The Joy of Lex

Dr Dianne Bardsley

 Are you a lexiholic?  — Dr Bardsley’s cure

Dr Dianne Bardsley, our words expert — lexicographer in fact– explains just why ‘lex is hot’ in her latest column.

If you’re wonder why some words flourish and others wither away, Dr Bardsley, Director of the NZ Dictionary Centre, probably has the answer…

Wordsmiths and dictionary compiling

By Dr Dianne Bardsley

Customs and immigration officers are unsurprisingly perplexed by the term ‘lexicographer’ on a customs entry or departure form.

Wordsmiths working fulltime are very few in number, and the process of compiling a dictionary, when explained, is commonly viewed with sympathy, bewilderment, or plain disbelief.

‘A harmless drudge’

Samuel Johnson famously described a lexicographer as a harmless drudge and the job certainly involves drudgery, but it’s said that the test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery it involves.

Compiling a dictionary based on quotations is a huge historical excavation, and a seriously addictive pursuit.

Recovering lexiholics write books with titles like The Joy of Lex and The Gentle Art of Lexicography as Pursued and Experienced by an Addict.

Always, there is the feverish quest for the first ever, and most recent, recorded usage, found by no other lexicographer.

Debates rage in scriptoria

In scriptoria in both hemispheres of the planet, debates rage over how to treat the entries of compound terms. Quite simply, lex is hot, as is society’s interest in words.

Just as words have changed, so have dictionaries. The earliest dictionaries were thought to be Sumerian word lists of the third millennium BC, although it is thought that there were ‘oral’ dictionaries before the development of writing systems.

Many early lexicographers made a fully life-long study of their lists, while glosses, compiled to help monks read Latin and Greek, took centuries to complete.

Most early dictionaries were of a pedagogical nature, prescriptive and literary-based, in contrast to the twenty-first century publications in which words are recorded as they are actually used in society

Today lexicographers have to trace the biographies of Internet slang terms, nonce words, acronyms, and a host of polysemous words, those with several meanings.

The Oxford English Dictionary staff have been tracing the earliest citations for catchphrases like ‘Read my lips,’the Full Monty,’ ‘No more Mr Nice Guy,’  ‘I could murder a plate of…’ and being ‘Off one’s tits’…and have returned to recording words usually used only in spoken contexts.

These days, lexicographers go to popular song lyrics, advertisements on backs of buses, and restaurant menus for citations. They also track and record the new usages to which we put words.

The common nouns dialogue and eyeball are now common verbs. The verb ‘to enjoy’ is no longer transitive. We do not merely grow vegetables and flowers these days; we grow our businesses.

And, from necessity, we grow our dictionaries.