“Advanced Linguistics: Introduction to Lexicography” at Buffalo State College

By Lisa Berglund, Professor of English

The English Department at Buffalo State College has about 30 students in our Master’s program: half are earning degrees in secondary education, a handful plan to apply to PhD programs in literature or culture studies, and the rest are exploring, diverting their minds from the present, or reluctant to leave the security of school. Most students who enroll in “Introduction to Lexicography” do so because it fits their schedules. They have no preconceptions about the course (although they have a lot of preconceptions about dictionaries). There’s usually an OED fan, and someone who thinks dictionaries are cool or who “loves words.” Their course surveys always include variations on “I had no idea how we were going to spend 14 weeks talking about dictionaries” and “This course should be taught more often.”

 In the last DNSA Newsletter, Walt Hakala talked about his exciting freshman seminar at the University at Buffalo, noting that because the class was required, he had the chance to design a course that might not otherwise be offered. Few college English or language departments would officially add a course on lexicography to the catalog; it is up to enterprising professors to find places to introduce dictionaries to the curriculum. In the 1970s and 1980s, Buffalo State had a huge linguistics faculty; they have all retired but “Advanced Linguistics” remains in the catalog. It hasn’t been revised for a half century (seriously!), and the catalog description reads in its entirety: “special topics in linguistics.”  Thus, while Walt had to ingeniously shape his course to fulfill the somewhat fantastic learning outcomes of UB’s freshman program, I only needed to ensure that “Advanced Linguistics” continues to count toward our MA distribution requirements. I have taught the course three times, most recently in spring 2018.

On my syllabus, the course description is simply: To understand the construction, history and cultural role of dictionaries, focusing on English-language lexicography. As most of my students are literature majors, I deliberately do not teach “literary works” (e.g. The Professor and the Madman) that they would find comfortable; I want the class to be bracingly defamiliarizing. The two course texts are Sidney Landau’s Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography (Cambridge UP, 2nd ed.), and Dictionaries: The Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, which my students can access through Buffalo State’s subscription to Project Muse. Landau’s book was last revised in 2001, so its discussion of online lexicography is dated, but the book is witty, lucid, and rigorous. It is out of print, but used copies are generally available. My own field of research is 18th and early 19th century book history, and I therefore include a substantial unit on the history of lexicography.

I start the first class by distributing and then discussing responses to the following questionnaire:

  • What print dictionaries do you own (if any)?
  • What dictionary do you use the most (or do you care)? Do you use online dictionaries? Which do you prefer, online or print formats?
  • What is your most common reason for consulting a dictionary? (check spelling, check meaning, check pronunciation, find a synonym, other).
  • When did you last consult a dictionary (if you remember)? What was the word you wanted?
  • Have you ever read a dictionary (as if it were a “regular” book)? Under what circumstances?
  • Have you ever used a dictionary to win a bet? Have you ever consulted a dictionary while playing Scrabble or another game?
  • Were you ever given a dictionary as a present or a school prize?
  • List as many dictionaries as you can think of, by name.
  • Write down the first five words you think of when you think of dictionaries.

The first five weeks of the course are spent on practical lexicography, reading most of Landau’s book, and closely examining a range of 20th century English language dictionaries, in physical and online formats (about 40 different dictionaries). We then spend five weeks studying important individual dictionaries: Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755); Webster’s“Blue Back” Speller (1782) and American Dictionary of the English Language (1828); the Oxford English Dictionary (1884- ); Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961); Piozzi’s British Synonymy (1794); and Roget’s A Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (1852). We look at physical copies of all these dictionaries; I trundle in for inspection my MW3 dictionary stand and my two-volume edition of OED complete with the magnifying glass. Along with the front matter and sample entries for each dictionary, I assign supplemental readings, such as Johnson’s Letter to Chesterfield; Trench, “Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries”; Murray, “Appeal for Readers”; Follett, “Sabotage in Springfield,” The Atlantic Monthly (1962); and Macdonald, “The String Untuned,” The New Yorker (1962).

The last part of the course examines topics in contemporary lexicography, principally through articles from DSNA’s journal Dictionaries and the popular press. This year we studied: Obscenity and slang: Lynda Mugglestone, “‘Decent Reticence’: Coarseness, Contraception, and the First Edition of the OED” (Dictionaries 2007: 1-22); Ronald R. Butters, “’We didn’t realize that lite beer was supposed to suck!’: The Putative Vulgarity of ‘X Sucks’ in American English” (Dictionaries 2001: 130-144); Kory Stamper, “Down the ‘Shithole’: Why Lexicographers Need your Profanity” (harmless drudgery, 11 January 2018; https://korystamper.wordpress.com/); Labels: M. Lynne Murphy, “Defining Racial Labels: Problems and Promise in American Dictionaries (Dictionaries 1991: 43-64); David A. Jost and Allen C. Crocker, “The Handling of Down Syndrome and Related Terms in Modern Dictionaries” (Dictionaries 1987: 97-109); Joseph Pickett, “Considered and Regarded: Indicators of Belief and Doubt in Dictionary Definitions” (Dictionaries 2007: 48-68); A. J. Meier, “Hey Lady” (Dictionaries 1996: 180-197); and Dictionaries and the courts: Jenn Abelson, “Arguments Spread Thick,” The Boston Globe (2006) AKA “A Burrito is not a Sandwich”; Orin Hargraves, “Help for Harried Justices,” Visual Thesaurus Language Lounge 1 August 2017; Philip A. Rubin, “War of the Words: How Courts Can Use Dictionaries in Accordance with Textualist Principles” (Duke Law Review 2010, 167-206). I hope to add a unit on “Learner Dictionaries.”

