how writing a dictionary can prompt you to contact strangers

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Photo of a person typing a letterIt’s been a busy week as usual at Mixed Blessings headquarters! A typical week for me involves lots of searching for the best quotations to show in the entries and writing definitions for entries that have already had their quotations collected. When it comes down to it, these two processes are at the heart of dictionary-making: gathering quotations and writing definitions.

But there’s a new task I’ve been doing lately that has been surprisingly rewarding: reaching out to people who have a special connection to certain blended-religion words and asking them questions about their experience with the words and inviting them to evaluate how the definitions and quotations look so far.

I’ll be honest: it’s both exciting and a little scary to show rough drafts of the dictionary entries to people who have actually used these words in real life. Partly it’s because I don’t want to come off as someone who coldly puts people’s speech under a microscope, and partly it’s because the people out there in the real world who use these words are the ultimate judges about what the words do and don’t mean. Basically the job of lexicographers is to listen carefully to how people use the words and then write definitions that accurately reflect how people use the words. If anything, a dictionary is a mirror of how society uses language rather than some rule book that society is supposed to follow.

Various thoughts like these were in my head as I was researching jubu (Jewish + Buddhist) last month, and I learned about Marc Lieberman, a doctor in San Francisco who also helps prevent blindness in Tibet, who was using the word jubu back in the early 1990s.  That time frame is around the earliest I’ve been able to trace the word, so it seemed like a smart idea to write Dr. Lieberman a letter and show him a copy of my current draft of the dictionary entry and inquire if he had anything he’d like to add. I just got a postcard back from him in the mail a few days ago saying he liked how I had defined the word and that he couldn’t think of anything else to add. Hey, sounds good to me! That gives me some reassurance that I’m on the right track.

I also got a letter back this week from Professor Delos McKown, a retired philosophy professor in Alabama, who was one of the first people to use the word fundagelical (fundamentalist + evangelical). I actually suspect he may have even been the first person to coin the word back in 1985, but I have to do more research before I can even consider making a bold statement like “This person probably was the first to coin the word!” Lexicography is akin to the hard sciences in that you must have solid evidence to back up your claims about coinage and etymology. Anyway, McKown wrote back and said he was delighted and surprised that someone was investigating this old word. He said if he had to invent a similar word today to describe those deeply conservative and politically active Christians who attempt to influence public policy and public education, he probably would lean toward coining a word like “fundapentegelical” since he felt that now there were all three of these groups that were commonly associated in such sociopolitical activities. What a fascinating tidbit of information! On the one hand that gives me something to think about and investigate regarding the definition of fundagelical, but on the other hand that also spurs me to search and see if anyone else has used the word fundapentegelical (fundamentalist + evangelical + Pentecostal) with this type of meaning. So McKown gave me insight on a word I already knew about and potentially gave me a brand new word too. Thank you, sir!

I plan to keep on sending letters (and emails too) to people who might have a special insight into what certain blended-religion words mean and maybe even how they were coined. So you see, even though the common stereotype of a person who writes dictionaries is that of an intensely bookish and introverted person, the truth is that even in lexicography there are plenty of opportunities to reach out and connect with people. Funny how words can bring people together like that!

To wrap things up, here are the words I’ve been working on this past week:

  • methobapticostal (Methodist + Baptist + Pentecostal)
  • methobapticostalism (Methodism + Baptist + Pentecostalism)
  • presbylutheran (Presbyterian + Lutheran)
  • protholic (Protestant + Catholic)
  • reconservadox (Reform Judaism + Conservative Judaism + Orthodox Judaism)

What is the book “Mixed Blessings” about?

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Mixed Blessings is a forthcoming dictionary of real words that people have been using to describe their “hybrid” or “mixed” or “complicated” religious or spiritual beliefs. I’m talking about words like bapticostal, episcolutheran, jubu, mennocostal, pentevangelicalquanglicansushi, and about 1,200 similar blended words that are all formed by combining bits and pieces from existing words for denominations and religions.

Most of these 1,200 words are combinations of two words like the examples shown above. But there are also triples (anapiscopanglicanepiscobapterian, hin-bu-jewmethobapterian), and even a handful of quadruples and beyond (episco-metho-bap-terian, metho-formed-presby-gational-bapto-palian). I want to stress that all these words that are defined in Mixed Blessings have really been used by actual people, and every entry in the dictionary also features at least two quotations that I have collected over the years from books, magazines, and the Internet to show where and when people have used these words.

You can get an idea of what the dictionary entries will look like from the banner graphic at the top of this web page. You can also click on the thumbnail image below to get a bigger screenshot of the current draft of the entry for “hinjew.”

image of the beginning of the entry for "hinjew"
beginning of the entry for “hinjew”

Mixed Blessings (or MB for short) is a helpful resource in multiple ways. For one thing, there are no other dictionaries that focus on this type of religious blend word. In fact, only about half a dozen of these religious blend words have ever been defined in dictionaries before, so for almost all these thousand-plus words, this will be their big debut in a dictionary!

So if you wanted to look up what a word like, for example, conservadox means in the context of Judaism and how old of a word it is, MB is the only reference work that you could feel confident going to and knowing that it will be able to answer your questions in a single convenient entry.

There are other ways MB is helpful too. Suppose that you are connected to two different faiths or traditions, and you want to know what terms could be used to describe that situation. For example, suppose your mother’s side of the family is Catholic, and your father’s side of the family is Lutheran. You can use the appendix in the back of MB to look up Catholic and Lutheran blends and see that there are words such as catheran and lutholic to describe the mixing of these two denominational traditions. This information could give you an idea of ways you may wish to describe or explain your own religious identity, or these terms could be a springboard to further research or even to finding communities of like-minded people.

Even if you don’t have any specific pairing or trio of religions or denominations in mind, MB is fun and horizon-broadening even just to flip through or dip into at random. In page after page there is unprecedented evidence of people’s spiritual and linguistic creativity on display. The quotations that feature in every entry let us travel back in time to see the reasons why people have been choosing these words to express their complex spiritual stories. The visual timelines in many of the entries impress upon us just how far back these terms have been in use. I think most of us will be surprised at how long people have been coining and using these blended words in an effort to be identified and described on their own terms.

For seven years (since the summer of 2011) I have been studying and collecting these blended terms, and it has become my own sort of spiritual journey too, as I have come to empathize and care for the many people who feel that they don’t fit neatly into the standard religious slots and spiritual shapes. People’s religious experiences are more diverse than I ever thought possible, and the paths that people are taking rarely if ever follow a preset pattern or template. Collecting and publishing the blended words in MB is one small but significant way I can affirm the courage and resilience of people who go through life carrying their “mixed blessings.”