Teaching Lexicography: “Walking Dictionaries,” a University at Buffalo first-year seminar

Walter Hakala and Kerry Collins


In 2014, the University at Buffalo Faculty Senate voted to overhaul the university’s general education curriculum. Central to the proposed transformation of undergraduate education was the new requirement that all incoming and transfer students with less than 45 credits take what has come to be known as a “UB Seminar” during their first semester. At a university with nearly 20,000 undergraduate students, I was excited about being able to teach smaller groups of students in courses “designed around ‘big ideas’ and faculty passions”—my passion of course being for dictionaries. Shortly after the adoption of the proposed changes, I was selected for a two-year fellowship in our university’s Honors College. As fellows, we knew that we would be given the opportunity to teach Honors students who had been identified as holding extraordinary academic promise. What we did not realize, however, was that the faculty fellows in fall 2015 would be guinea pigs carrying out trial runs of the UB Seminars a full year before the official implementation of the new general education curriculum the following fall.

As a scholar of South Asian lexicography, I saw the UB Seminars as an opportunity to inflict my research in lexicography and other kinds of reference materials upon a (mostly unwitting) group of students. The course I developed, “Walking Dictionaries,” was intended to approach a big idea—how we as humans organize the abundance of information that surrounds us—through a variety of methods in an introductory survey. Here is the (admittedly prolix) course description:



Lexicography (‘writing about words’) fundamentally shapes the ways we think about and organize the world around us. From 4,500-year-old Sumerian clay tablets to the definitions that pop up on an iPad, our interactions with words are inseparable from technologies of reference. Some of these technologies are wired directly into our brains: many of the world’s oldest surviving “texts” circulated for hundreds of years before being committed to writing. By encoding words within verses of poetry, arranging them in “memory palaces,” and applying other mnemonic techniques, we can achieve fantastic feats of memory. Writing, however, makes it possible to see words in different ways. Through writing, we can see the way that words used to sound long ago, enabling etymological inquiries into their origins. With lists, words may be arranged and then rearranged to suit different purposes. New questions become possible: Why, for example, should the word ant come after aardvark, chicken before egg, or, for that matter, angel before God? And who would be willing to spend his or her life copying and recopying these lists of words? Writing requires time, concentration, and lots of paper—these are not always easy to come by. As technologies of print spread throughout the world, ordinary people for the first time could possess their own dictionaries, authors could compile them for potentially millions of users, and those users could consult them in an infinite variety of situations. What words should and should not be included in a dictionary? Who gets to decide what a word means? What kinds of communities emerge from these texts?

In this course, we will look at how words, objects, and ideas are defined and get equated across cultures, languages, and time. We will uncover the structures that make dictionaries and other genres of lexicography legible to users. We will question the social structures that underwrite a lexicographer’s authority. Mostly, though, we will get our hands dirty practicing different methods of lexicography. Readings will be on topics like cognition, memory, the history of writing, and biographies of those “harmless drudges” involved with compiling dictionaries and other lexicographical works. Students will have the choice of completing different  assignments on such topics as mnemonic techniques, vocabularies in verse, using Google Books to find early instances of terms, and designing the perfect dictionary entry. By reading, discussing, and experimenting with a wide range of genres, students will develop a broad familiarity with the history and practice of lexicography.


Many of my colleagues struggled to prepare assignments that worked backwards from the predefined set of learning outcomes that the curriculum committee had determined all first-year seminars would share. These included requirements that students, for example, “think critically using multiple modes of inquiry,” “analyze disciplinary content to identify contexts, learn fresh perspectives, and debate and discuss problems in the field,” and “understand and apply the methods of close reading, note taking, analysis, and synthesis.” To address the last learning outcome in particular, I tested out a new (for me) kind of assignment I call “running notes” for which I created a Google Drive folder shared by the entire class and populated the folder with separate Google Documents corresponding to each of the assigned readings. Students each week were asked to prepare a certain number of annotations on the assigned readings and respond using marginal comments to the annotations posted by at least two classmates. Students could pose questions, provide additional context on key figures, terms, concepts, or arguments mentioned in the readings, or argue with or against the materials they were reading. They would “tag” their contributions by adding their names in braces (e.g., {Walt}) following each annotation. My experience has shown that this sort of low-stakes writing assignment is a very effective means of eliciting student contributions both within and outside class, and I have subsequently incorporated this into my upper-level courses as well. (My colleague Sarah Ogilvie has since pointed out a much more elegant method of collaborative annotation system called Lacuna Stories that she helped to develop at Stanford University. Unfortunately, my university recently discontinued its support of the Drupal framework on which the Lacuna Stories is based.)

