A workshop in lexicography and lexical computing
After last year’s unavoidable cancellation, we are happy to announce that the Lexicom Workshop will run again this year. Participant numbers will be limited to just 20 (to ensure social distancing) and we have a very flexible cancellation policy.

Jesus College, Cambridge, UK
20 – 24 September 2021

Your 5 days to get up-to-date with the latest developments in
corpus-driven lexicography and to activate and enhance your
corpus building and corpus query skills with some of the top experts in the field.

Check the programme, lecturers and invited speakers on the website


Call for papers: Children’s dictionaries

Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America invites submissions for a special issue focused on the topic of Children’s Dictionaries, edited by Susan Rennie.

Children’s dictionaries have a long history within the practice of lexicography, from Renaissance dictionaries compiled to aid the learning of Latin to the latest dictionary apps designed for use in schools. In content and style they are enormously varied, ranging from pedagogical dictionaries written for classroom use to whimsical glossaries of words in children’s fiction; and they span a wide age range from first word books and picture dictionaries to dictionaries aimed at high-school students.

A children’s dictionary is very different to an adult dictionary of the same size and headword count; and decisions over which words are allowed into, or excluded from, children’s dictionaries can be emotive. More weight may be given to words used in fiction, and less to slang and current buzzwords. Definitions and usage examples will reflect the experience of children rather than grown-ups; and children’s thesauruses typically have a more creative focus than their adult counterparts.

Despite these important differences, and the long and varied history of children’s dictionaries, there has been comparatively little research to date on the topic, and the specialism is often passed over in general surveys or handbooks of lexicography. This special issue aims to redress that imbalance. As well as pertaining to lexicography and dictionary history, the topic also has relevance for researchers in education, psychology and children’s literature.

Articles are invited on any aspect of children’s dictionaries, including but not limited to the following:

  • the history of children’s dictionaries or children’s lexicography
  • the compilation of children’s dictionaries, including the use of dedicated corpora
  • the content of children’s dictionaries, including the treatment of potentially sensitive terms
  • prescriptive versus descriptive approaches in children’s dictionaries
  • the relationship between children’s dictionaries and children’s fiction
  • the design of children’s dictionaries, including the role of illustration and typography
  • thesauruses or topic-based dictionaries for children
  • children’s dictionaries in languages other than English, including bilingual and ELT
  • digital applications in children’s lexicography
  • children’s dictionaries and literacy
  • dictionary usage by children and/or in schools

Full papers should be submitted to guest editor Susan Rennie (scrennie@gmail.com)by January 15, 2022. Informal inquiries before that date are welcome.

All papers will be reviewed anonymously by at least two peers.

Information about the journal and guidelines for contributors can be found here.

Publication is planned for Spring 2022 (volume 43, issue 1).

DSNA Ballot

The Nominating Committee and Executive Board are pleased to present the 2021 DSNA ballot for electing new Board officers, new Fellows, and voting on new Amendments to our Code of Regulations. You can access the ballot at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/DSNA21.

Voting is limited to members of the DSNA in good standing. The ballot will remain open until April 17, 2021.

This ballot features quite a number of items, so please click through each page of the ballot and vote in all three sections. The ballot is introduced and explained in a letter by President Elizabeth Knowles.

We will announce the results of the ballot at our Biennial Business Meeting on May 21, 2021, at noon EDT (US). A link to the Business Meeting will be sent out to our members a week prior to the meeting.

Thank you for your participation!

Publication Information Spring 2021

The DSNA Newsletter is usually published twice a year, in the spring and fall. Editor is David Jost. Associate Editor is Peter Chipman. Member news items can be sent to dsna.membernews@gmail.com. Other Newsletter correspondence, such as articles for publication, should be directed to the editor at dajebj@gmail.com.

Send correspondence re membership, etc. to

Kory Stamper, Executive Secretary, DSNA
PO Box 537
Collingswood, NJ 08108-0537

This issue:  Vol. 45 No. 1 (2021)

Cumulative issue #91

Quotations Elizabeth Knowles Spring 2021

Ships that Pass in the Night

Elizabeth Knowles

It is a common experience for a researcher, pursuing a particular line, to come across a tempting side path; one of the pleasures of retirement is that it is purely a personal choice as to whether or not you break off to pursue it. This happened to me recently, when I was looking for earlier general references to dictionaries of quotations. One of those I found was an item in the “Queries” column of New York Times of January 28, 1905 which immediately piqued my interest. The question turned on the origin of a book title. As the correspondent (a George Ashby of Yonkers) put it: “When Miss Harraden’s ‘Ships that Pass in the Night’ was published, it was said of a certain dictionary of quotations at the time that it was the only one that gave this phrase and its author’s name.” He wanted the answer to two questions. “Who was the author, and whose dictionary was it?”

