Thursday, July 12, 2012

"Undictionaried" words

If you love words and you haven’t met Erin McKean (pictured), you are in for a treat. Ms. McKean is a high-powered lexicographer whose career has included the position of editor in chief for American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press. I suggest you meet her via her recent article “Using Undictionaried Words.”

Here are a few excerpts:

“Writers constantly add to the lexical dark matter of the linguistic universe, either by writing about things so new that the terms used to discuss them are still hot from the mold, or just through pure wordsmithery, the coining of words that need to exist for evocative, rather than technical, reasons.”

“Most of the words you know and love and use every day are not words you learned by looking them up in a dictionary and reading a definition. They’re words you learned by seeing them used by other writers. And that’s how dictionary editors work, too. As the editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary (2e), I searched for new words and abstracted multiple uses of those words in context to create the general catchall explanations we call definitions.”

“For instance, if you wanted to use the word killingry, a fantastic word created by Buckminster Fuller, an inventor, author and philosopher who is most famous for his geodesic dome, a look in a dictionary turns up nothing. However, a quick search of Google Books turns up some great examples, including an interview with the composer John Cage, who quotes “Bucky” and contrasts this word with livingry, another Fullerism. In a few minutes you can understand that killingry, according to Fuller and others, is the whole apparatus of killing, the output of the military-industrial complex, formed by analogy with the word weaponry.” (Link in original.)

The Takeaway: I recommend you read the entire article; unless you are an erudite writer, you will learn something new. As to writing style, Ms. McKean skillfully manages to express her love of lexicography without sounding like a fanatic (the third excerpt above is a good example).

See disclaimer.

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