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)