Lexicographers’ Aid

Orin Hargraves

My prompt, from editor David Jost, is to write about how I assist other lexicographers. That’s a question that would probably be more accurately answered by those lexicographers, but I’ll take a stab at it, in the hope that my perception of the activity is roughly the same as theirs.

Leaving aside lexicographers I have taught or trained in a formal setting, it’s fair to say that my assistance to lexicographers (sometimes lexicographer-wannabes) has been random, unpredictable, equally educational and helpful for me, and almost never played out in person, thanks to the reach of the internet. The majority of folks I’ve helped out were “cold callers” —people who have contacted me out of the blue, having found me online or by referral. My interactions with them range from a single email exchange to years-long, lucrative contracts. The common theme has been their perception that I might know something of use to them, and my willingness—in all cases—to share what I know in the hope that it might be useful.

Readers of the newsletter will have seen the piece by Tim Stewart about his dictionary. His getting in touch with me is an example of a fellow harmless drudge, working in relative isolation, who felt a need to reach out to someone in the field. To my mind, the happiest result of this to date is Tim’s appearance at our last conference in Bloomington. A similar case happened several years ago when Peter Meltzer contacted me concerning his Thinker’s Thesaurus. At the time, he lived in a Philly suburb and I lived in Maryland; we agreed to meet halfway in between, which turned out to be a cheap and cheesy Chinese takeout in York, Pennsylvania. Peter and I got on like a house on fire and I was happy to look at, and provide some feedback about, his draft entries for the book. It’s now in its third edition, for which I was very honored to write the foreword. Peter attended a couple of DSNA conferences and I’m hopeful that I might someday lure him back.

In the early 2000s, I finished working on two separate years-long dictionary projects that had left me with the false impression that I had a seat on the gravy train of freelance lexicography that I could ride into my dotage. Work dried up suddenly and I faced the prospect of paying a mortgage without any income. The only solution was to cast about desperately. Ken Litkowski, a fellow harmless drudge, had posted a short notice about his work on prepositions to the DSNA email list. I noticed that he lived in Damascus, Maryland—less than an hour from me at the time—so I wrote to him, asking if there was anything I could do for him. It turned out that there was! We worked together for four years on the Preposition Project, in which my job was to fix an experienced lexicographer’s eye on preposition usages (thousands of them) and map them to a sense inventory, adding new senses where the inventory failed to supply the instantiated sense. Computational work on prepositions has now gone far beyond what Ken and I did, but it’s gratifying to see our work cited as the beginning of an ongoing wrestling match between the whimsical behavior of prepositions, and natural-language programmers who would impose sense and predictability on it.

A recurring theme in my advice to lexicographers and others in need of lexicographic perspectives is alerting them to resources that they didn’t know existed. This has occasionally saved them the trouble of reinventing the wheel. Many of the resources are proprietary and involve licensing or subscription agreements, but many are just out there on the internet and available for all to exploit. Without a doubt, the two useful things that newbies to our field don’t know about are WordNet and Sketch Engine. The Oxford Dictionary APIs, though not for persons of slender means, are also often exactly the resources that lexicographers and developers know they need, but did not know existed.

The lexicographers I have most enjoyed helping are those farthest removed from the decidedly not very diverse world of English lexicography. By virtue of their English proficiency, they have knocked at my door with their questions. An example is Abalfazl, a grad student in Iran, with whom I’ve been corresponding for the last few years. He wants to write a corpus-based English-Persian collocations dictionary. Despite our being worlds apart, we have developed an engaging online acquaintance around lexicographic matters that benefits us both.  He once helped me decipher an inscription, in Persian and Arabic, on an old samovar that has been collecting dust in my sister-in-law’s family for years. Last month he wrote to me with the exciting news that he has won a scholarship to study at Moscow State Linguistic University. I don’t know that I will ever have the opportunity to meet him but it is gratifying to me that I may have helped him in some small ways to embark on a brilliant lexicographical career.