            The first part of the question was easily satisfied: the New York Times supplied the source (a line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Theologian’s Tale: Elizabeth” in his Tales of a Wayside Inn), and gave the full line from which the phrase was taken: “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing.” They could not however supply the answer to the second part, and possibly thought but poorly of Mr Ashby of wanting to know it: “We do not know which dictionary of quotations is referred to, but it is not a very important matter” – a view in which I differ from them, since I thought it said something rather interesting about the prevalence, or lack of prevalence, of what is now a reasonably familiar quotation. I decided to explore further the background to Miss Harraden and her book (I knew nothing of either of them) and to see whether I could identify the dictionary of quotations referenced.

            Very fortunately, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has an entry for Beatrice Harraden (1864–1936), describing her as a “novelist and suffragist.” Ships that Pass in the Night, published in 1893, was her first novel, and made a hit with the public. The Sewanee Review of November 1894 described it as “more spoken of than any book that has appeared since ‘Robert Elsmere’” –that is, Mrs Humphrey Ward’s 1888 “drama of religious faith and doubt” as ODNB describes it, which had also been a notable bestseller. OED, in its entry for ships that pass in the night, gives the Harraden title as its first example of usage in relation to people whose acquaintance was necessarily transitory.

Consulting the Bodleian catalogue, I discovered that the year after her book appeared, Beatrice published a pamphlet entitled Concerning Ships that Pass in the Night, in which she went into some detail about the title. It had in fact originally been a working title only, explained to the publishers when she submitted it as a temporary stop-gap, “just for the sake of calling the book something.” However, the publishers evidently liked it, and it survived; as it turned out, somewhat to her regret. She had been given the words years ago as a quotation from Longfellow, but she had never traced them to a particular work, although she had “searched through many editions of Longfellow.” Unfortunately, as she discovered, as her book became more widely known, the first question put to her by a reader was likely to begin “Where –”, on which she knew instinctively what was going to follow. “I … began to wish that my ships would sink and be heard of no more.” Beatrice (who was evidently at the time of writing in the US) thought that “in the land of Longfellow no one needs to ask such a question”, but said that she understood letters of inquiry were still being sent to her in England. (Of course, given George Ashby’s query in 1905, there can hardly have been universal recognition of the words, even in America.)

Turning to usage evidence, a trawl online reveals a number of instances in the first decades of the twentieth century, mainly in US sources. Beatrice’s work does seem likely to have had the effect of cementing this particular phrase in the public consciousness – but what was the only dictionary of quotations, at the time her book appeared, to include the relevant quotation? It was not in the 1882 eighth edition of the premier American collection, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and in fact did not appear either in the 1905 ninth edition. The one contemporary compilation I have found that did include it is the 1882 Cyclopædia of Practical Quotations, edited by Jehiel Keeler Hoyt and Anna Livia Ward. By 1914 and the tenth edition, however, Bartlett’s had caught up; the Longfellow entry included the key lines, complete with footnotes to a number of references employing similar images.

I suspect that today Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn may not be frequently read, but it would be virtually unthinkable for a dictionary of quotations which included a Longfellow entry not to have this particular line. I find it interesting to reflect on this bit of quotation history, in which a now-forgotten writer may, by an almost accidental choice of title for an unexpectedly successful book, have had a significant effect on both language use, and the content of a dictionary of quotations published today.

Elizabeth Knowles

Oxford, November 2020

State of Lexicography Orin Hargraves Spring 2021

Defining Moments

Orin Hargraves

I wrote my first definition for money in 1991. Here it is now 2021! Some things have changed, some have stayed the same during those 30 years.

1991-95: Paper Gives Way to Pixels

My first paid lexicography gig was on the Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture. It was a first-edition learner’s dictionary, largely already written by British lexicographers. Four UK-resident Americans were recruited for the job, which was to add American content and Americanize the standing definitions enough so that the book could be marketed to learners of American English.