Students submit written commentaries on each week’s reading, which I use in leading discussion. Fifty percent of the course grade is based on the commentaries and participation. Each student also prepares an original lexicon of family, work or hobby terminology; there’s a vocabulary test and a final essay exam. Other activities were a guest lecture from Walt Hakala, who discussed his research for Negotiating Languages: Urdu, Hindi, and the Definition of Modern South Asia (Columbia UP, 2016), and a visit to our Special Collections Department to examine blueback spellers and early dictionaries from the Kempke-Root Textbook Collection.

The essay questions for my final exam summarize the issues we cover and the connections that I hope my students will make:

            1. Analyze the role of the dictionary in forging or reflecting values of national identity, cultural unity or exclusivity, and/or social class or status. You may quote from any materials assigned during this course, but you must discuss quotations from at least three of the following lexicographers: Johnson, Webster, Trench, Murray, Gove, Piozzi, Roget, Stamper.

            2. According to B.T.S. Atkins, “The dictionary must function as a successful act of communication between the compiler who wrote it and the person consulting it. It is a tool for the reader to use. If the tool does not work when used intelligently, then it is the toolmaker’s fault, not the user’s.” Taking Atkins’ comment as a starting point, write an essay in which you discuss the relationship of the dictionary compiler and the dictionary user. Examine the reasonable and unreasonable goals and expectations of both lexicographers and dictionary users, and the role of each in shaping the place of the lexicon in our society. You may, but need not, concentrate on a specific group of users (e.g., children, second language learners, college students, Americans, women, &c.). You may, but need not, focus on a single dictionary, dictionary format, or lexicographer.

3. Choose one topic from list A and one from list B and write an essay commenting on how the intersection of the two affects lexicography today and/or may shape lexicography in the future. A: corpus, search engines, social media, crowd-sourcing, slang; B: labels, illustrative quotations, front matter, usage.

This course is always splendid and exciting to teach. Because a syllabus, however promising, cannot convey all that a class may accomplish, I’ll conclude this essay by sharing excerpts from students’ work: the last passage is from the final exam, and the first two are from informal commentaries where the prompt was, “What is the most interesting, useful or troubling thing you have learned about lexicography this semester?”

Jill B: [I]t did make me think, particularly [with regard] to the Down syndrome and Mongolism definitions, whether dictionaries might be making a turn toward entries which say all and nothing at the same time. I do not remember exactly which dictionary it was …but the definition of Down syndrome was so sanitized that if you had no preconceived idea what or who a person with that condition was you might not be able to understand it at all from the definition. The same went for the entries related to disease. I wonder if in this current climate of focus on not offending that we might [get] dictionaries defining certain items very similar to Dr. Johnson’s choice for cow and its “a beast well known” definition. Granted, the context behind then and now was different, however, there is this element that lexicographers must be politically correct in their compiling of words as well in order not to be embroiled in controversary. Will sanitation of entries become a problem for the future of lexicography? But then again, will online dictionaries be engaged in the same controversary as much as, say, the MW3 had because there is less consideration of the whole text as opposed to one entry? And will the ability to change entries easily on the fly to stave off certain contentious words and entries? Or will it be the ability to keep up with the modern fast paced changing connotation of words? Will dictionaries always be a step behind?

Connor D.: Another thing to consider is the Internet and how pivotal it is in the history of lexicography. I [want] to consider something interesting that we talked about at the end of last class—the accessibility of online dictionaries as technological developments continue to be made. It’s vitally important to understand that while many privileges become available, some privileges may be closed off. Also, it asks a larger question: how should the Internet function economically? This also suggests that the central theme of lexicography may have shifted from linguistic development to language accessibility.

Felicia D:  Stamper writes, ‘Censoring out profanity–especially in news–presents a false reality.’ This, in regards to slang words, profane or not, exhibits how important it is for lexicographers to compile dictionaries relevant to the way we speak, write, express ourselves. In the year 2030, we may be consorting with A.I. on a romantic level and Lil Uzi Vert may be  America’s newest president. If we cannot understand his slang, his language, how will we communicate that in strongly-worded e-mails to the White House? If we are on a date with a sexy robot and they try explaining the word “covfefe” with an illustrative quotation, composed by former President Trump, will we be offended and leave?