State of Lexicography by Orin Hargraves Fall 2021

A Haiku Dictionary?

My recent columns for the newsletter have been retrospective. This one, as I indicated in my conference presentation, is prospective.  I hope it will spark some interest among readers and I will be especially grateful for feedback and engagement with the project.

When I bought the domain HaikuDictionary.com a few years ago, it was a baby step towards bringing to life an idea that had been floating through my mind long before: a dictionary in which the “definitions” are all in the form of haikus.

What would be the point of such an undertaking? To summarize in one word, fun. I also think it would have some practical uses, which I’ll talk about a bit below. The motivation arose like this: after you have defined a word for native speaker dictionaries, a children’s dictionary, ESL dictionaries, and you’ve suppled the gloss for it in a couple of bilingual dictionaries, is there anything left to do? Is there any challenge? Can you keep the monotony of it at arm’s length? No, I thought. Unless you introduce some new constraint or challenge.

So in this situation, back in the day when I spent endless hours of every week defining for various dictionaries, I sometimes found myself formulating haikus for various words that were not so much definitions of the words as evocations of them: such that if you read the haiku, the word it referenced would come immediately to your mind, often in a way that brought a chuckle or a small insight along with it. This was a lot of fun and it became an amusing pastime.

Here are a some of my examples that are exemplary in serving as models, though probably not exemplary in being commendable:

App
My life needs a fix.
Download, install, open, click.
My life needs a fix.
Extrovert
See my big white teeth?
Please look at me when I smile.
That’s why I do it.
Torus
Picture a doughnut.
Take away taste, color, smell.
What shape do you see?

Not long after I purchased HaikuDictionary.com I was alerted to the work of Mary Soon Yee, a British writer, who had composed haikus for all of the 118 elements of the periodic table. Here are some of her haikus:

Copper
Before the Bronze Age,
before history began,
bent to the smith’s need.
Iridium
The dinosaurs are gone:
your fingerprint in the clay.
Incriminating.
Radon
Homeowner’s hazard,
lurking down in the basement,
plotting your decay.

This gladdened my heart! It was evidence that I was not alone in thinking that evocative haikus representing words were a wondrous thing.

I purchased HaikuDictionary.com when I was still working full-time and not in a position to develop it, but it has always been in my mind as something I wanted to do, when I had the time. I have the time now (almost), but I do not have the expertise, and this is where I hope to engage the interest and energies of DSNA members and other newsletter readers to carry the idea forward.

Help Wanted!

Putting together a website of the kind I envision involves numerous skills and experience that I lack. At my creaky age, it is not productive (perhaps not even possible) for me to acquire and master such skills in order to get the website running. I would like my main role in the website to be content curation. But there are so many other things to be done that I would much rather outsource to people who know what they are doing. The main skill areas required are:

  • Web technology and design
  • Content provision
  • Marketing and SEO
  • Legal and financial concerns

The best way to unpack these is to explain what I would like HaikuDictionary.com to look like.

The prima facie best model in terms of functionality is UrbanDictionary.com. That is, I would like the Haiku Dictionary to be a wiki in which anyone (who has a free account) can contribute. However (and this I can’t overemphasize) the Haiku Dictionary would have vastly more curatorial oversight than UrbanDictionary, and it would be visually appealing. The look of the Haiku Dictionary would be much closer to WordNik or SFDictionary.com than to UrbanDictionary.

So this aspect of the website requires people who know about any number of things that I have only interacted with as a user: setting up accounts, security, user interactivity (being able to submit/upvote/downvote haikus), design, and the like.

For the Haiku Dictionary to be sticky at all, it will have to have a lot of content and that will be the biggest initial hurdle to get over, after the technical ones. If a user goes to the site a couple of times and doesn’t find the word they’re looking for, they’re probably not going to come back. So once the website is set up, the greatest need will be to fill it with haikus. This is something anyone can participate in, and DSNA members are surely the best qualified people anywhere to supply such content—an activity that I hope they would enjoy as much as I do.

Like UrbanDictionary, I would like the Haiku Dictionary to allow for the possibility of multiple haikus for the same word. I do not foresee that part-of-speech labels will be helpful: the haiku associated with a word mainly evokes the word, independently of its grammatical or syntactic behavior. For polysemous words, obviously different haikus would evoke different senses of the word. There are certainly possibilities for punning here, where a single haiku might evoke more than one sense of a word.

I don’t have a good idea of what this might cost. I would like to think that I can fund the set-up of it, with some paid and some volunteer labor. The maintenance of the site (web hosting) should not be too onerous. Or so I tell myself now. The goal would be for the website to be economically self-sustaining eventually, perhaps also to carry advertising eventually.

One thought I have is to form a non-profit to own the website, with the DSNA named as the beneficiary of it in the event of dissolution. But I know little about such legal matters and I would welcome advice or alternative scenarios about this aspect of maintaining the site.

I also know little about social media marketing and search engine optimization (SEO), and I would welcome expertise along those lines.

Who Would Visit HaikuDictionary.com?

A lot of internet randos, to be sure, but my hope is that the website can become a gathering place for word-lovers, punsters, and dictionary folk. I think it can also have some pedagogic value for students of English. The language of haikus is simple and direct, owing to constraints on length, and in that sense a haiku is like a definition. But a haiku is free from many of the constraints of a definition because it needn’t be substitutable or descriptive; it just needs to be evocative. So it may be an aid to the English learner who has not made the connection in the conventional way between a word and its meaning or semantic space.

Where to Begin?

First off, I’m happy for input from anyone whose interest is sparked by the foregoing. Even if it’s to say that the idea is just bonkers. My only experience in setting up a website is my personal website, www.orinhargraves.com. It’s low-functionality, and I did it with a lot of help from Google sites. The Haiku Dictionary that I envision is far beyond anything I’ve attempted, technology-wise, so there may be issues involved that I’m not even thinking of. If you think this is the case, please let me know.

The other thing that would be really helpful now is lots of haikus that could populate the site from the get-go, to give users  an idea of what’s there and what can be there. My idea is that every haiku on the site will have an author credit, to appear as the author wishes it: that is, either real name or pseudonymous username. So if you are inspired to write any of these, or to share your ideas or to help with the website, please write! okh@orinhargraves.com.  Thanks!