None of us had or were expected to have a computer at home, and the internet was a novelty we’d barely heard of. Batches of work came to us in the mail, printed on A4 sheets. Along with each batch came a packet of paper-clipped index cards, which represented the cross-references to other entries in the dictionary from that batch. We edited the British definitions (adding American senses where needed), and added new words from American vocabulary that fell alphabetically within our batch. If a new cross-reference was required, we added an index card. All of our work was mailed back to Longman in Harlow, where their people transferred our handwritten work to their database.

There was no corpus or anything else for us to look at; only other dictionaries. We were given pretty clear guidelines about what amount of “inspiration” we might draw from looking at the work of others who had already invented the particular wheel that we were working on. We relied largely on our intuitions and on each other; the four of us were often on the phone, even though we lived in different parts of Britain, and we got together in person when we could.

The biggest challenge of the project was staying within the bounds of Longman’s Defining Vocabulary, the list of 3000 words which could be used in definition text. If you needed to use a hard or unfamiliar word in a definition it was set in small caps as a cross-reference, and this was discouraged. We Americans soon found that the British defining vocabulary was less than ideal for American English. We lobbied for and got some changes to it. Cricket, lord, parliament, and railway were out; Baseball, high school, inch,  and railroad were in, among many other changes, which eventually resulted in Longman having two defining vocabularies, one for British and one for American English. I was reminded of this not too long ago when I worked on the Oxford 3000 and the Oxford 5000, which also exist in two versions: British and American.

I continued to work for Longman during the next four years on various titles for the American market. By the end of that time, they had rented me a computer (£50/month) on which I now did the work in flat files and sent it to them on 3-inch floppies.

1996-2000: Dictionary Software, Corpora, and the Migration Online

I moved back to the US for the first time in 1992 and soon after attended my first DSNA conference in 1993. There I met the great and charming Sidney Landau, who agreed to take me on for an upcoming project with CUP. By the time it got fully underway (early 1995) I was back in the UK but this proved not to be an impediment. Paul Heacock was visiting Cambridge and he came down to London one day to get me up to speed. Together we loaded CUP’s editing software (I think it was an off-the-shelf XML editor) and a corpus—all onto Longman’s rented computer! It took more than an hour; the software and corpus were on a boatload of 3-inch disks that had to be loaded one by one. Paul showed me how to use the corpus, write and edit definitions on the computer, and also how to import and export packages of work via FTP. This project was the Cambridge Dictionary of American English, another Americanization project for which the underlying data was the Cambridge International Dictionary of English.

The next year I was back in the States, and the Cambridge database was on PubMan, a product developed by Stephen Perkins for dictionary content management. PubMan answered all the needs of the Cambridge data. You could edit and augment the data online or off, but mostly off, using an XML editor.  It was a great product for basic dictionaries and of all the systems I have worked on, the one I still like the best.

During this period I also worked on EWED, the Encarta World English Dictionary. Different software and editing environment, but essentially the same setup of doing work offline but having the ability to look into other parts of the dictionary online, which helped greatly with cross-references and to check for inclusions and omissions.

2001-05: Word Sketches and Prepositions

Following close on the heels of EWED, I worked on the Macmillan English Dictionary (MED) with a lot of the cast of characters who had worked on EWED. It was a new, from-scratch learner’s dictionary. But now here was something novel: a collection of CD-ROMS on which were loaded Word Sketches. Sketch Engine wasn’t online yet but the vision of it was incubating in Adam Kilgarriff’s capacious mind and he had already put together Word Sketches for thousands of high-frequency words, using the British National Corpus. If a word had a Word Sketch, we were to use it in crafting our definitions for the MED.

I can’t adequately describe what a revolution Word Sketches were for streamlining the work of the lexicographer. So I’ll borrow some words from Buddhist scripture: “Magnificent! Just as if one were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to set out a lamp in the darkness so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has the Blessed One made the truth clear.” Only here it was not the Blessed One but rather the Word Sketch that made the truth clear. Hours of painstaking and mind-numbing study of corpus examples could be saved by simply looking at a Word Sketch and absorbing a digest of a word’s behavior patterns extracted from thousands of language samples.

The gravy train of remote defining for various publishers that had kept me going all through the 1990s suddenly came to a halt – not long after I’d bought a house and a car in 1998. Along with the hat-in-hand emails that I regularly sent to everyone I’d ever worked for to see if there was more work about, I looked around for other things to do. This led me to Ken Litkowski, who lived about an hour away from me and who was working on what became the Preposition Project: an attempt to characterize the semantic and syntactic features of prepositions in a way that would be usable in natural language processing (NLP). I wrote about it briefly in the February 2020 Newsletter.