Another learning outcome that proved challenging to some instructors was the requirement that seminars help students “develop essential research and study skills such as time management.” Rather than replicating the standard “time management journal” that instructors were encouraged to incorporate into their courses, I had students prepare what I call “The Perfect Dictionary Entry.” They were asked to identify a term and locate as many dictionaries’ entries as they could in which that term appears. Using guidelines delineated by Sydney Landau, I instructed students to prepare their own dictionary entry in a way that they believe would make the most (or best) sense. In addition to drafting to the “perfect” entry, I asked students to explain what “method” they employed and justify their choices. Students then had to calculate the total time they invested in researching and drafting their entry and then estimate from that how long it would take to write dictionaries of various sizes. In our class discussions, we discussed what it might take for any of them individually to complete a dictionary comparable in scope to, say, those of Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster. How many years (or decades) would it take? How many hours would one be able to sleep? Was their chosen term more or less difficult to define than the “average” headword? How accurate could any estimate be? In the end, I hope they all came away with more sympathy for the delays that our lexicographer colleagues, both past and present, faced in completing their work. I flatter myself that they may also have gained a few new strategies for managing their own busy lives.

Another assignment that many students found especially fun required them to prepare a taxonomy of “a class of cultural artifacts” of personal interest to them. I introduced students to the official website of the Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group (http://www.horg.com/horg/?page_id=921), a group devoted to the “exciting study of occlupanology,” or bread bag clips, and encouraged them to use it as a model for their own curated collections. Their articulation of a methodology to justify their arrangement of such items as soccer cleats, superheroes, jeggings, pride flags, and shot glasses is uniformly excellent and always enlightening. To give a brief sampling, I will just mention here the taxonomy of brassieres prepared by Kayleigh Hamernik, currently a rising fourth-year Environmental Studies major and Asian Studies minor. Here is a sample description of one of the “specimens” she encountered in her research:


She used the assignment as an opportunity to analyze the ways in which women’s bodies are quite literally shaped—and even disciplined—by clothing. Even more impressive, however, is the method she employed for organizing the brassieres she had catalogued. She borrowed the concept of a dichotomous key from her training in biology and developed a creative solution to the problem of how best to categorize this kind of apparel. Her use of ironic distance to parody the objectivity we so valorize in scientific discourse was both hilarious and trenchant, as when she notes, “my taxonomy of bras is purely practical and does not dabble in frivolity.” Below is an excerpt of the relevant section of the methodology she prepared:


My initial dichotomous key can be reviewed below.

  1. Has Underwire …   go to 2

Lacks Underwire   …   go to 4

  1. Has straps … go to 3

Lacks straps   …   Sedlorum Abscondo

  1. Dorsal Closure … Classica Uncus

Ventral Closure    …   Transitus Frons

  1. Made predominantly of fabric … go to 7

Not made predominantly of fabric …   go to 5

  1. Edible Material … Seducten Melliculus

Non-edible Material   …   go to 6

  1. Full cup coverage … Dolor Durus

Partial cup coverage   …   Catena Jaceo

  1. Has clasp … go to 8

Has no clasp   …   go to 9

  1. Cups are lined with padding … Practicum Vetus

Cups are not lined with padding   …   Belliatus Subtilis

  1. Compressional spandex bodice … Artus Spissus

Loose/cinched bodice   …   Liber Pulvinus

She turned a potentially silly assignment into an opportunity to synthesize a broader critique of the commodification of women’s bodies. I saw this as evidence not just of sharp thinking but also of a mastery of multiple linguistic registers and the rhetoric of disparate disciplines.

