The dictionary: on its own terms

    Business Spotlight 11/2021
    An illustration of a man speaking and a speech bubble with letters in it
    © romeocane1/
    Von Melita Cameron-Wood

    When Amirul Sheikh moved from India to the US in 2007, he found American English challenging. “As English is my second language, I had difficulty knowing what I didn’t know,” Sheikh says. “Online dictionaries are of great help, but I was looking for more than that — ease of learning.”

    Sheikh works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as a seniorleitendsenior software consultant and developer at the transport company Hitachi Rail STS. His technical background and first-hand experience of learning English as a foreign language put him in a good position to start a dictionary of his own. In 2020, he established Lexicon Learning LLC and began to dedicate sth to sth.etw. einer Sache widmendedicating his spare timeFreizeitspare time to the project. “Lexicon Learning is made for people who do not know anything about English,” Sheikh explains. “They can easily navigate and build their vocabulary step by step.”

    Sheikh now manages a team of freelance lexicographers, including Vanessa Fisher who has been working on the project since its conception. Fisher is from Pittsburgh but now lives in London. She explains her work of writing definitions: “I work with an algorithm that brings up words for me to look at. I check the number of syllableSilbesyllables and make sure that the synonyms and antonyms match the word. This dictionary is a paraphraseWiedergabe mit anderen Wortenparaphrase of what already exists. You cannot just say that a cat is a dog or something like that.”

    Vanessa Fisher

    Vanessa Fisher: from creative writing to lexicography

    Non-standard English

    For Fisher, creating a dictionary is both exciting and dauntingbeängstigenddaunting. Having studied creative writing, she finds writing definitions to be an enjoyable challenge, as she has to prioritize learners’ understanding over linguistic complexity.

    Many of the words Fisher uses on a day-to-day basis are nowhere to be found in any dictionary, however. Her native city is known for its dialect, Pittsburghesein Westpennsylvania gesprochenes EnglischPittsburghese, which arose as a result of the influx of different European languages in the area due to immigration. Pittsburghese expressions such as “redd up (non-stand)aufräumenredd up”, “yinz (non-stand)ihr (2. Person Plural)yinz” and “dahntahn (non-stand)downtowndahntahn” are all examples of non-standard English. Although not in an official English dictionary, they are listed in the book Pittsburghese: From ahrn (non-stand)iron (Eisen)Ahrn to Yinz (scroll to the bottom of this page), which Fisher describes as “a whole book of words that nobody else in the world uses outside of this area”.

    Erin McKean

    Erin McKean: Wordnik founder

    Whether non-standard words should be allowed into dictionaries is still up for debate, but some lexicographers take a very clear stanceStandpunktstance on this. Erin McKean, former editor-in-chiefChefredakteur(in)editor-in-chief of American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press and founder of online dictionary, believes that dictionaries should aim to include “all the words” rather than eliminating words that are not to deem sth. ...etw. als ... erachtendeemed worthy of a place. “Some people think of a word’s ‘status’ as being binarybinärbinary: something either is a word, or it is not one,” she says. “But really, what people are looking for is some indicationHinweis, Anhaltspunktindication of acceptability: will others in their community understand the word they want to use? Will they think it rudeunhöflichrude, uneducated, pretentiousanmaßend, überheblichpretentious, slangy?”

    Shifting focus

    McKean found the traditional model of lexicography restrictive, hencedaherhence her shift in focus towards sources that would not usually be considered, such as blogs, tweets or radio and TV shows. “At Wordnik, unlike more traditional dictionaries, we try to show you as much data as we have for anything you look up. Many times, that’s a lot of data: a traditional dictionary definition, example sentences, synonyms and other related words, images from Flickr, tweets from Twitter, comments by other Wordnik users.”

    One of the unusual featureMerkmal, Besonderheitfeatures of Wordnik is that any-one can add a word. If someone to come across sth.auf etw. stoßencomes across an unusual term, they are encouraged to leave a comment about the word, but users are currently unable to add their own definitions or examples. The dictionary therefore includes many terms that you won’t find in Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary, such as “fully pfizereddoppelt geimpft (gegen Covid-19 mit Biontech/Pfizer)fully pfizered”.

    McKean’s inclusive view on language signals a shift towards the democratization of dictionaries. “Wordnik definitely has a democratic bentNeigung; hier: Ausrichtungbent. I like to think of the richness of English vocabulary as an infiniteunendlich; hier: unerschöpflichinfinite paintbox that allows everyone to create exactly what they desire,” McKean says. She has now moved into the tech industry and works as a developer relations programme manager at Google.

    “Several other lexicographers I know have also moved into tech — it’s a natural fit, skill-wisein puncto Kompetenzenskill-wise,” says McKean. “Unfortunately, there aren’t many full-time dictionary jobs left. I’ve been extremely lucky in that Wordnik is a 501(c)3 non-profit, which means we are able to operate with the goal of continuing our mission, rather than making a profit. It is very difficult to make a profit as a dictionary nowadays.”

    The transferrable skill setFähigkeiten; auch: fachliches Könnenskill set that McKean acquired while working on Wordnik’s website and API (Application Programming Interface) to facilitate sth.etw. ermöglichenfacilitated her entryhier: Einstiegentry into tech. “I feel that my unusual path into tech makes me more empathetic to developers. And at Google, a big part of my job is trying to make it easier for open-source projects to have better documentation.”