What I did for Ken over the course of four years was pretty much the converse of defining: you start with a sense inventory (we used the one from the New Oxford Dictionary of English)  and your job is to map sentences that instantiate a particular word sense to that sense in the inventory. If the usage represented a sense that was not in the inventory, I expanded the inventory to account for the undocumented sense by writing a new definition. This proved to be necessary only infrequently.

Spending most of my working life with prepositions for four years took harmless drudgery to a new level but the experience was invaluable, primarily in introducing me to the nuts and bolts of NLP: the never-ending business training computers to deal competently with natural language.

2006-2010: Software is King

As dictionary publishers dropped like flies and more and more in-house lexicographers got their pink slips, I reflected that perhaps I had made a good choice in never becoming one, despite occasional temptations. There were no long-term defining projects around during this period: only odd jobs of a few weeks to a few months for OUP, CUP, Harper-Collins in Glasgow, and Merriam-Webster. I never turned down an offered job: doing any tiresome old task was better than having no work. The benefit of this was having to regularly learn new software and develop the ability to jump quickly from one platform to another. These skills were now indispensable; anything I knew about lexicography would have found no takers if I couldn’t quickly master new software as well.

OUP and Harper-Collins had both started using software from IDM (DWS, their Dictionary Writing System). It was PubMan on steroids: many more bells and whistles, it required a lot more training time to master, a lot more things could go wildly wrong, and for any given dictionary entry, there were a lot more things the lexicographer had to input or check.

Through Ken I was introduced to Roberto Navigli of the University of Rome, who was developing computational models for word sense disambiguation. Roberto gave me projects that required me to map instances of usage (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) in a corpus to various dictionary sense inventories. This involved one delightful trip to Rome but was mostly done online, using interfaces that Roberto and his team wrote. Work with him eventually led to our paper for the 2007 SemEval Coarse-Grained English All-Words Task, which still racks up an occasional citation today.

2011-2021: the LSA Throws Open the Door to NLP

 In 2011 the DSNA sponsored me to teach the lexicography course at the LSA Summer Institute at CU-Boulder. Martha Palmer, professor of Linguistics and Computer Science at CU, ran the Institute. Owing to Ken Litkowski, Adam Kilgarriff, and Roberto being in academic circles that overlapped with hers, she was acquainted with my capacity for computational harmless drudgery.

By this time I had seen the writing on the wall about the viability of continuing to earn a living from contract lexicography and the writing said: “not anymore, chump.” It was already in my mind to return to Colorado (where I grew up) to spend more time with my ailing mother and I mentioned this to Martha. She said: “Come to Boulder; I’ll fix you up with something.” This is how I know that she is my fairy godmother.

The next year I went to work for her, expanding coverage in VerbNet in order to make it more usable in the NLP community. We needed to sense-map thousands of verb usages from various corpora to the VerbNet inventory in order to identify gaps in the inventory generally, and also to discover important missing senses of polysemous verbs. If a new verb or new sense needed to be added to VerbNet, Martha’s team of grad students and I found a home for it in the hierarchy (based initially on Beth Levin’s English Verb Classes and Alterations) and tried to nail down the limits on its syntactic behavior. This process was often long and fraught, and exactly like trying to determine how many genuinely distinct senses a verb has and how they should be divided. After years of working with prepositions, verbs felt technicolor and fascinating. I still find them so.

Through Martha I got onto a project for the Technische Universität Darmstadt. The challenge there was to see if a database of text from Yahoo Answers could be mapped in detail to FrameNet. Yahoo Answers is a bit like Quora, if you subtract grammatically, factuality, good spelling, and any pretense of authority. The annotation interface required mapping someone’s Yahoo Answer to a specific frame in FrameNet, and then individually mapping the sentence constituents to whatever frame elements they represented. This work was one of the inputs for Knowledge-based Supervision for Domain-adaptive Semantic Role Labeling, the whopping 268-page dissertation of Dr. Silvana Hartmann that I know I should read someday.