I will only briefly outline the other assignments:

  • Exercise #1 – Dictionary Familiarization: You will receive two terms in class and make your selection of another. You will need to complete a worksheet and bring it to class for discussion. To what extent do the various dictionaries adapt or copy the work of earlier lexicographers? How do they innovate? What counts as plagiarism in lexicography?
  • Exercise #2 – Nisab: Prepare a vocabulary in verse that either equates terms from two different languages (English should be one of them) or provides synonyms for English terms. The vocabulary must be written using rhyming couplets, be at least 10 verses long, and maintain an equal number of syllables in line throughout. You may determine the microstructure (arrangement of terms in verses), macrostructure (arrangement of themes), and whether to limit your vocabulary to a particular field (e.g., medical terms, food terms, animal terms, etc.). You will be required to memorize and recite your entire nisab in class. Post your nisab to the UBlearns Discussion Board.
  • Exercise #3 – Taxonomy (see above)
  • Exercise #4 – New Words for New Things: Select an object, artifact, commodity, mineral, pathogen, plant, animal, etc. that has been introduced by one linguistic community into the material culture of another. Using lexicographic, archaeological, art historical, or other evidence, explore the ways in which this object comes to be semantically equated—whether through functional analogues or genetic homologues—with other, more familiar, objects and terms in the target culture. Post a 750-word response paper to the UBlearns Discussion Board.
  • Exercise #5 – The Perfect Dictionary Entry (see above)
  • Exercise #6 – Antedating: Identify a term or phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary. Using our library, Google Books, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, HathiTrust Digital Library, The New York Times Archive, Pennsylvania Gazette, 1728 – 1800, or Early English Books Online, try to antedate or otherwise complicate the OED’s How does language evolve over time and how effective are dictionaries in documenting these changes? Using the Lexicon Valley podcast’s Linguafile episodes as a model, prepare a 5-minute Screencast-o-Matic presentation and post a link to it on the UBlearns Discussion Board.
  • Exercise #7 – NGrams (due Friday December 2): Using the the Google Ngram site, compare the prevalence of two or more phrases over time (e.g., “The United States of America is” vs. “The United States of America are”; “hispanic” vs. “latino” vs. “chicano”). How do these changes in usage reflect or fail to reflect broader changes in society? What kinds of external evidence might explain the shape of certain Ngrams? Using the Lexicon Valley podcast’s Linguafile episodes as a model, prepare a 5-minute Screencast-o-Matic presentation and post it to the UBlearns Discussion Board.

I decided to use Tom McArthur’s classic Worlds of Reference: Lexicography, Learning, and Language from the Clay Tablet to the Computer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) as our textbook. While the final chapters (on the future, circa 1986) are rather dated, I find the rest of the book holds up remarkably well. I supplemented Tom’s visionary work with primary and secondary source materials that I hoped would reflect some of the variety of genres and formats in which works of reference have appeared. These include excerpts from Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy and Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory (for our unit on vocabularies in verse); Jorge Luis Borges’s mind-bending short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and Luigi Serafini’s imaginative Codex Seraphinianus (thematic versus alphabetical arrangements); Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia and John Trevisa’s “Dialogue Between a Lord and a Clerk” (vernacularization and literacy); Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange and S. W. Fallon’s “Preface and Preliminary Dissertation” in his New Hindustani-English Dictionary (globalization and colonialism); essays by Benjamin Whorf and our DSNA colleague Mårten Söderblom Saarela (on the relation between language and cognition), and, of course, numerous episodes of the podcast Lexicon Valley. One of the perks of being an Honors College Fellow was my access to a shared pool of funds that I used to invite several DSNA colleagues for guest lectures. Professor Lisa Berglund, who teaches across town in the Department of English at Buffalo State College, gave a lecture entitled “‘a MOSt Horrible MOUse was MUDdy with the MULligrubs’ or Early American Readers Really Liked to Write in their Dictionaries.” Dr. Nathan Vedal, Assistant Professor of Chinese Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, taught our class how to use a Chinese dictionary. Dr. Arthur Dudney of Cambridge University in the United Kingdom spoke on “Pre-Modern Dictionaries and the Study of Culture.” Each provided valuable perspectives and, I hope, enjoyed the opportunity to present their research to an enthusiastic and knowledgeable undergraduate audience.

