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Dad always said to `Look it up'

HAVE you ever used a dictionary? It's a book full of words. The first American dictionary was put together by Noah Webster in 1828. It had 70,000 entries and some American Indian words in it, too (like caucus, toboggan, hickory, and skunk). Now, there are many dictionaries. There are dictionaries of general English words, dictionaries of slang, dictionaries of pronunciation, dictionaries of law terms, dictionaries of educational terms, dictionaries of art terms, historical dictionaries, dictionaries of synonyms, and dictionaries of abbreviations and rhyming-words dictionaries, and there are also bilingual dictionaries (with words in two languages).

People who put dictionaries together are called lexicographers. Lexicos means ``words'' and graph means ``write,'' so a lexicographer is a person who ``writes words'' (according to the definition).

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How does a lexicographer decide what words to put in a dictionary? First, he or she collects citations. Citations are uses of a word a lexicographer finds in print (like newspapers or magazines or books). Each citation of each new word is sorted and alphabetized by the lexicographer. When a word has many citations of use, that word is analyzed. It's analyzed by comparing the word with other dictionaries, by finding any derivations or other uses of the word, by separating the noun and verb forms of the word, and by finally writing an entry for the word.

An entry in a dictionary is the recording of the meaning of the word, its language history and etymology (where it came from), and its pronunciation.

Making a dictionary is a very detailed, difficult, and time-consuming process. It's kind of like putting together a complex model airplane. An unabridged dictionary may have 450,000 entries; a desk dictionary about 150,000 entries; a pocket dictionary about 55,000 entries, and a school dictionary, from 500 to 9,500 entries. Think about making the entries for that many words in a dictionary!

Here's a way to learn something about dictionary-making. Let's pretend that you're a lexicographer. I'm going to give you a list of words. You have to decide which of the words to put in your dictionary, and why. You have to decide what these words mean and write a definition for each word - without looking at another dictionary. OK? Here's your list:




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It looks easy, doesn't it? But once you try doing it, you may discover that the task is more difficult than it seems. For instance, does ``pretty'' mean the same thing when you talk about a ``pretty child'' or a ``pretty girl'' or a ``pretty color'' or a ``pretty name,'' or in the sayings ``I'm pretty sure'' or ``I'm pretty angry''? What's the difference?

Is ``groovy'' in your vocabulary? It was in many people's vocabularies in the late 1960s. What happened to the word? Why should it be or not be in your dictionary? If you include it, then what other old slang words will you include? If you don't include it, then will you leave out the important slang words of today? How will you decide?

Now, ``pipe'' needs several meanings. How many can you think of? If you're a plumber, you'll think of a different meaning than if you are a musician or a miner of a boatswain. Should all of these meanings be included?

How about ``hand''? That should be easy, shouldn't it ... a palm with fingers and a thumb attached, right? Then how does ``hand'' differ from a chimpanzee's ``hand''? And how about the uses ``ask for a hand'' and ``she has a master hand'' and ``wash one's hands of'' and ``with a heavy hand''? Surely, the meaning doesn't literally mean that a physical hand is being referred to. How will you show the difference in these meanings in your dictionary?

DO you know that there are also many other meanings for hand? A banana cluster is a hand. The cards held by a player in a card game is a hand. The things that move around on the face of a clock or watch are ``hands.'' People who work for others can be called ``hands'' ... phew! This is getting complicated, isn't it? And we haven't even gotten into pronunciation or synonyms or antonyms or etymology yet, either!

Now, the last word on your list: ``blues'' ... you may think of the color, or you may think of a melancholy sound, or a form of jazz or a dress uniform, or other things. But the important thing to know, as a lexicographer, is that you must be complete and accurate in your entries.

Now, think about the difficulty of deciding on new words for your dictionary. When I was writing this article, I looked through a couple of newspapers and a couple of magazines. I found these ``words'' used: networking, wysiwyg, wage-earner, multiversity, beef Wellington, Vietnamization, deli, charbroil, WASP, ufology, gee whiz, boatel, granola, quark, ticky-tacky, yuppie, zonked, blah, non-u, gofer, hoagy, and scam.

You won't find most of these words in your dictionary. It will take time, and the work of a lot of lexicographers, to decide if any or all of them will be in the next edition of Webster's. But the next time you look for a definition in your own dictionary, you can smile, because you've had a taste of what it takes to be a lexicographer and what it takes to make a good dictionary!