All of these NLP projects were fun and challenging and they all extended my lexicographic mind in directions I had never anticipated. I think the chief take-home was something that I already strongly suspected from two decades of defining: the more polysemous a word is, the more arbitrary is the division of its meanings into discrete senses. In the end, you have a job to do, whether it’s turning out a definition or assigning a word usage to a definition, and you’re nearly always working against the clock. Agonizing about nuances of difference between particular senses, even though it is the cherished pastime of the lexicographer and the semanticist, is rarely productive. It’s hard to find anyone who will pay you for it.

There are a couple of larger take-homes from all of the foregoing: first, it is an irony that today, owing to the internet and computer technology, lexicographers have at their disposal unsurpassed resources for writing good definitions that reflect real language usage. But the internet and computer technology have effectively collapsed the commercial dictionary market, and so the need for lexicographers to define is now greatly diminished.

The second take-home is that lexicography, the longer you have the privilege and good fortune to practice it, gives you a valuable facility with language that is still useful and relevant today, even as the writing of English dictionaries has become a quiet backwater.

History Michael Adams Spring 2021

The Hart Chart

Michael Adams

Histories of lexicography usually focus on influential dictionaries and those who made them. Rarely do we focus on historical users of dictionaries or the public reception of dictionaries. One can look at such things systematically, of course, coding mentions of dictionaries in the press, for instance, and characterizing reception on the basis of such data. One can also look at individual users and see how they figure in the history of lexicography but also, since users are citizens passing through social activity besides lexicography, how the use and reception of dictionaries resonates in larger historical and cultural domains.

Laurance H. Hart was, as his obituary in The Central New Jersey Home News (November 28, 1964) observed, “one of [Metuchen, New Jersey’s] most colorful citizens.” With decades of further hindsight, that seems an understatement. A civil engineer with a degree from The Ohio State University, Hart had helped construct and maintain the New York State Barge Canal, but he also sold encyclopedias in Michigan and later became an insurance agent. He organized the Ohio ball celebrating the election of Warren G. Harding as president of the United States; he was president of The Ohio State University Alumni Association. From 1931 forward, he also impersonated George Washington in more than 4,000 events in 32 states, from kindergarten classrooms to the Harvard Faculty Club, on radio, on television, at the New York World’s Fair.

Hart also set up as a critic of encyclopedias, atlases, and dictionaries, producing what came to be known as “Hart Charts” [for an example, see Hart Chart Whole (1) at end of article]. According to Neil Gallagher, in an article titled “Like Washington, Hart Believes in Truth,” in The Central New Jersey Home News (February 21, 1962), he started with encyclopedias in 1929, with dictionaries following in 1947. Apparently, the last printing of the 1962 chart appeared in 1964, as reproduced here.

The Hart Chart organized a lot of dictionary data, as you can see: price, weight, size, number of pages, lines of text, number of illustrations, and then rather peremptory judgments about matters of inclusion; the effectiveness of etymologies and pronunciations and typography; treatment of synonyms, slang, foreign phrases; with summary judgments under the heading “Other Strong Points.” A brief description in a review of “Pamphlets” in The English Journal (June 1951), put it this way: “A graphic comparison of the relative merits and shortcomings of reference works — standard and substandard. The author’s personal recommendations may be disputed, but the facts on which individuals may base their own opinions are on the charts.” It’s hard to reconcile the Washington impersonator with the self-described “Lexiconoclast,” but people are complicated and so is the history of lexicography.

One can’t help but admire the Hart Chart’s precision and marvel at the pertinacity of someone without a vested interest in dictionaries and their making to pay such close attention to them, year after year, as a public service. But one also detects self-promotion in the chart’s upper right corner — “4000 Appearances as GEORGE WASHINGTON dramatizing Washington’s own original words” — and besides his dictionary verdicts, he was willing to pass some on American English — “The ‘SCHWA.’ I protest against slovenly abuse of the SCHWA (“ǝ”) to relax, reduce, enfeeble, dull and confuse sounds of unaccented vowels” — and to impart general wisdom — “The name “WEBSTER” is no longer under copyright, so both good and bad books use it” — though the issue is one of trademark not copyright. You can learn a lot about English dictionaries and the language they record and analyze by browsing a Hart Chart.

