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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.
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.
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.
Looking to Dictionaries for Questions as Much as Answers
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.
William Frederick Poole, sometime president of the American Library Association and the American Historical Association, was librarian of the Newberry Library in Chicago when he inveighed in 1893 against a new vogue to discard old books from libraries, citing neglected dictionaries as an example:
I document that vogue (the so-called “Quincy plan” — which actually makes sense for community libraries, though not research libraries), though not this particular passage, on pp. 13-18 of the bibliography. Dictionaries have not been much singled out in the age-old debate about the necessity and hazards of weeding books, but they are liable to the same fate as old encyclopedias and textbooks. “Dr. Winsor” (Justin Winsor, Harvard’s librarian) apparently came up empty-handed when Poole asked him about seeing the first Latin textbook used at Harvard College.
The hush of a dictionary company’s editorial department was likely familiar and comforting when John Morse arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts forty years ago: he is the son of two librarians and the brother of a third. Long careers in lexicography come from a combination of predilection, preparation, and plain old luck, and John’s bookish childhood and degrees in English from Haverford College (B.A., ‘73) and the University of Chicago (M.A., ‘77) set the groundwork for an editorial career at Merriam-Webster.
He was still a graduate student when he began working for Encyclopaedia Britannica, the parent company of Merriam-Webster. His first assignment was an English major’s dream and the kind of idiosyncratic project that fortuitously prepared him for a career in lexicography. Britannica’s goal for The Microbook Library of English Literature was to provide the text of every notable work from the origins of literary production through the early 20th century, up to the point at which copyright protection would prohibit such reproductions.
These works, for preference in first or significant editions, would be photographed for microfilm and then further reduced to ultrafiche, such that, ultimately, the entirety of English literature could fit in a few shoeboxes. John’s role as searcher-collator was to locate copies of these books in libraries and to create a page-by-page listing of their contents. “I’m pretty sure the product was obsolete by the time it was done,” John has recently said. Finished at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the digital era, this white elephant nevertheless gave him experience organizing a project, establishing procedures, and managing a staff. It also gave him an insider’s perspective of Britannica as a company, which proved an invaluable asset later in his career.
John arrived at Merriam-Webster’s Springfield offices in December of 1980, having been hired by Editor-in-Chief Fred Mish for a position that differed a bit from the usual “general definer” role, initially adding production responsibilities for overseeing typesetting and proofreading to the standard defining duties. He took the defining and style classes given to all editors by E. Ward “Gil” Gilman, and wrote definitions for the Ninth Edition of the Collegiate, published in 1983, and the 1986 Addenda Section of Webster’s Third.
In 1983, John’s responsibilities expanded as he became Manager of Editorial Operations and Planning. In this position he created proposals for, planned, and oversaw all new editorial projects. Among those projects were Merriam-Webster’s Medical Desk Dictionary in 1986, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage in 1989, and the creation of Merriam-Webster’s line of mass-market paperback dictionaries beginning in 1989. Although the company had produced a paperback dictionary since 1947, the printing and distribution had always been provided by another publisher. In 1989, the company took the unusual step for a hardcover print publisher and reverted these rights to become its own mass-market paperback publisher, and John was responsible for directing the creation of a new edition of the dictionary, based on the most recent edition of the Collegiate. In time, many more mass-market titles would follow, and this format became an important part of the Merriam-Webster product line.
During the late 1980s, John was also present at the creation of another significant initiative: digital publishing. The company had been involved in digital publishing since the early 1980s but only through licensed products created and sold by others. One element of this initiative would be creating a digitized version of Webster’s Third, and John had responsibility for planning the project. He first created a flowchart of the book’s data elements, treating its entry apparatus as a hierarchical data set. The result was a map of the elegant logic of Philip Gove’s sometimes idiosyncratic rules, as much rooted in logic as in language. Having created a system of tags for the data, John planned for the keying of the entire work, a monumental task that was doubled, as each column of text was keyed by two typists, in order to minimize errors. With a text this dense, 99.9% accuracy would mean approximately sixty thousand typos among some sixty million characters, but with the dual-keyboarding approach, the project yielded an accuracy rate approaching 99.99% accuracy.
Bringing new titles to market can be difficult in the narrow, competitive field of reference publishing. John, as Executive Editor, beginning in 1991 and subsequently as President and Publisher, oversaw many new titles to add to the dictionaries in the Merriam line, including the Intermediate Thesaurus, Concise Dictionary of English Usage, the combined Dictionary-Thesaurus, and the Spanish-English and French-English dictionaries, and a dictionary for young readers, Merriam-Webster’s First Dictionary, conceived and edited by Victoria Neufeldt. He also supported books that were not A-Z reference works, such as the successful Vocabulary Builder and a line of lighter books on language from authors like Tom Dalzell and Paul Dickson. A long-time dream to create a third Collegiate title to join the Dictionary and Thesaurus led to the creation of the Collegiate Encyclopedia, edited by Mark Stevens and published in 2000—a great reference book that ultimately found its widest audience as one part of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s online offerings.
