The secret lives of lexicographers?

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From Toothpaste for Dinner, 5/27/2010:

A "man"?

[Update — I should note the image-wise improvement over this. Though perhaps the cartoon is just an ironic allusion to the same old ideas about scholars in general…]


  1. MattF said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    As opposed to a 'lexicographette'.

  2. John Lawler said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 10:12 am

    We're obviously into fantasyland already with the gloss; the sexism is just frosting.

  3. Brian said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    Mmmmmmm … frosting….

  4. Alan Palmer said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    Dr Johnson's definition was rather less vainglorious, but possibly still sexist to our modern PC eyes:

    "'a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."

  5. Wimbrel said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    >>"A man?"

    Perhaps a direct reference to the entry's author?

  6. Jan Freeman said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 10:53 am

    And isn't "reputed for" a little odd? I would say "reputed to be" etc. (or "renowned for"). OED online (2009 revision) says of "reputed": "Outside Indian English, now chiefly with adverbs, as internationally reputed, etc."

  7. Alexandre said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 11:25 am

    Was thinking about Erin McKeown as soon as I saw the title so the cartoon confused me and the link reassured me. McKeown's TEDtalk is ammo against prescriptivists. Not to mention her vantage dresses and contagious smile.

    [(myl) I think you mean "vintage". Though come to think of it, "vantage" is good, too. And were you blending Erin's surname with this McK__n? In these circumstances, I find that a large cup of coffee often helps. ]

  8. Erin said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    Oh, I was waiting for this day! It's obviously lexicographer fanfic.

  9. Cecilieaux Bois de Murier said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    I was wondering if you guys would pick up on that.

    BTW, where do I send suggestions, next time I see something that may pique y'all?

  10. John Cowan said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    Alan Palmer: The good Doctor also satirized his own work in his definition of grub-street: "The name of a street in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called grub-street."

    myl: As Paul Simon didn't quite say, there must be fifty ways to spell Mac Éoghain.

    —Éoghan Mac Éoghain

  11. Sili said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    Oh, I was waiting for this day! It's obviously lexicographer fanfic.

    Badfic, yes. Don't malign the whole genre.

    As for "man", I thought everyone knew that women aren't supposed to enjoy sex and if they have a reputation for it, they're whores.

  12. Mr Fnortner said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    But women often enjoy lexicography, and many of them are cool.

  13. RS said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 5:22 pm


    Sexual potency is not (at least in my mind) the same thing as "sexual talent and/or enjoyment". The health-related interpretation comes up more often (both as an insult and as a real problem) for men than women.

    Not to say the comic couldn't survive the replacement of "man" with "person"–people reading it would probably just think of a masculine referent anyway given that's what we're used to thinking of in terms of problems and jokes regarding sexual potency.

  14. Rubrick said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 10:20 pm

    If I read the comments aright, no one else is seeing the point of the joke the same way I am. I interpreted it not as a commentary on what lexicographers are like, but on the power they wield: they can write up whatever definition they like, and we'll believe them.

    By this light "man" isn't sexist if the lexicographer who wrote the entry is male.

  15. Private Zydeco said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 11:32 pm

    Fu-GET a cake.

  16. Scriptor Ignotior said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 12:09 am

    By this light "man" isn't sexist if the lexicographer who wrote the entry is male.

    Quite right. The restriction to masculinity is just a consequence of the ambient sexicographical self-reference, given that lexiness is constructed as inflected by gender. According to postmuddiness, I mean.

    Fu-GET a cake.


  17. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 1:12 am

    I read the cartoon exactly as Rubrick did: it's a rumination about the power a lexicographer has to stipulate a definition, perhaps to his own advantage. Changing the dictionary definition of your profession as a way to (perhaps) attract women. The joke is more about the sexual insecurity of men than anything else: how else could some poor word nerd increase his chance of scoring? He works his way slowly through the words of the language, revising and updating. Levy: impose a tax. Lewd: lustful or indecent. (Oh, how he would love to find someone to be lewd with.) Lewis: a dovetailed iron tenon. Lewisite: the oily toxic liquid C2H2AsCl3… and then suddenly he hits lexicographer and sees his opportunity to change his world by changing one word. Applied Whorfianism, with a purpose.

  18. Private Zydeco said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 2:34 am

    @Brian, Scriptor Ignotior

    A touch of Comstockery, or, revision for so-called cleanliness' sake.
    Niceties, while superficial, can win out over sunken, cloying pabulum.
    Charge Up with Language Grog!

    @Geoffrey K. Pullum

    (banner moment) Not to take "lewd" for "loo'ed", nor suggest e-vites.

  19. Private Zydeco said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 5:37 am

    (spoken with a Language Brogue)

  20. Barney said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 7:29 am

    I'm almost certainly over-thinking this, but to me the lexicographer's devious plan seems likely to backfire.

    If the reader accepts this definition, and them meets someone who claims to be a lexicographer, won't he just think they're being extremely arrogant.

  21. empty said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 8:33 am

    At Wordnik the first example given for the word "lexicographer" is:

    " Now, one of the non-perks of being a lexicographer is that people don't usually have a kind of warm, fuzzy, snuggly image of the dictionary. " —TED, “Erin McKean redefines the dictionary”

  22. Alex said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

    Off-topic, but any linguistic analysis of "partner" and "as spouses" in relation to the scandal (or not-scandal depending on your view) involving British Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws:


  23. sarang said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

    Also a little tangentially, the latest American Physical Society newsletter has a letter to the editor claiming that "seminal" is a sexist term and could the APS please avoid it in prize citations.

  24. Dan T. said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

    Can they get away with a few "seminal"s if they also refer to something "laying an egg" from time to time?

  25. Private Zydeco said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 9:40 pm

    The words semen/seed have come to be associated, in feminist theology, with that misconception (conflation) of ejaculate/male sex cells with genetically complete, i.e. fully individuated seed which places women in what is thereby construed to be a subordinate social and reproductive role. Woman-as-planting-medium merely, not womb-as-mesocarp, and so on.

    Which places a stigma somewhat on terms like "spermatikos logos"
    (seminal logic), and others.

  26. Private Zydeco said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 9:43 pm

    see ceded seed diagram

  27. the coolest « lexikographieblog said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 11:09 am

    […] Mal wieder via LanguageLog: Nettes Cartoon-Blog kennengelernt: Toothpaste For Dinner, mit einer Definition des […]

  28. elizabeth said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 6:11 am

    I'm more taken with the reference to The Simpsons. Since I've now seen embiggen on LL, does this mean I can use it in my technical docs? :-)

    IMHO the joke only works because it plays on stereotypes of men and bookish professions. It would have been a different gag altogether to have worked as gender neutral.

  29. Panu said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 6:57 am

    As Paul Simon didn't quite say, there must be fifty ways to spell Mac Éoghain.

    Mac Éoghain is wrong; there is no É there, which should be clear from the Anglicized pronunciation.

  30. Private Zydeco said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 7:56 am

    More succintly, though — the point will be made to stand —
    a seed is in fact an embryo of sorts, a dormant foetus, which
    is sustained in a way similar to mammalian gestationin before
    it is born unto the world, germinates, and grows to maturity.
    The special-purpose secretions human men give forth which
    contain one of two types of what are perhaps sophistically re-
    ferred to as germ cells might be better likened to pollen dust;
    the unfertilized egg of human reproductive hotchpotch re-
    nown more similar to the ovum of botany. Now see here …

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