 At least once, Hart’s reputation brought him into the mainstream of news. George W. Cornell interviewed him for an article titled “‘Controversial’ is the word for defining Webster’s Third” in the Asbury Park Press (February 26, 1962), and he was not on the new dictionary’s side: “They have legitimized a lot of vulgarisms and colloquialism. Up to now, Webster’s was looked on as ‘a judge,’ he said, adding: “In court it could be said that Webster’s said so and so and we knew it was so. Now they have a[b]dicated their great responsibilities and opened the floodgates … This edition should appeal [to those] who read comics and tabloids, enjoy TV, etc. — but not to those who are ambitious, careful, and studious.” He wrote and self-published a review of Webster’s Third, dated March 15, 1962, to send out with the Hart Charts [see Hart M3 review complete at end of article]. He closed with this admonition: “I have received 50 reviews from newspapers and magazines. Only three are enthusiastic. Too bad! for the book has so many great merits. Meantime, keep your King James Bible; your 11th Britannica; and your 2nd edition of Merriam.”

That, of course, from a man with many dictionaries at his disposal. No Dwight MacDonald or Wilson Follett, Hart doesn’t appear in standard works on Webster’s Third, like Herbert C. Morton’s The Story of Webster’s Third: Philip Gove’s Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics (Cambridge UP, 1994) or David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (Harper, 2012); nor does Cornell’s article appear among those reprinted by James Sledd and Wilma R. Ebbitt in Dictionaries and That Dictionary: A Casebook on the Aims of Lexicographers and the Targets of Reviewers (Scott, Foresman, 1962), though the advice to hold on the Second Edition comes up there once or twice. Hart’s perspective adds a dimension to the controversy, however, especially because he took the middle ground — he’s closer to the elusive man in the street than many other commentators.

In his review of Webster’s Third for Consumer Reports (October 1963), Allen Walker Read also took a balanced view, from a somewhat loftier perch than Hart, and he concluded similarly, though more expansively: “With these and all other changes in mind, what about the suggestion that one ought to continue to use the Second Edition of the Merriam-Webster in preference to the Third? Here we must take into account that a person enjoys a dictionary that he is familiar with and whose form he knows by heart. One who has used the Second Edition feels a wrench changing to the Third. Perhaps the changeover should be made gradually. Eventually, though, it will have to be made, for in the long run the needs of the 1960s will not be met by a book of 1934. The arguments for continuing with the 1934 edition apply, at least in principle, just as well to the 1909 edition. In fact, I recently browsed in that edition and found that it has an uncluttered, serene air that made me long for a simpler era. But the 1960s are with us. If you own the edition of 1934, do not throw it away, as it is chockful of fine material; but if you wish to buy a new dictionary, you will be better served by the Third.” Not identical, Read and Hart were nonetheless two peas in the same pod, neither doctrinaire prescriptivists nor descriptivists. Indeed, Read subsequently noticed Hart and his charts in his review of “Desk dictionaries” for Consumer Reports (November 1963).

He had Hart in mind. A letter from Read to Hart (September 27, 1963) mentions Hart’s original contact, when he sent Read a copy of that year’s Hart Chart on October 4, 1957: “As this is not a money maker,” Hart wrote across the top of the chart, “but a public service, perhaps you would suggest how to improve it. Compliments on your Bowker article,” by which he meant Read’s “American dictionaries of the English language” in Books from the USA of the same year. In the intervening years, Hart sent occasional propaganda — compilations of praise, indications of hostility from publishers whose reference works he criticized, evidence of the American Library Association’s disdain for the charts, a profile by Don Ross in the New York Herald-Tribune books section (February 15, 1962), and of course, a couple of Hart Charts — until Read reconnected in that September 27 letter and enclosed a proof of the upcoming Consumer Reports article and other items. Read was a capable self-promoter, too. On September 11, 1964, Hart thanked Read for sending them: “Your dictionary articles in Consumer Reports […] have been very helpful — much admired. Your very kind footnote about my chart […] is much appreciated. Inquiries are still coming in.” Then he asked, “May I ‘sit in’ on one of your classes?”

Read’s response was immediate and enthusiastic. On September 19, 1964, he would write, “I always enjoy getting and reading your material. You are welcome to come to any classes of mine that you choose. Whatever the regulations say, you can come as a ‘personal friend.’ I think of you in that fashion, because both of us, I believe, have one question that is central to our outlook: What are the FACTS?” But he wouldn’t attend classes as merely a personal friend — Read arranged something more generous, something that reflected professional respect: “[I]n order to regularize your position, I went over to the office of the Graduate Dean and arranged for you to hold the status of ‘Visiting Scholar’ for the year 1964–65.” He enclosed a list of topics for the sessions of his only course that fall, “The English Language in America.” That next February, he would start teaching another, “Problems in English Usage.”

