A Merriam-Webster editor’s knock-down, drag-out battle to define the deceptively small, innocent word “take”

Kory Stamper in Slate:

170313_BOOKS_RAMO_Illustration_TAKE.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2It was 2001, three years into my tenure as a writer and editor of dictionaries at Merriam-Webster. There were about 20 of us lexicographers working on revising the Collegiate Dictionary for its eleventh edition. We had just finished the letter S.

By the time that last batch of defining and its citations—snippets of words used in context—for S had been signed back in on the production spreadsheet, the editors were not just pleased; we were giddy. You’d go to the sign-out sheet, see that we’re into T, and make some little ritual obeisance to the moment: a fist pump, a sigh of relief and a heavenward glance, a little “oh yeah” and a tiny dance restricted to your shoulders (you are at work, after all). Sadly, lexicographers are not suited to survive extended periods of giddiness. In the face of such woozy delight, the chances are good that you will do something rash and brainless.

Unfortunately, my rash brainlessness was obscured from me. I signed out the next batch in T and grabbed the printouts of the entries I’d be revising for that batch along with the boxes—two boxes!—of citations for the batch. While flipping through the galley pages, I realized that my batch—the entire thing—was just one word: “take.” Hmm, I thought, that’s curious.

Lexicography, like most professions, offers its devotees some benchmarks by which you can measure your sad little existence, and one is the size of the words you are allowed to handle. Most people assume that long words or rare words are the hardest to define because they are often the hardest to spell, say, and remember. The truth is, those are usually a snap. “Schadenfreude” may be difficult to spell, but it’s a cinch to define, because all the uses of it are very, very semantically and syntactically clear. It’s always a noun, and it’s often glossed, because even though it’s now an English word, it’s one of those delectable German compounds we love to slurp into English.

More here.

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