Progress report for Mixed Blessings: The Dictionary of Blended Religion
computers in lexicography
short-term historical lexicography
My dictionary project turns eight years old this year, and I’m pleased to share a progress report with the Society. My last mention of the project in the newsletter was three years ago when, in a fit of irrational exuberance, I supplied David Jost with the following news item: “Tim Stewart announces the imminent completion of his Dictionary of Blended Denominations, which is due to come out this year” . Well, it’s spring 2019, and the book’s still not finished. The least I can do is pull back the curtain and share a little about what’s been done so far.
The dictionary, now titled Mixed Blessings (or MB for short), is a comprehensive collection of 1,500 words I call “blended-religion words” that were formed by combining the names of two or more religions or religious denominations. The vast majority of these blended-religion words are portmanteau words such as bapticostal, bujew, chrislam, conservadox, episcopagan, fundagelical, jubu, lutepisc, mennocostal, methobapticostal, jewnitarian, jewitch, quagan, and sushi. A few dozen blended-religion words are compound words employing a bound morpheme such as anglo-catholic, bapto-catholic, islamo-christian, and judeo-christian.
MB is a historical dictionary, and I chose this genre for several reasons:
• First off, I knew readers would need some convincing that these blends are real words and not just funny combinations I made up for satirical purposes, so MB’s citation paragraphs with bibliographical details are proof to the skeptics that the words are circulating out there in the real world.
• I wanted to assure readers that the definitions are based on how people actually use the words and aren’t naïvely based just on etymology, so the citation paragraph for every sense gives credibility to the definition.
• I wanted the dictionary to be a jumping-off point for readers who have a personal interest in learning about hybrid religious beliefs and practices (sometimes also referred to as “multiple-religious belonging” in the sociological and counseling literature). Thus the citations are detailed enough to easily send readers on to the books, articles, blogs, and websites the quotations came from, so readers can discover first-hand accounts and expert opinions and even reach out to like-minded individuals and communities.
• I think historical dictionaries as a genre are an intriguing nexus of challenges, from the traditional feats of compiling the word list and collecting and selecting citations to the modern-day hurdles of database management, typography, and page composition.
• Finally, my business plan for the MB project forecasts that academic libraries will be the primary market, and I’m banking on the idea that the historical dictionary format will give the dictionary greater weight in terms of authority and value. The fact that all these citation paragraphs pump up the page count doesn’t hurt either.
From reading other progress reports of dictionaries over the years, I can say that the lexicographical work on MB has proceeded much like it does for any other historical dictionary. I love that wonderful quote by Jesse Sheidlower from his semi-recent New Yorker article: “There’s nothing terribly mysterious about the process of writing a dictionary. You figure out what you want to include, research it, and then write it up” . So instead of rehearsing all-too familiar processes, steps, and tasks, I will focus on an aspect of MB that I think sets it apart from other dictionaries, and that is my method of building the word list.
First, some background. In early 2011, before I had seen or heard my first blended-religion word, I was blogging regularly about Christian buzzwords and Christian language trends at my website Dictionary of Christianese, and I was getting some decent traffic (10K visitors/month) and even some press attention in the form of radio and magazine interviews (including PRI’s “The World in Words” and Christianity Today). The public attention was prodding me to discover even more linguistic phenomena to blog about, so I was doing a lot of reading and skimming of Christian literature such as periodicals, books, and blogs, looking for prospective blog topics and evidence of trends.
It was in the course of this reading that I stumbled across blended-religion words. Unsurprisingly, the first ones I saw were Christian blends. I still have a list of the first 19 of these words I found. By March 2011 I had seen: bapticostal, baptigelical, calvminian, cathodox, evangecostal, fundagelical, pentegelical, presbycatholic, and presbycostal, and also (these next ones are grouped together, since they hail from the same short-lived renewal movement called “the emerging church”) agmergent, anglimergent, baptimergent, emergematic, evangemergent, luthermergent, methodomergent, pentemergent, presbymergent, and reformergent.
My small yet growing collection of what I was terming “blended-denomination words” was rapidly becoming a distraction from my usual blogging duties. Partly it was these words’ exquisite portmanteau morphology. (Portmanteaus are my favorite type of word formation.) But there was something else too. Religion sometimes gets characterized as being somber and even stuffy, and I felt that these blend words were evidence of an underappreciated creative linguistic impulse that was rattling around the hallowed halls. During 2011, my posting frequency on the Dictionary of Christianese blog ground to a halt as I retooled my research and reading habits to find more denomination blends.
But I faced a problem. How could I find more of these blend words? How does one go about finding more examples of such a specific set of words?