Hart wrote to the Graduate Dean’s office as follows, on October 13: “Prof. Allen Walker Read has invited me to sit in on his class [Tuesday or Thursday] 5.40 to 6.30 P.M., if I have a ‘visiting scholar’ badge from you. Can this card be secured by mail? If not, what time does your office close? – so that I can take care of it on the same day. References; – my brother is your Prof. Albert G. Hart, economics. Reference librarians everywhere know me. So do all publishers of Encyclopedias and dictionaries. Some of them hate me thoroughly.” He sent Read a copy of the letter, with marginal annotations, including, “All of your topics interest me. I assume one day is as good as another for you. ALA’s RQ magazine expects soon to print my seven p. mss “How to make a Comparison of Dictionaries” [sic].

I wish we could find that article, to see more clearly the intentions and methods behind Hart’s charts. I checked RQ and discovered Louis Shores’ memorial article, “Hart Chart Publisher Dies” (March 1965). Lots of librarians and publishers were against Hart, Shores — who was dean of the library school at Florida State University — acknowledged, but “the Hart Chart became a force for high standards in reference book production and distribution. And those of us who knew him will sadly reflect that part of our personal and professional life for which sentiment and affection have steadily grown has now departed.” RQ quietly killed Hart’s article without much sentiment or affection.

Whether Hart ever made it to one of Read’s classes is unclear. Before he wrote his letter to the Graduate Dean’s office, he mailed a card to Read asking for a map of the university, so that he could find his way around, which Read noted he received on October 1. By mid-October, Hart’s time was running out. He wrote in a mailer dated August 25, “Several friends, including doctors, are pleading with me: ‘Take it easy, “Lex”! Five years ago you had two strokes; now you have been five weeks in the hospital with a heart attack.’” On the left corner of the copy he sent to Read, he scribbled, “nice, seeing your name so frequently.” Next to his inquiry to the Graduate Dean’s office about arranging his “Visiting Scholar” card by mail, he explained to Read, “Two trips would be a hardship.” I hope he made the one trip.

For all his eccentricities, among which we might count producing Hart Charts during his spare time, Hart gives voice to those whose views on lexicography we too rarely hear. After Read contacted Hart about the Consumer Reports articles, Hart reflected, in a reply dated November 12, 1963, “Much of what you say is new to me; for our angles of approach are so different. I am NOT a scholar. I am the man in the street; the “USER.”*[see footnote at end] In the Hart Charts, he spoke on behalf of all the other users who deserved to know which available dictionaries best suited their needs, which were worth buying and which weren’t worth the money. The charts focused and amplified what we’ve come to call the “user perspective” in mid-twentieth-century America. He may not be an important figure in the history of lexicography, but the charts and his relationship with Read sketch a figure worth knowing about, nonetheless.

Speculative history: Had Hart lived for another decade or so, he’d have joined DSNA. He was a social person, a former encyclopedia salesman, Elk, Mason, active alumnus of The Ohio State University. Read would have urged him to join. The American Library Association refused to publish advertisements for the Hart Charts, but Ed Gates would have sold space to Hart — perhaps even given it to him — in the DSNA Newsletter. He might have presented his seven-page paper on “How to make a comparison of dictionaries” at one of the early conferences; it might have been published in one of the early conference proceedings, or, if he lived long enough, Dictionaries. Among the lexicographers, librarians, academics, and collectors who mostly made up the membership of DSNA in the early years, he could have championed the users he defended from low lexicographical standards with the charts.

Interestingly, he wouldn’t have been the only civil engineer in the society. Henry G. Burger, who conceived, compiled, published, and distributed The Wordtree (1984) — “A transitive cladistic for solving physical & social problems. The dictionary that analyzes a quarter-million word-listings by their processes, branches them binarily to pinpoint the concepts, thus sequentially tracing causes to their effects, to produce a handbook of physical and social engineering™” — had a lot in common with the lexiconoclastic Hart and was a charter member of the society. Had Hart lived until he was 97, had he continued to produce the dictionary Hart Charts until then, he eventually might have evaluated The Wordtree.

Their importance in the history that happened, however, rests less on the systems they built or opinions they offered almost free-of-charge than their advocacy and evangelism. They were important because they engaged intelligently and earnestly with the value of words and the books that explain them.

