuS4vj7TFUhw3IRQdDm8koOFbFQEh.

The presentations were followed by discussion and light refreshments provided by Cambridge University Press.

We welcome suggestions for panels, panelists, and hosts for future meetings. These free events will be held roughly three times a year. We encourage you to establish MetroLexes in other regions to spark interest and keep us connected between conferences.

(Rebecca Shapiro)