John’s promotion to Senior Vice President and Publisher in 1996 and to President and Publisher in 1997 probably came as a surprise to some, as editors do not generally move into these positions. However, in his new-product-planning work, John had always worked closely with colleagues in sales, marketing, and finance, as well as with people at Britannica, and had developed a good understanding of all parts of the business. He was well prepared when Britannica asked him to step into the top spot at Merriam-Webster when his predecessor left unexpectedly.
Probably John’s most consequential decision was made despite Britannica’s misgivings: to provide a full-featured online version of the Collegiate Dictionary and Collegiate Thesaurus, without subscription fee, at Merriam-Webster.com. When the site was launched in 1996, “giving away” the company’s flagship product seemed folly to many, but adapting early to the ethos of the web ultimately led to success without a paywall for the site. Now supported by advertising and with over 100 million page views per month, the online dictionary has become a major part of the company’s business and its public face through social media. Starting early and starting well were equally essential to this strategy. Given the rapid cultural and economic ubiquity of the web, it’s clear that with this decision, John ensured the company’s future.
The internet represented a revolution in publishing, but, as John has pointed out, the company had often shifted its strategy over the years to adjust to new market conditions, from the introduction of mass-market paperbacks to the dominance of Borders and Barnes & Noble and the emergence of big-box general retailers and, finally, online retailers including Amazon. The winning strategy in all these cases was to stay focused on the mission of the company: to provide high-quality information about the English language through whatever channel, platform, or business model is available.
John also recognized the importance of a new market for the company: the learners of English around the world who do not speak it at home. A very different kind of dictionary, one made specifically for non-native speakers, had been pioneered by Oxford, with several other excellent British publishers following suit. Such a dictionary entirely conceived and edited in the U.S. and focusing on American English was John’s goal. A new monolingual Merriam-Webster dictionary had not been created from scratch since the 19th century, but John, with Director of Defining Stephen Perrault and Director of Editorial Operations Madeline Novak, and early direction from Editor-in-Chief Fred Mish, created the Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary, a book unlike any other in the company’s line, soon followed by a free online version, a paperback abridgment, and a line of ESL titles.
To outside observers, the apparent quiet and slow pace of the practice of lexicography might make an editorial job seem a sleepy and studious pursuit, perfect for a shy person. But the business of lexicography is an altogether more dynamic story: changes in the economy, the industry, and the company during this period were constant during John’s 38 years at Merriam-Webster, including two decades as President and Publisher. He worked six days a week and, when not traveling on business, was often at his desk well into the evenings. Perhaps no one living has spent more time thinking about the making and selling of dictionaries.
During much of his time as Publisher, John also served on the board and advisory committees of his alma mater, Haverford College, and on the boards of several nonprofit social-service agencies in Springfield.
John is the only lexicographer to have served as president of the company, and as if running the business wasn’t a full-time job, he shared editing duties as final reader for the Eleventh Collegiate and several other smaller projects, including the Spanish-English Medical Dictionary, the Visual Dictionary, and the Concise Dictionary of English Usage.
While Noah Webster has come to personify American dictionary making, it was the behind-the-scenes work of the Merriam brothers that came to fascinate John Morse, who became familiar with their business motivations, editorial strategies, and even their civic involvement in Springfield. Their priorities from the mid-1800s—keep the dictionary up-to-date and seek the widest distribution—could be said to have been John’s as well. When he joined the company, Merriam-Webster published only hardcover books. The world has become much more complicated in the years since, and perhaps only someone who embodied both sides of the company’s name so well could have had such consistent success in finding new ways to fulfill the simple, yet ambitious goals set out by its founders.
As I begin the first installment of what I hope to be many for the DSNA Newsletter, I would like to thank the Newsletter’s editor, David Jost, for giving me this opportunity to write about dictionary-related topics in a more personal fashion than that usually afforded by academic presentations. In this and the columns to follow, I hope to comment on features about dictionaries that I have found to be particularly interesting over the years, as well as provide interviews with people who have worked in our field.
I have met many of the Newsletter’s readers at DSNA meetings, which I started attending in 2003, and for those of you who do not know me this is probably what you need to know: I am originally from the Washington, D.C. area and studied linguistics and Spanish at Georgetown University and then at Indiana University; I taught Spanish at Rutgers University before moving to Barcelona, Spain in 1987; and, I have taught English and translation at the undergraduate level and morphology and lexicography at the graduate level at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona since 1993. Much of what I think about dictionaries is a result of my life experience of needing to write in English, Spanish, and Catalan, and of my academic interest in the structure of words.