    Etymology and empathy

    Sometimes, it takes only one word to to vex sb.jmdn. ärgern, aufregenvex lexicographers, and McKean’s use of the word “empathetic” certainly wouldn’t be to the liking of educator, author and lexicographer Matina Kokolis-Psyhogeos. She is on a mission to have the word “empathy” either redefined or removed from the English dictionary. McKean’s use of the word “empathetic” may to comply with etw. übereinstimmencomply with standard English usage, but is not true to its original Greek meaning.

    After the publication of Kokolis-Psyhogeos’s 760-page lexicon/dictionary English Words to derive from sth.etw. entstammen, sich von etw. herleitenDeriving from the Greek Language in 2016, she wrote an article entitled “Let’s Talk about Empathy”, which was published in the Journal of Applied Languages and Linguistics in 2018. Kokolis-Psyhogeos reminds readers of the Greek definition of the word (Εμπάθεια/empatheia): “having ill feelings, unhealthy passion, animosityFeindseligkeitanimosity towards others” and states that “the word has been misinterpreted from the beginning — from the time it was to adopt sth.etw. übernehmenadopted from the Greek language”.

    In 2021, Kokolis-Psyhogeos wrote another article on the same subject in an effort to get dictionaries to take the issue more seriously. “The original lexicographer either did not know enough Greek to understand the correct definition or was careless,” she comments.

    Power to the people

    Sometimes, common usage and etymology simply no longer to alignim Einklang seinalign. New definitions enter common usage, and there is little any dictionary definition — or etymology — can do to make them to budgesich bewegen; hier: weichenbudge.

    If individuals are dissatisfied with what traditional dictionaries are offering them, they will take matters into their own hands. The collective will speak loudly and assertivelybestimmt, selbstbewusstassertively, and if people wish to to contest sth.etw. anfechtencontest the definition of a word in traditional dictionaries, they will gladly do so.

    As McKean points out: “Different dictionaries have different goals. Some dictionaries are intended for language learners, to help them develop fluencyfließende Beherrschung einer Sprachefluency. Some dictionaries have a more scholarlywissenschaftlichscholarly bent: for example, historical dictionaries to trace sth.etw. nachspürentrace the development of words through time.” But whatever the goal of the lexicographer, it is clear that the dictionary has undergone a radical transformation since its beginnings.

    Past and present

    In 1604, the Table Alphabeticall, written by Yorkshire-born schoolmaster (UK)Schulmeister(in), Lehrer(in)schoolmaster and former clergymanGeistlicherclergyman Robert Cawdrey, became the first monolingual English dictionary. In the prefaceVorwortpreface, Cawdrey to deplore sth.etw. beklagendeplores the language of the “ignorant people” and the “far-journied gentlemen”, claiming that many “forget altogether their mothers’ language”.

    Cawdrey’s publication is highly authoritarian in nature. Similarly, in the preface to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755, the lexicographer is described as being “doomedverdammtdoomed only to remove rubbish (UK)Müll; hier: Unsinnrubbish and clear obstructionHindernisobstructions from the paths of Learning and geniusGenialitätGenius”. Others, such as American lexicographer Noah Webster, considered the dictionary to be a powerful political tool. “A national language is a band of national union,” Webster famously said.

    This sense of union would paradoxically be achieved through a policy of exclusion, as the traditional dictionary determines which words do or do not belong to the “national” vocabulary. Little did Webster know that the to lay foundationsein Fundament legenfoundations he laid in his 1841 edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language, Corrected and Enlarged were to become a go-to resourceMittel, Quelle; hier: Informationsquelleresource both within and beyond the United States. George and Charles Merriam, the founders of Merriam-Webster, bought the rights to Webster’s dictionary in 1843.

    It is interesting to to ponder sth.über etw. nachdenkenponder what Cawdrey, Johnson and Webster would have made of modern-day dictionaries. Although the aim of many early lexicographers was to educate through a policy of restraintrestriktives Vorgehenpolicy of restraint, restriction now seems to have been replaced by rebellion. Whether that involves to revise sth.etw. überarbeitenrevising traditional publications, or simply creating a dictionary to meet one’s personal needs, modern developments show that it is time for us to redefine the word “dictionary”.

    “Fully pfizered”

    The statement “I’ve been vaccinated” typically to elicit sth.etw. entlockenelicits the follow-up question “Which one did you get?” If you have received the Biontech/Pfizer vaccine, you can say instead of “I’ve been vaccinated”, “I’m fully pfizered”, thereby killing two birds with one stone. The expression “fully pfizered” still awaits its definition on


    Pittsburghese: From ahrn (non-stand) (iron)EisenAhrn to yinz (non-stand)ihr (2. Person Plural)Yinz is a humourous guide to the dialect local to Pittsburgh, to compile sth.etw. zusammentragencompiled by the staff of the Heinz History Center. The book notes that Pittsburghese “is not just a peculiar local slang Pittsburghers use, but consists of a uniquespezifisch, individuellunique vocabulary and manner of speaking”. The influence of migrants from Eastern Europe and Germany on this dialect makes it unique. For example, when Pittsburghers are out of butter, they say “the butter is all”, a word-for-word translation of the German die Butter ist alle

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