My first strategy was to get creative with database queries and Web searches. I searched for likely collocations such as “blend,” “dual,” “mixed,” “grew up,” “switched,” “different denomination,” and so on. That uncovered a few more words, but researching in this way was tedious and infrequently successful.
Then I had an aha moment. I realized that the blend words I was looking for were composed of bits and pieces of what was in truth a quite small set of source words—the names of Christian denominations (e.g., Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist) and Christian movements (e.g., charismatic, evangelical, fundamentalist). So why not start with the source words, combining them in a variety of ways, and then check which combinations seem to be attested in the real world? I felt like I was trading in my hook and line for a dragnet.
I searched for these computed blend words using electronic databases and Web search engines to find evidence of actual use of these terms in print and online sources, and I found some!
Nearly all of these computed blends were spurious. The success rate on the searches was low, never exceeding 2%. But while the rate was low, it seemed inevitable that I would eventually traverse the entire possible search space. My method seemed guaranteed to lead to every blend word composed of two denominations. I also searched for combinations of three and four denominations, and all I will say about the thousands of those sesquipedalian computed monstrosities I googled for is that I became extremely cozy with Google’s captcha page and its puzzles to see whether I was indeed human.
Let’s fast-forward a few years. By early 2016 I felt that the dictionary had grown large enough that I could start thinking about publishing a dictionary. As part of investigating the feasibility of this venture, I searched online for information about lexicographers who had published their own dictionaries. In the course of a lot of googling and link-hopping, I discovered Orin Hargraves’s tidy corner of the Web and the virtual shingle he had hung out offering to perform expert reviews of dictionary projects. The offer seemed perfect for the stage I was at, so we corresponded over email and struck a bargain, and I sent him a rough draft of the dictionary. A couple of days later he emailed me a Word doc containing a page and a half of insightful criticism and useful recommendations touching on the overall design of the book as well as specific aspects and components of it. He offered to discuss his feedback with me over a Skype call, which I happily accepted. Orin was professional, knowledgeable, and amiable in our dealings, which made it easier to receive his several suggestions for ways the dictionary could be strengthened and improved. He was right on all counts, of course. My education in lexicography was self-directed and haphazard, and he had been doing it successfully for decades. Well, when life hands you a reality check, cash it and keep moving!
There was one comment of Orin’s that turned out to have a far greater impact than all his other suggestions combined. This comment changed the course of my project and has added years to its production schedule. He wrote in his Word doc (and I’m paraphrasing): “I see that you’ve limited your scope to Christian terms. What about the bujews?” My reaction was, “The bu-what-now?” I hadn’t ever heard the word bujew, so I was inclined to dismiss the suggestion out of hand. But I dutifully googled “bujew” and discovered that its linguistic footprint was at least as large as any of the biggest Christian blend words I had researched. How could I have not known about bujews?
As is probably obvious from the description of my method, I had been researching within a tightly sealed bubble! My list of source words were Christian denominations. My program computed Christian blend words based on those source words. My databases and search techniques were biased toward Christian publications and sources. It was humbling to look back and see how cordoned off my research was. Learning about bujew and all the other non-Christian blended-religion words out there became a powerful lesson for me in the importance of sharing your ongoing work with others so they can pull you out of your assumptions and push you into your blind spots.
After the shock wore off, it was swiftly replaced by a strong and unshakable conviction that I mustn’t omit these non-Christian religious blends from my project, even though it would mean starting a fresh avenue of research to discover these new blends and collect citations and write definitions for them. The broader scope of the project also necessitated a change in title from Dictionary of Blended Denominations to the more inclusive Mixed Blessings.
Certainly my chief aim is for MB to be an authoritative source of lexical information about this interesting class of words. But I have a few more goals that are of a more social bent, and the conclusion of this article is a good place to mention a few of them.
One goal is that MB will leverage the social capital that inheres in printed dictionaries to raise the profile of the increasingly common phenomenon of multiple-religious belonging (MRB). The absence of nearly all these blended-religion terms from dictionaries has meant that people who employ them are open to criticism that they’re using “made-up words” and by extension that the hybrid religious and spiritual identities they’re attempting to describe aren’t legitimate. With the inclusion of these blended-religion terms in a printed dictionary, their legitimacy as means of self-expression will be better defended.
Another goal is that MB will help guide a variety of social influencers such as religious ministers, teachers, therapists, journalists, and authors. I envision this book in school libraries and in newsrooms where it enlarges and fortifies the working vocabulary of people who talk publicly about religion and culture. Perhaps thanks to MB we will see noticeable changes such as journalists no longer placing these religious blend words in scare quotes, or journalists amplifying discussions of these blend terms in news stories with interesting linguistic data such as how long a blended-religion term has been around and where else it has used it before (again we see the incomparable contributions of the chronologically ordered citation paragraph!).