One of the features of American desk dictionaries that I have always found interesting is their treatment of synonyms. Synonyms are often part of dictionary entries, especially those for adjectives. Several American dictionaries include lists of synonyms, often with discussion of nuances of meaning, at the end of an article; current American dictionaries that do this are those published by Merriam-Webster (both the Collegiate and the Unabridged, although the information listed in each is not the same) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Discussion of synonyms is a feature of The Century Dictionary, a dictionary for which my admiration only grows. I would like to take a look at this practice of discussing synonyms in two dictionaries from the mid-20th century, The American College Dictionary (first published in 1947) and Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition (first published in 1953). My interest in lists of synonyms, or “synonymies” (as termed in Webster’s New World Dictionary) arose when I realized that most dictionaries of Spanish I had consulted did not include this sort of listing, and in fact, some British dictionaries of current English such as the Collins English Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English do not include them, either. Synonymy in some lexicographic traditions, I gather, is dealt with in a separate reference work and not in a general-purpose dictionary.
The front matter of The American College Dictionary has a two-page essay on synonyms and antonyms by Miles L. Hanley (1893-1954), who was Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at the time of publication. The essay is insightful with respect to the lexicographers’ thinking behind determining which synonyms to identify and discuss; so often in dictionary research we can only see the final result and are at a loss for information on the decision-making process responsible for that result. The essay touches on several points in semantic research in the context of dictionary production that are still relevant today and especially important: (1) the relationship between the frequency of use of a word and its range of meanings, and (2) synonymy generally occurs at the level of sense and rarely at the level of word. I often recommend this essay to my translation students because it succinctly lays forth the issues in word meaning that make identifying equivalents across language so hard. Of course, this dictionary was based upon the material in The Century Dictionary, so it is not surprising that it included synonym discussions. Here is an example of a synonym discussion from The American College Dictionary, for the headword ‘beautiful’:
beau·ti·ful [pronunciation], adj. having beauty; delighting the eye; admirable to the taste or the mind. —beau’ti·ful·ly, adv. —beau’-ti·ful·ness, n.
–Syn. Beautiful, handsome, lovely, pretty refer to a pleasing appearance. That is beautiful which has perfection of form, color, etc., or noble and spiritual qualities: a beautiful landscape, girl (not man). Handsome often implies stateliness or pleasing proportion and symmetry: a handsome man. That which is lovely is beautiful but in a warm and endearing way: a lovely smile. Pretty implies a moderate but noticeable beauty, esp. in that which is small or of minor importance: a pretty child.
I wonder if lexicographers today would choose the same examples.
Webster’s New World Dictionary includes a brief explanation of “The Synonymies” as the final section to its ‘Guide to the Dictionary.’ This explanation, because it is a part of the guide to using the dictionary and not a separate essay in the front matter, does not address broader issues of semantics, unlike Hanley’s essay. Rather, it takes the user through an example (that for ‘happy’) and explains how the information should be read. The synonymies in this dictionary are often longer than those in The American College Dictionary; compare this quite detailed synonymy for ‘beautiful’ with that given above:
beau·ti·ful [pronunciation], adj. having beauty.
The beautiful, 1. That which has beauty; the quality of beauty. 2. Those who are beautiful.
SYN.–beautiful is applied to that which gives the highest degree of pleasure to the senses or to the mind and suggests that the object of delight approximates one’s conception of an ideal; lovely refers to that which delights by inspiring affection or warm admiration; handsome implies attractiveness by reason of pleasing proportions, symmetry, elegance, etc. and carried connotations of masculinity, dignity, or impressiveness; pretty implies a dainty, delicate, or graceful quality in that which pleases and carries connotations of femininity or diminutiveness; comely applies to persons only and suggests a wholesome attractiveness of form and features rather than a high degree of beauty; fair suggests beauty that is fresh, bright, or flawless and, when applied to persons, is used especially of complexion and features; good-looking is closely equivalent to handsome or pretty, suggesting a pleasing appearance but not expressing the fine distinctions of either word; beauteous, equivalent to beautiful in poetry and lofty prose, is now often used in humorously disparaging references to beauty.
This synonym discussion is not only longer than that in The American College Dictionary, it is also longer than those in both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and American Heritage, the synonym discussions of which discuss beautiful, lovely, handsome, pretty, comely, and fair (though the words are not presented in the same order in each dictionary; the order here is that used by Merriam-Webster).
Synonym discrimination in a dictionary primarily aimed at native speakers is, I think, a feature mainly designed to help users in production tasks. Although the type of information included in synonym discussions is useful in text comprehension, I would argue that knowing the nuances of meaning associated with a particular sense is essential to encoding the language, whether in writing or in speaking. Given that dictionaries for adult native speakers have traditionally been characterized as being tools for language decoding as opposed to language encoding, the lexicographers who thought to include synonym discussions were forerunners of the very modern trend–usually, and perhaps unfairly, attributed to corpus-based learner’s lexicography–of making dictionaries tools for both text comprehension and text production. Very impressive work, indeed.
Note that in the example from the American College Dictionary the synonyms are in small capital letters, not italics.