How did a guy like me end up in a place like this?
Excellent question. It’s the very question that ran through my mind on my first day on the job, and for many weeks hence. How the hell did I get a job at the offices of Samuelson Company, the oldest and most revered name in American dictionaries? In the end, this might strike you as the greater mystery—greater than the one I’d later find in the company’s dusty files: How does a clod like me end up in training to be a lexicographer?
Now that you’ve paused to look up lexicographer, are you impressed? Are you imagining lexicographers as a council of cloaked, wizened men rubbing their snowy-white beards while they consult their dusty folios? I’m afraid you might have to adjust your thinking just a little. Imagine instead a guy right out of college—a guy who says yup, and watches too much Conan O’Brien. Imagine this guy sitting in a cubicle, shuffling through little bits of magazine articles, hoping for words like boink and tatas to cross his desk and spice up his afternoons.
Don’t get me wrong. When I first got the job, I was pretty excited. I’d been starting to doubt my employability, since I’d majored in philosophy. Admittedly, I’d applied for publishing jobs on a whim, having heard some English majors talk about it. No one at the big New York companies bit at my résumé, but someone at Samuelson must have liked all the A’s on my transcript in heady-seeming topics like Kant and Kierkegaard, and they called me just in time—just as I was starting to thumb through pamphlets about the Peace Corps and teaching English in Japan. My interview was with one Dan Wood, a pale, bearded middle-aged guy who didn’t really seem to know how to conduct an interview. He mostly just described the defining process quietly, peering at me occasionally as if trying to gauge my reaction. I guess I didn’t make any funny faces, because two days later Dan called me to offer the job.
Claxton, Massachusetts, was a far cry from Manhattan, but I wasn’t in a position to complain. In fact, I was pretty pleased with myself. The shitty location at least allowed me to get a nice big apartment—on the second floor of a run-down Victorian house near downtown Claxton. Once I’d moved all my stuff out of my parents’ house and bought a few cheap pieces of furniture on credit, I had a week left to prepare for my first day on the job. I bought a couple of corduroy sport jackets with elbow patches. I wondered what kind of sharp-witted young ladies I’d meet at the office, and what topics we might discuss by the company coffee machine. I read and reread Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I worried about sounding like an ignoramus.
Dan Wood met me downstairs on the first day, and led me up to the editorial office and its expanse of cubicles. After parking me at my new cubicle, he set a dictionary in front of me.
“I’d like you to read the front matter.” He lowered his voice as if the request embarrassed him. “That’s the section at the beginning of the book. The front matter explains most of the conventions of how our dictionaries are organized. Why senses and variants are ordered as they are, what sort of abbreviations are used, and so on. It’s a tradition for our brand-new editors—reading the front matter on the first day.”
He paused, watching me open my dictionary to the first page.
“Alrighty,” I said. I was trying to convey some of the enthusiasm I hadn’t had an opportunity to display in the interview. “Great.”
The corners of Dan’s mouth twitched a little. “Yes. You might find parts of it surprisingly engaging.”
I nodded, feeling somehow I’d already said too much.
Dan gave an encouraging little nod before disappearing into his office.
The front matter wasn’t so bad. There were, admittedly, a few things about the basic arrangement of a dictionary that I’d never considered before. That different senses of words are arranged from oldest use to newest use, for example. Or that when there are two equally accepted spelling variations on a single word, they are simply listed alphabetically.
Dan appeared again about an hour into my reading, this time holding a giant blue-bound book. The unabridged edition. Its wide spine barely fit in Dan’s long fingers. The way he slapped it into my hands reminded me of someone palming a basketball.
“The front matter in this one repeats a great deal of the same information.” Dan sighed heavily before continuing. “But it’s also much more comprehensive, as the book itself is more comprehensive. You see?”
“Unless you’re some kind of speed reader,” he said, “this will take you the rest of the day.”
When he left, I looked at the clock. It was nine forty-five. I loosened my tie and started in on the section about “Guide Words,” those little words at the top of a dictionary page that tell you what’s on that page. “Variants” was fairly interesting, as were “Inflected Forms” and the very long section on “Etymology.” But it started to get a little stodgy at “Capitaliza?tion.” I wanted to look at the clock again, but knew it would only depress me. “Synonyms” was no better, and I tried to skip ahead to something more interesting. “Guide to Pronunciation,” perhaps?
I decided some refreshment might revive my enthusiasm. I poked around in the maze of cubicles for a few minutes, trying to look good-natured but academic. A nice petite middle-aged lady came up to me eventually, introduced herself as Grace, showed me to the water cooler, and disappeared. But there were no paper cups. Back at my desk, I started to read about the different pronunciation symbols in the dictionary. The slashes and hyphens and vowels ceased to have any meaning after about twenty minutes.