An additional goal is that MB will be a source of inspiration and encouragement to religious seekers who thumb through its pages. May they see that they are far from being the first to wander off the beaten path in search of a more meaningful religious personality. I dream that people will sift through the entries to find a word that help them articulate and embrace their life story and spiritual journey. I’m excited and honored to be in a position to apply the art and craft of lexicography to document these words and, hopefully, share them with a large and appreciative audience.
Heartfelt thank-yous to Rebecca Shapiro and my wife Sara Stewart, who read early drafts of this article and provided helpful feedback that forced me to clarify my thoughts. Thanks are also due to our Executive Secretary Kory Stamper for looking up a few old Society records for me.
Tim’s Social Media
I blog about the Mixed Blessings project at https://www.mixedblessingsdictionary.com/blog .
I blog about lexicography at https://www.headwords.net/ .
Please email me with your questions or thoughts about the MB project or just say hi: firstname.lastname@example.org .
GLOBALEX MANAGEMENT COMMITTEE MINUTES JANUARY 2019
On 17 January 2019, members of the Globalex Management Committee (GMC) met via Skype (Ilan Kernerman, Simon Krek, Julia Miller, Dion Nkomo, Lars Trap-Jensen; excused was Ed Finegan). Ilan chaired. [This report includes updated information that became available after the GMC met.]
Website. The 2018 and 2016 workshop sites are available (again) on the Elexis website (elex.is/category/event/). Visitors will be redirected to the Globalex URL; for the 2019 workshop, a new page was set up (globalex.link/events/globalex-workshop-2019/). The Globalex website (globalex.link/) is intended to serve as a central repository for lexicography publications, conference proceedings and recordings. Ilan and Simon will discuss further at Elexis meeting.
GWLN2019. An announcement about Globalex Workshop on Lexicography and Neologism at DSNA 2019 has been emailed. To be held in Bloomington, Indiana, 7 May, immediately preceding the DSNA biennial meeting (dictionarysociety.com/conference/), the workshop will have fourteen papers, five of them presented virtually. The proceedings will appear on the Globalex website and the papers peer-reviewed for a special issue of Dictionaries. Meanwhile, the conference abstracts will appear in (the July 2019 issue of) Kernerman Dictionary News.
Editors forum. Following the last meeting of the GMC, Ilan contacted the editors of Dictionaries, IJL, Lexicography, and Lexikos, aiming to encourage cooperation on matters of common interest. (A report on the subsequent discussion among the editors is forthcoming.)
2019. 1) Lars will check with the Nordic Association of Lexicography about possible
involvement of Globalex at NAL’s next general assembly in June (helsinki.fi/sv/konferenser/15-konferensen-om-lexikografi-i-norden).
2) Afrilex (afrilex.africanlanguages.com/homelex.html) is not planning a Globalex workshop at its June meeting but can offer a slot during the AGM to raise awareness about Globalex.
3) Asialex (asialex.org/#news/14) will not have a joint event with Euralex.
4) eLex will meet 1-3 October in Sintra, Portugal; abstract deadline 15 February (elex.link/elex2019/).
5) AustraLex (www.adelaide.edu.au/australex/) will hold its biennial meeting on 3-4 September at the Australian National University in Canberra.]
EMLex. The EMLex (European Master of Lexicography) will be noted on the Globalex site, as it is the most extensive study program in lexicography. There will be a session on EMLex at the next Afrilex meeting (afrilex.africanlanguages.com/homelex.html).
Next GMC meeting. Ilan will set a doodle poll for the week of February 11. [The meeting has been scheduled for 11 February.]
NEWS FROM DARE
Reminiscence from Roland Berns, former member of DARE staff. [Editor: I hope to gather reminiscences from members of major projects over time. This is the first. Thanks to Joan Hall for passing on my request.]
A fact of life at DARE was forever being on the edge of extinction, of running out of money. FGC and Joan were always trying to secure backing so that we could carry on the work, and more than once we all received University-mandated letters from Joan (including Joan, who had to write one to herself) that there was no assurance that our jobs would exist next year. So I recall with particular fondness our receiving a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation, and FGC celebrating by bringing in a large watermelon, which we all shared. He was a word man, after all.
Visit of Joan Hall to Cambridge MA.
Joan and her husband George visited Cambridge, MA, recently to discuss DARE with its publisher, Harvard University Press. While there they had lunch with the editor of the Newsletter and also saw the Hyde Collection of Samuel Johnson materials at Harvard’s Houghton Library guided by John Overholt, Curator of Early Modern Books & Manuscripts, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Photos of John Overholt and the Houghton Library by George E. Hall.