Finding just the right words. To the dictionary-maker, it's a profession filled with beauty, poetry - and more than a little controversy

SOME people have strong words for the dictionary. Just the other day, David Justice got back a copy of Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary from a dissatisfied customer. An angry inscription - written across the edge of the pages, the way children write their names on schoolbooks - suggested that the Merriam-Webster editor should do himself bodily harm with the book. To many, the dictionary may be only an occasional hand tool: helpful for spelling or defining words. But to the people charged with the care and feeding of the dictionary, and to many of their customers, it is a thing of beauty, poetry, passion, controversy.

The lexicographer Robert Burchfield told a geologist who had objected to the inclusion of a word that had fallen into scientific obsolescence in the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary: ``I'm going to put it in because it's in W.H. Auden's poetry, and I don't care two figs for your geology.''

The mind-numbing process of keeping after 13.5 million index cards with citations of words and their usage - updating and sifting through these files, reading each day page after page of alphabetized text, satisfying rules handed down from Aristotle and sorting through terminology from the middle ages - can have its slow days. ``I don't find this is work that makes me jump up and down in my chair,'' says Fred C. Mish, editorial director of Merriam-Webster here. ``Moments of excitement are relatively uncommon in my experience.''

But there is another side to this life Dr. Mish is leading: one filled with subjective decisions, over which reasonable folks can come to blows.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary (unabridged), for instance - edited by Philip Gove and issued in 1961 - caused an eruption of controversy by throwing out long-accepted rules of usage, loosening the standards on what it identified as slang, dropping the label ``colloquial,'' and blurring long-cherished lines of distinction between words that many educated people think should be carefully differentiated.

``I gave up on Merriam-Webster,'' the syndicated columnist George Will said impatiently over the phone the other day. ``Any dictionary that says `uninterested' and `disinterested' are synonyms deserves to be brought before an uninterested judge.'' It turns out that the Ninth Collegiate carries a lengthy usage note explaining that, in fact, the two words traded meanings in their tangled history and have become synonymous. To which Mr. Will retorts: ``That's a pathetic defense on their part. It just shows their tin ear.''

And so it goes in the dictionary trade, in which lexicographers must assemble ``a set of words which will substitute most effectively in a typical context for the word itself, conveying the most meaning with the minimum redundancy,'' as Mish puts it.

``Dictionaries are primarily works of reporting,'' columnist William Safire observes. ``But the art of defining is an art, not just a science. Words do not merely denote, they connote. A good lexicographer understands that.'' Daniel Webster, who wrote all by himself the dictionary that George and Charles Merriam later purchased the rights to, has been referred to as a ``born definer.'' This made him part language technician, part historian, part poet. He had Sprachenf"uhl, a feeling for the language.

``A definer is an artist, in the same sense that a poet or a violinist is,'' maintains Kenneth G. Wilson, a professor at the University of Connecticut, who has just written a book entitled ``Van Winkle's Return - Change in American English, 1966-1986.''

``No matter how scientific you get about your ability to collect [citations],'' adds Mr. Wilson, ``the fact is, it's still some guy with a green eyeshade who's going to try to make the judgment and also going to write the definition and also going to assess which spelling to put first. An awful lot of it is just plain guesswork.''

``There is, of course, an element of subjectivity,'' Mish acknowledges. ``You try to control the subjectivity as much as possible.'' But, he adds, all lexicographers are doing is ``taking a snapshot of the language at a particular moment.''

Each dictionary ``has a certain personality,'' Wilson observes, ``with all kinds of changes editors put into it ... that give a book a particular kind of shape.''

Pick up any two dictionaries and compare definitions, as experts in the subject advise, and you will likely find as much variance in style, cadence, and - frequently - substance as you will in works of Faulkner and Hemingway. The writing in Simon & Schuster's Webster's New World Dictionary (the name ``Webster'' legally entered the public domain in the late 1800s and is used by many publishers) is characterized by long sentences and an almost conversational tone. At Merriam-Webster, editors strive for a precision in language that makes the Ninth Collegiate almost crystalline in structure.

This distinction in style adds a touch of romance to the gray matter of the dictionary. But to lovers of the book, the meaty summa of a lexicographer's art lies buried in the gray matter itself. Etymology, nuances of definition, new facets of a word are the things dictionary addicts crave. ``You get a hit every time you run across a fact or an etymology you didn't know,'' says Mr. Safire.

``A lot of people use the dictionary to find out how to spell words,'' observes Maxine Kumin, a poet and essayist who turns to the book more as ``a source of pleasure, both aesthetic and intellectual,'' rummaging around in word history, studying illustrations, indulging her ``affection for words.''

Words to lexicographers like Mish are ``something to cogitate upon, something to see in use, to see in context, to think about.''

This thinking goes on here as, in the warm afternoon light, editors pore over magazines, books, newspapers, hunting for that stray word or phrase that offers some new glint of meaning to an old word or bears a new one fresh into the language. They add these words to Merriam-Webster's voluminous citation file, where they await the test of time and usage before inclusion in the next edition of the dictionary.

For better or worse, these editors and others like them are the keepers of the flame in the language business. ``We try not to think in those terms too much,'' Mish says. ``But there is a consciousness of that role we play. And I think most of the editors here, certainly anybody who stays at it very long, feels the importance of the work.''

Is the definer an artist or a scientist?

Neither, Mish decides, and then he thinks for a while... trying to find just the right word.

Words that enter and leave the dictionary

Lexicographers are gatekeepers, admitting words to their printed registers and shoving others out as they fall from usage. Far more words enter than leave the dictionary, because once a word enters the written record - in novels, plays, poetry - someone will need to find its meaning, even though the word may otherwise be obsolete. Here are some words that never made the jump between Webster's Eighth and Ninth New College Dictionary, and others that appeared for the first time, with a brief explanation why. Some words that were dropped:

Vietnamization: not current; only limited historical use.

Darwinistic: too rare.

Tax evasion: self-explanatory from entries for the two words.

Monomorphous: now used much less than ``monomorphic.''

Swartkraus man: hominid type now considered less important in paleontology.

Prognathic: ``prognathous'' now the dominant usage.

Gale: British term for periodic rent payment, less important than other dialect terms with which it competed.

Some words that were added:

Vanpooling: emerged from the energy crisis, but showed staying power.

Bottom line: developed multiple meanings in relatively short period of time.

Videotext: one of a number of words born in the information revolution.

Earth rise: came out of man's first views of earth from the moon and took hold on the imagination.

Condo: largely replaced ``condominium'' with typical American informality and clipping of words.

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