Now presenting an IdeaJones.com exclusive – a novel in the making:
REALLY ALMOST TRUE STORY (RATS):
BASED ON A TRUE STORY
Letters From An Undefined Woman
by Joey Jones and Mark Jones
There are no words to say how sorry I am that I ever thought my life needed more romance. Trust me – I write dictionaries, so when I say there are no words, I know what I’m talking about.
I have the kind of job that won’t make that cute boy you knew in high school, who is, damn him, still cute, regret standing you up to take the head cheerleader to the dance. It won’t cause your relatives to nod and smile and say, “We always knew you’d do well.”
It will get you lots of time to yourself at cocktail parties. Even the most dedicated networker isn’t looking to snag a business card from a lexicographer. Most people hear the title, look confused, and feel a sudden, compelling need to be elsewhere. If there’s an insurance agent at the party, I’ll have someone to hold up the wall with me, but otherwise, I’m a pariah. At least I know how to spell it.
Writing dictionaries is more stressful than you’d think. “Somebody writes the dictionary?” Of course. Someone has to write explanations, otherwise, it wouldn’t be a dictionary – it’d be a spelling list. I pictured long, scholarly discussions about words, their usefulness, their origins, the unique flavors and subtle shadings that make up that elusive quality we call “meaning.” What could be more delightful for a word hound?
Several years later, I understand why monks take a vow of silence. There can be too many words. You couldn’t attract me to a vow of poverty – I’m close enough as it is, thanks – but I approached this vacation thoroughly sick of words and the people who use them, especially my boss, who has a real flair for the snide comment. His e-mails are marvels of passive-aggressive maliciousness. If you’re not nice to me, I’ll make you read them.
Writers are the kind of people who fought tooth and nail to land a piece in the high school literary magazine, then suffered when most of the student body refused to read it, even with our hero’s masterpiece within. Take that human being, drag him through a failed novel or ten failed attempts to place an article in a paying magazine, land him a job with a coven of losers just like him, and watch the fur fly as he bites and scratches to get just one measly word included in a dictionary full of them.
Yeah, I’m one of those losers. It’s been a long time since I was capable of casual conversation – my brain is always analyzing, sniffing for new words, hoping I find one, yet hoping I don’t. The discovery itself is exciting. What was that sound I just heard? Was it a word? What does it mean? How did it come about? Where did it come from? What use does it serve? How popular is it?
Too often in life, seeking is exciting, but finding is the birth of frustration.
See, it’s not enough to find a new word. Once I find one, I have to prove its existence. It isn’t enough that one person made that particular sound at that exact moment in response to whatever need arose that his existing vocabulary couldn’t supply. Most words are sparks, flaring and dying in the space of a breath. There has to be evidence of a groundswell under that new word, a surge of support. It has to crop up in books, magazines, newspapers, t.v. shows, movies.
The internet’s trickier – you can say that someone “snorticated” in your blog, say, and it can spread online like fire through dry grass, but unless it filters into other forms of communication, it won’t make the dictionary. The internet’s like those old time-lapse photography clips of flowers growing, sped up so they leaf, bloom, and die in seconds. The life cycle of an internet word is usually too short to capture. The internet might birth a notion, but it won’t raise it to adulthood – its attention span is too short.
A word has to have staying power. There aren’t many free spaces in a dictionary, and we still have to include most of the old classics because most people still can’t spell “receive” without looking it up, and spellcheck can’t tell whether you meant to write “the whole experience” or “the hole experience.” There are only a few, golden spots available for new words.
Besides, we (and by “we” I mean the President of our publishing company and his herd of mooing executives, any one of whom can get me fired in a nanosecond) don’t want to seem too trendy. Just trendy enough. Woe to the lowly lexicographer who once battled to include “jiggy,” and is now writing warning labels for food products (“Do not insert salami into ear…”).
It’s a timid business – we don’t want to lead the forward edge of the wave, the foamy part that crashes when the wave folds. We want to be just behind the crest, riding the wave safely to shore. It takes a long time to get a new dictionary into production, and we have a horror of including words that already sound quaint before we’re finished. Thus you can usually find “downsize” in your dictionary, but not “phat.”
On the upside, my job is hard to outsource. A dictionary pretty much has to be written by someone whose first language matches the book, in a culture where that language dominates. And it’s hard to automate, as spellcheck proves on a daily basis.
So my coworkers and I jump into the arena and fight for the entertainment of Caesar, our boss, hoping he will give the “thumbs up” to our offerings, and “thumbs down” to the words offered by our rivals. (Seems to me I once read that the emperors didn’t really use the thumb signal method, but I’m a word hound, not a historian, no matter what my mother-in-law thinks. At least she’s stopped telling people I doctor heinies, leaving me to explain the difference between a lexicographer and a proctologist. If she ever asked about my work, she’d know what I do, but she doesn’t, and doesn’t. Does it crab me that my relatives have no respect for what I do? Guess.)
Copyright © 2005 – 2017 Joey and Mark Jones