I have now taught this course on three separate occasions. I am used to teaching a wide variety of students, and our official curriculum touts these seminars as an opportunity for students “to explore interesting topics outside of [their] academic major.” It was nevertheless something of a challenge to answer what were for me unconventional and challenging questions from students who were mostly intending to pursue careers in applied and life sciences. As I went over the syllabus, one particularly sharp aerospace engineering student asked, “Are we allowed to give our own opinions in our papers?” I responded by saying, “Of course, so long as you support any opinions with evidence.” He followed up by demanding, “How is it valid for me to share only my opinion? If I am going to give opinions in my papers, wouldn’t I need to survey a large population of people for them to hold any weight?” I admit that I was bewildered. I am not used to fielding this sort of question from English majors. What weight does an individual’s opinion hold, and what in particular does this mean when interpreting events from the distant past? Rather than continuing immediately with my canned rehearsal of the contents of the course syllabus, I instead took this as an opportunity to discuss the differences in the kinds evidence that are commonly employed in various disciplines. Clearly, I was not planning to begin our semester with such fraught questions of how “the truth” is constructed and contested, but what followed was a free back-and-forth among the entire class, with students pushing back on my assumptions in a pattern that would prove productive for my own teaching and (hopefully) also their development as scholars.

Since my thoughts are necessarily limited to my own experiences, I asked my student, Ms. Kerry Collins, a rising third-year Linguistics and Psychology double major, to contribute some of her own thoughts on the course. Here is what she has shared:


Many students have no interest in words, or language, or the study of organizing either. But taking such a course is good for anyone who wants to improve their writing and their understanding of writers of all backgrounds.  I took this course, which was one of the many options for the required freshman seminar, because I was one of the rare students who had somewhat of an interest in these things I mentioned earlier (plus it sounded more interesting to me than did Greek mythology, bleh).

In this day and age with technology and political unrest, this class is very relevant.  Although a course on lexicography might not seem to directly relate with most students’ future occupations, it does however benefit students in many ways.  The most general way a course on dictionaries is useful to students is that it helps them decide which definitions most precisely describe new terms and phrases being created and old words which are taking on new meanings. How do everyday people and lexicographers define terms and phrases such as alternative facts, fake news, republican, racism, rape, woke, and freedom?  We can study how lexicographers of the past compiled definitions from various sources to see how we can create universal definitions for all these terms in 2018… and to predict what these words will mean in 2052.

One of the ways we studied this in “Walking Dictionaries” was using the Oxford English Dictionary to antedate words of our choice.  I chose to antedate the word titty.  (Yes, as in boobie– how many classes can you talk about this without being sent to the principal’s office?)  For this project, I searched on the Oxford English Dictionary as well as Google Ngrams for the earliest uses of variations of the word titty.  I was interested to find non-vulgar, yet topically relevant uses of the word that dated back to Old English.  Using the information I researched, I was able to find gradual changes in the use of the word that finally led to today’s meaning.  I did have to present my findings to the class, and I believe my peers and instructor really got a kick out of it.  I successfully taught the class about the history of the definition of a word, while keeping the class and instructor engaged and amused. The antedating project, for all words that students chose to present, was an effective way for us to see how definitions change over time and why they are what they are today.

Projects such as the antedating and the nisab (more or less a bilingual poem) sparked the part of me that was always interested (but didn’t know I was interested) in cross-cultural linguistics and understanding where words/meanings come from.  As a freshman, I came in undecided about what I wanted to major in.  After my first year was over, I looked back at the courses that made me excited to learn, and Walking Dictionaries was one of those classes.  Now I am majoring in linguistics and psychology, with the hopes to continue studying how different peoples and cultures’ thoughts cause or are affected by their language.

Although I found some of the readings to be sort of bland at times, the class discussions allowed us to verbally expand what we read on paper to grander ideas that spawned from what we learned throughout the semester.  It was neat to see all different kids with different majors having discussions, often heated, about nuances and applications of lexicography.  We went on a few tangents, talking about dialects and accents and personal knowledge of languages, culture, etc. that didn’t seem to be directly correlated to lexicography.  However, as a class that was meant to engage students in intellectual discussions, we successfully applied lexicography to all aspects of education and practicalities.


My primary goal in teaching the class was to think through with others how knowledge takes structure—from Webster’s dictionary to Roget’s thesaurus, from Simonides’s memory palace to Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus, from the Indian varna system to election ballots—and how this might affect other aspects of our lives. Was there ever a time when humans did not feel overwhelmed by information? What counts as literacy today? Who and what is an authority? With recent developments in politics, culture, and technology, questions like these seem to take on ever greater salience.