I sat up straight and stretched before starting a section on schwas. The schwa—the upside-down e—essentially stands for a grunt. A nondescript uh sound. A fun, if undignified, role in language study. This was a pronunciation symbol I could relate to. Standing on its head and grunting. Like me the first time I tried tequila, when I was sixteen. It was the same night that the whole varsity team drank beer out of one another’s shoes—the night after our first game of the season. We probably never could’ve imagined that one of us would end up in an office like this, poring over a dictionary, thinking of that night. I didn’t miss those days, but there was an odd satisfaction in conjuring those guys here, in this scholarly little institution. I stared into the pronunciation symbols and thought of Todd Kurtz lying flat on his back, trying to get his basset hound to drink White Russians out of his open mouth.
But that was a long time ago, and now I had to focus on umlauts and accent marks. I stared resolutely at the page.
A loud buzz sounded from somewhere. A phone was ringing in the cubicle next to mine.
I heard a chair squeak, and then an older man’s voice:
“Hello? Okay . . . all right, Sheila. I’ll put you out of your misery. You’re welcome. Which line? Okay.”
The man clicked a couple of buttons.
“Good morning, Editorial. I’m one of the editors here. I’m told you have a question about one of our definitions?”
A slight pause.
“Okay. I’m looking it up. You’re talking about the noun entry for ‘boil,’ correct?”
“Okay. Okay. Well, I don’t remember our exact definition for ‘pimple,’ but there is certainly a difference. ‘Pimple’ is generally applied to smaller inflammations, and the application is perhaps a little broader as well.”
The man’s voice was louder now than when he was talking to “Sheila,” but maintained a sort of good-natured mono?tone.
“No. No. There’s no size limit for calling something a boil. At least from a lexicographical point of view. If you were to consult a physician’s manual, on the other hand—”
A long pause, then a quiet sucking-in of breath.
“Ohhh. I see. That does sound unpleasant. Is it painful?
“. . . Uh-huh. Well, I’m a dictionary editor, sir. I think maybe you should call a physician. In fact, I hope you do.
“. . . I understand. But our college dictionary isn’t meant to be a diagnostic manual.
“. . . Right. But even if you aren’t sure of the right word for it, a trained physician only needs to look at it, and he should be able to tell you exactly what you should be calling it. And with a doctor, there’s also the possible advantage of treatment.
“. . . Yes. Yes, sir. That’s what I’m saying. That’s what I think you should do. I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful . . . Sure. No problem. Let us know how it goes. If you like.
“. . . All right, then. Good luck to you. Take care.”
The chair squeaked again as the guy hung up the phone. No more sounds came from that cubicle for the rest of the morning.
After lunch, Dan took me into his tiny book-lined office.
“I hope you’re not finding the front-matter tradition too much of a trial.” He rolled up the sleeves of his Oxford shirt as he spoke, still avoiding my eyes.
“Nope,” I said, and immediately felt dumb and caveman-like. Nope. Yup. Duh. To avoid looking at him, I stared at the twisted little cactus on Dan’s desk.
“Pretty interesting, actually,” I lied.
“You have a green thumb?” Dan asked.
“Are you interested in plants?”
“Uh . . . not really. No more than average, I guess—”
“Because I don’t know what keeps this thing alive. I’ve had it for at least four years. I haven’t any idea how to care for a cactus. But still it grows here on my desk.”
“Do you water it?”
“That sounds about right,” I said, perhaps too enthusiastically. “For a cactus.”
Dan handed me a sheet of paper that had Training Schedule typed at the top.
“You’ll be happy to know you won’t be doing this every day. Tomorrow your real training begins.”
“It’s not meant to be an endurance test, even if it might feel that way. Quite simply, front matter can train you more succinctly than most training sessions can.”
I nodded again.
“As the schedule specifies, I’ll be doing most of your sessions. Here in this office. Just knock on my door at the scheduled times. For the other sessions—like cross-reference with Frank, or thesauri with Grace—they’ll come to you. Do you have any questions about the process? Or anything you’ve read today?”
When I said no, Dan told me I needed to be introduced to Mr. Needham, the editor in chief. Dan led me to Mr. Needham’s office and smiled wanly as he held the door for me. He didn’t go in with me.
Mr. Needham’s office was pretty Spartan. Unlike some of the cubicles I’d seen earlier in the day, his space contained none of the usual comforting reminders of a slightly rosier existence outside of this office—pictures of smiling children, Nerf basketball hoop, dish of toffee candies. Even on Dan’s desk there was at least a framed snapshot of himself holding a large trout, in addition to that sad little cactus. The only sign of nonacademic humanity in Mr. Needham’s office was a shiny new roll of Tums resting on the corner of his blotter.
From the Hardcover edition.