* Allen Walker Read’s papers are held in the State Historical Society of Missouri’s Manuscript Collection. All items quoted or referred to except this last letter may be found in Read, Allen Walker (1906–2002), Papers, 1835–2002 (C4033), f. 1535; the final item can be found in the same papers, f. 802. I am grateful to Laura Jolley, assistant director in charge of the Manuscripts Collection, for her help in locating these items during the COVID–19-era shutdown. 

PDFs of Hart Chart and MW3 Hart Chart

Education Anne Curzan Spring 2021

Looking to Dictionaries for Questions as Much as Answers

Anne Curzan

University of Michigan

Dictionaries have immense pedagogical power: They open up some of the most fundamental questions we as instructors often want to address about language authority, language change (semantic change as well as phonological), linguistic diversity, morphology, and the social valences and power of words.

I have never had the opportunity to teach an entire course on dictionaries, but they feature prominently in the first few classes in both my introductory English linguistics course and my History of English course. Students express initial surprise to see dictionaries on the syllabus. What in the world could be interesting enough about dictionaries to merit multiple class days? But once we get started, the questions cascade over each other: How does a new word get into the dictionary? How often do words get taken out? Why isn’t my pronunciation of a word in the dictionary? How does one become a dictionary editor? What do you think of Urban Dictionary? How many words are there in the English language? Why are compounds sometimes written as one word and sometimes two? And the questions keep coming.

The very first thing that we address is the phrase “the dictionary,” which is embedded in some of the questions above. The phrase captures the authority that we give this category of reference works, treating them as if they were equally authoritative and almost timeless. I sometimes send students to the university libraries to see which dictionary is on the pedestal in the reading rooms—and what year it was published. And we read about the history of English language dictionaries, which immediately denaturalizes the idea that a dictionary necessarily should try and include every word in the language. (In different classes I have used chapters from Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything, Kory Stamper’s Word by Word, David Crystal’s The Fight for English, and Sidney Landau’s Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography, among others.) Addressing the phrase “the dictionary” puts on the table key questions about the human hands behind these important, authoritative—yet deeply human and fallible—works.

One of my favorite participatory classroom activities to reinforce the human decisions that lie behind dictionary entries is asking students to decide on the usage labels for taboo or otherwise potentially label-worthy words. I describe the activity more fully in this Lingua Franca post for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Once students have tried their hand at usage labels, they are more highly attuned to the difficulty of capturing in a dictionary definition the social power of words in context—and they become more critical consumers of the labels they find in dictionaries.

As a fun way to engage students in creating definitions, I sometimes ask students to read this delightful New Yorker column “Not a Word” about the made-up word esquivalience in The New Oxford American Dictionary. Adopting the definition format of a standard dictionary that I provide, each student then makes up one word and creates a definition, submitting it alongside two other words they find in that dictionary that they did not know. I compile a list of both real and made-up words for the class and we guess our way through them, talking about what clues in the words or definitions tipped us off that the word might or might not be real. Through this activity, students are paying very close attention to the details of a dictionary’s defining practices.

Students and I dive into the online version of the Dictionary of American Regional English to see how the 2013 American dialect quiz in the New York Times can narrow down where we might be from. The quiz can feel like magic until you see the science behind it. And we look at brilliant experiments with the form of a dictionary, including works like Geneva Smitherman’s Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner and Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s A Feminist Dictionary.

The usage notes in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (available in the online version of the dictionary) can provide excellent fodder for discussion about what counts as “acceptable” or “standard” usage and who gets to decide—as well as changes in those judgments over time (e.g., the growing acceptance of the verb finalize and singular uses of they). Once these questions are on the table, we can use them as a lens for issues that come up in everyday usage. For example, a few years ago I shared with students my own dilemma about whether to “fix” my pronunciation of mischievous in a radio show. I had used a nonstandard but widespread pronunciation of the word (with four syllables), and students and I had a rich conversation about when a nonstandard pronunciation could or should come to be considered standard (a conversation described in more detail here).

Within this historical, critical framework for thinking about dictionaries and their authority, students and I are well equipped to talk about news stories about dictionaries—for example, the news in June 2020 that Merriam-Webster was revising the definition of racism in response to recent college graduate Kennedy Mitchum’s emails making the case for a revision. And by end of our unit on dictionaries, I hope that students in my courses will feel similarly empowered to ask probing questions of dictionaries and their power to legitimize language.