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Merriam’s ‘harmless drudges’.


Noah Webster.IT IS PROBABLE that the popular conception of a lexicographer, if there is one, has not changed much since Dr. Johnson dubbed that creature a “harmless drudge.” In 1975 I joined the editorial staff of what was then still called G.&C. Merriam Co., named for its founding brothers and since the 1840s publishers of dictionaries descended from Noah Webster’s originals. What I found there were scholarly sorts who were, by and large, harmless but far from drudges. But they worked in conditions designed to create the impression of drudgery.

No lexicographer I, but I can guess that it had long been a fundamental tenet of lexicography that the intense concentration required to suss out the finer distinctions among the senses of words could not survive much ambient noise, especially not that created by idle chatter in the office. Hence it was a rule that editors not speak unnecessarily. Instead, communication between editors was conducted in writing, on 3 x 5 slips of pink paper. An editor with a question for another would jot it down and place the slip in his or her outbox. Four or five times a day a junior member of the clerical staff would walk through the office, collecting slips and distributing them to their addressees. Answers would return, in time, by the same method.

qv_slug150I found the hush uncanny. I had come from the Chicago offices of Encyclopædia Britannica, where a very large and often boisterous staff had just finished work on the 15th Edition and where the influence of events of the late 1960s (political conventions, assassinations, riots, and the counterculture) had been inescapable.

(Just one example, not wholly representative: In 1969 or thereabouts, one copyeditor was elected Miss Nude Indiana.)

But back to Merriam. I remained there until 1982. In those seven years the computer revolution overtook the trim federal-style building on Federal Street. The first to be affected were the women of the clerical staff, whose chief duty was to translate the usage citations identified by editors in their “read and mark” time into permanent records. When the computer displaced the typewriters, those records were no longer index cards to be filed in banks of file cabinets but entries in a database.

(A word about the twelve million or so index cards already filed: Once, during a long interval between editions, surplus staff was kept busy and on the payroll creating a “backwards file,” consisting of all the entry words in the unabridged dictionary, spelled backwards and re-alphabetized. Partly this was makework, but it turned out to be very useful in answering such questions as “How many words in the dictionary end in ‘-gry’?”)

Somewhere the computer may have ushered in the predicted era of paperless offices, but it was the death of the quiet one. The culture I left in 1982 was like any other of the day — the hush was lost to a background drone of muttered imprecations against buggy software, punctuated from time to time by groans and curses. Still, the editors wouldn’t have hurt a fly.

'How to Know'Robert McHenry is the former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He is the author of How to Know (Booklocker, 2004). His work has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Skeptical Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune, and the American. He is the “Q.V.” columnist at The Fortnightly Review, where he provides notes and comment on reference works.

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