May 01, 2006

The bitchiness of lexicographers and NYRB reviewers

Andrew O'Hagan's review of Henry Hitching's Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr, Johnson's Dictionary, in the New York Review of Books for 4/27/06, leads (on p. 12) with a pretty solid slam:

If you keep an eye on them, you might notice that dictionary-makers are marginally bitchier than runway models.

O'Hagan is keeping up a NYRB tradition of lapidary disparagement here.  The first sentence introduces the organizing figure of this paragraph, that lexicographers are unpleasantly feminine -- shrill and trivial if women, shrieking, prancing queens if men.  The bitchiness of lexicographers is illustrated by what O'Hagan presents as an exchange between two recent dictionaries on the punctuation of a single expression.  Meanwhile, O'Hagan's elegantly sneering prose illustrates just how bitchy NYRB reviewers can get.

There is no mention of Samuel Johnson, Henry Hitchings, or Hitchings's excellent book in this paragraph.  It's all about (modern) dictionary-makers.

But then things get better.  How could they not, once Dr. Johnson enters the room?

Here's the whole first paragraph:

If you keep an eye on them, you might notice that dictionary-makers are marginally bitchier than runway models.  A few summers ago, the revised editions of the Chambers Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English were published into an avid marketplace. Out came the lipstick, out came the knives, as the great lexicographers of today rolled their eyes at one another and balanced their inky fingernails on their slender hips.  "Bling-bling" is one word separated by a  hyphen, said Oxford.  Not at all, honey-pie.  Two words and no hyphen, said Chambers, summoning the authority of the ancients, or Puff Daddy, seeing as the ancients were unavailable.

A not necessarily complete list of disparagement by imputation of femininity/effeminacy in this paragraph:

"bitchier" ("bitch" and "bitchy" being largely reserved for insulting women and gay men)

"runway models" (who are both female and male, though modeling, like almost everything associated with fashion, is considered to be a "feminine" occupation, and male models are widely believed to be mostly gay; I mean, look at Brad Gooch)

"the lipstick" (no further comment necessary)

"the knives" (debatable, but knives are the weapon of choice for women, guns for men)

"rolled their eyes" (a gesture widely believed to be feminine, and to be a gay mannerism)

"their slender hips" (oh, jesus!  this is where I started hissing like a raging queen)

"honey-pie", attributed to one dictionary, applying it to the other

That's a lot to pack into one little paragraph, which as a result configures a difference between the two dictionaries as The Women meets The Boys in the Band.  I guess O'Hagan thought he should lead with a really good punch.  Wipe out the pussies in the first round.  Unfortunately, though I find the paragraph artful, I also find it decidedly unpleasant and also, well, damn bitchy.

Then there's the utter triviality of this difference, which O'Hagan clearly wants his readers to appreciate.  These wusses have nothing better to do with their lives than engage in catfights over whether an expression is to written as two words, one hyphenated word, or one solid word!  (There is, of course, a huge literature about the issue and about particular cases.  For the most part, though, lexicographers don't invest a lot of passion in such things: practice changes over time, there's a certain amount of variation that just has to be recognized, and clarity and comprehensibility are hardly ever at issue.)

To my mind, what's most disturbing about this passage isn't its rhetoric and distasteful background assumptions, but the way it presents the purported confrontation between the dictionaries.  Notice that there are no actual quotations here, and no reference to any publication or to some public event at which the dictionary folks could be observed actually exchanging words with one another.  Yet O'Hagan frames things so that the non-specialist reader is invited to suppose that there was such an exchange.  A melee (I follow NOAD2's preference for the spelling of this word) at the Dictionary Society of North America meetings, perhaps.

But of course there was no such thing.  All that happened was that one dictionary published one thing and the other published something else.  The catfight scene is an imaginative construction of O'Hagan's.  No doubt he will say that he supposed that readers would recognize his hyperbolic fantasy for what it was -- this is the "just kidding" defense -- but I'm not sure they're equipped to.  Even if readers correctly divined his intentions, there's still the imputation that this is the way lexicographers behave, and since few people hang out with dictionary-makers, I suspect that even the readers who understand that the paragraph is not a factual report, jazzed up some, will come away from it supposing that it's an entertainingly exaggerated picture of the way lexicographers really do tend to behave (these days, anyway).  That's a nasty underhanded blow.

My guess is that O'Hagan felt he needed to twist a knife into SOMEONE in a NYRB review -- it can be a tough neighborhood -- and since he had nothing really negative to say about the book (which he generally admires), Hitchings (whose writing he praises), or, of course, Dr. Johnson, he looked around for a victim and settled on modern dictionary-makers to show off his writerly chops on.  Too bad.

After that first effusion of deprecatory hyperbole, O'Hagan settles into less extravagant expository prose, mostly about Johnson, who tends to crowd everyone else into a corner whenever he's in the room.  There is a brief review of Hitchings's book in O'Hagan's piece, but by and large it's an essay about Johnson.  (Well, the book review as a hook for an essay has a long history and many excellent practitioners.  I'm not complaining about that.)

This essay begins, "Authority and provenance are watchwords for the dictionary-making classes."  I wouldn't argue with that, though I think "dictionary-making classes" is over-showy and that "authority" needs more discussion, especially in a passage that shifts from the authority of Puff Daddy (see above) to Johnson's intention to both ennoble and fix the language.  And I think "definition in context" belongs on the list.  Certainly, that was a prime concern for Johnson and is still for modern lexicographers, especially those working on the vocabulary of special communities or on the historical development of meanings, but generally for anybody who wants to figure out what words mean.

In any case, we're now into O'Hagan's essay on Johnson, and out of the Bitch Zone.

Full disclosure time.  I am not a lexicographer, but I hang out with a lot of them (on the American Dialect Society mailing list and at linguistics meetings), and I currently have a gig as a Delegate to the Oxford University Press, consulting on American dictionaries.

[Added 5/3/06: I didn't say much about Hitchings's book above, but for the record let me say that it's marvelous.  Hitchings writes clearly and engagingly, and, most notably, he's unobtrusive; the book is about Johnson, not Hitchings.  When I first saw the book, I thought, oh hell, not another book about Dr. Johnson and his Dictionary -- but, yes, there's room for one more, especially one so focused on the dictionary project itself.]

[More added 5/3/06: Mark Liberman has now posted about O'Hagan's review, citing a perceptive blog entry on it by "A White Bear", who nails something in it that I failed to draw out, namely its contempt for scholars (as opposed to creative writers).  Check it out.  Oh yes, Mark also quotes from a delightful, genial review by Russell Baker in the most recent NYRB, just to show that the NYRB doesn't actually require its reviewers to skewer people.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 1, 2006 02:52 PM