"A Construction Site Full of Hazards"

Word Definition File

A word definition file includes the drafting editors' hierarchy of senses and additional notes (right) as well as citation slips from the DOE Corpus illustrating the meaning of the word (left).

David and Ian McDougall have worked as drafting editors at the Dictionary of Old English since 1985.  In this interview with Alexandra Bolintineanu, they talk about life at the dictionary, its beginnings, methodology, and challenges.

How would you describe the DOE's lexicographical method?  In other words, how do you define Old English words?

"The DOE's lexicographical method is more or less like this: We work on a construction site full of hazards, trying to build a large structure.  Entries are part of the structure and have to bear the weight of all entries built on top of them.  But entries are also tools:  you are making a tool that everyone else will have to use to make their own entries.  So you draft an entry, and later another editor who has to refer to it may discover that it's not as useful as it might have been.  There are always mistakes; error management is part of the job.  

"We start with the evidence of the DOE corpus.  Based on this evidence, we produce slips with citations that illustrate the different contextual senses of a word.  Take the word "have," for instance:  there is a distinction between "I have a knife in my hand" and "I have a knife in my back"--a distinction very obvious to the one with the knife in his back.  But the slips will not speak for themselves.  You have to draw up a huge list of potential senses and test your citations against those.  If the slips resist your hierarchy of senses, you have to change, adjust.  And always look at the lexicographical tradition.  You have to look at the lexicographical tradition and come up with a hierarchy of senses that makes sense to you.  It's often an exercise in applied plagiarism:  if you find something that works, you will use it."

"There are challenges specific to Old English lexicography.  For example, you have to be aware of Latin idioms that will be rendered literally into Old English.  If a scribe produces a calque of some Latin idiom, you have to record it, but you must note the dependency on a Latin text, to make it clear that the idiom is not homegrown."


What is the best and the hardest part of your work?

"One of the attractions of the job is that we have to deal with everything that is written in Old English, not just the literary texts.  Everybody studies the poetry, but glosses and charters account for more than a third of the Old English corpus, and pose special challenges.  For all the the texts we deal with, wherever possible, we have to look at the manuscripts themselves, track manuscript variants, check that the editor has correctly recorded what the manuscript says, take account of scribal habits, problems in transmission, etc.

"Maybe the hardest part of this job is that you cannot fall in love with any word you’re looking at.  You cannot decide to focus on it exclusively, for a long time, and write a book.  You cannot fixate too much on an individual problem:  you have to be brutally efficient, define each word, move on to the next.  Other people will write the books."

"A Construction Site Full of Hazards"