Geof Huth 2016-11-16 12:25:10
If you spend enough time looking at a word, whether on the page or the screen, it will become foreign. Its meaning may even escape you for a second. Now, imagine that you are trying to write a dictionary of terms used in archives, and that you’re working with a group of people, each of whom is peering closely at a word, and then another, and then hundreds more. How would you perceive words in such a situation? Would you go crazy? The answer to the last is no. But you might become more and more convinced that we don’t always know quite what we mean when we use certain technical terms in archives. We know this because this work of carefully examining words and defining their meanings is something a band of archivists has been doing for more than three years. The SAA Dictionary Working Group consists of nine members who are systematically creating the Dictionary of Archives Terminology, which is projected to be available in 2017. The worst that has happened to us, so far, is that we have developed into the type of people who might use the phrase “the nerdvana of lemmasmithing” in conversation, as indeed Kate Bowers of Harvard University did during one of our meetings. That phrase is essentially what this article is about: the deep sense of contentment one might enjoy after clearly and accurately defining a lemma in a dictionary entry. But for that to make sense for you, we’ll have to define lemma, and we’ll have to explain how a dictionary is made, how it differs from an encyclopedia, and why this dictionary is important to archivists. Say What? A lemma is simply a term being defined in a dictionary. Sometimes called a definiendum, the lemma may be one or more words. Archives is a lemma, as well as archival value and personal digital archives. A lemma is usually the grammatically unmarked form of a word, which in English essentially means it is a singular noun or the infinitive form of a verb. Most other types of words in English are always unmarked. Already, there are complications. Words take different forms in different contexts: nouns are singular or plural, and verbs are conjugated. The same word can be spelled or pronounced a few different ways. Language isn’t clean, nor is it simple. Once we know the lemma we need to define, we have to define it. Naturally, we believe we know the meaning of common words in our profession, so we might want to start defining the word immediately—but that’s not the right way. Definitions are not always clear, and they change with time. The true definition of a word is, essentially, what most people unconsciously believe it means—but the more you look at how a word is used, the murkier all of this becomes. So before we define a term, we collect examples of it in context—just as a record in the archives world is best understood in context, so is a word in the realm of lexicography. A core activity in lexicography, at least since eighteenth-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson, has been to collect uses of words in context, and we call the resulting assembled sentences citations. Once the Dictionary Working Group amasses enough citations for a word, one of us works on the definition by reading over the citations. Doing this allows us to determine the essential concepts that combine to form the definition of the word. For instance, if we take the word archives in the sense of archival records, we find at least two core concepts: first, the referent the lemma stands in for must be a record, and, second, the item must be something valuable enough to justify our keeping it forever. The citations we collect prove this to us, and thus we can define the word. Yet sometimes a word has more than one sense.It is polysemous. The most important of these in archives is the word archives itself, which has at least five distinct meanings in the field. A Hybrid Dictionary You may read a definition in a dictionary and want more information about the subject, but at the point that you think “subject” you have left the world of lexicography. Dictionaries are about words, and encyclopedias are about subjects or topics. Because of this, the Dictionary of Archives Terminology will provide fairly brief definitions, as short as we can make them and still define them fully. But, occasionally, we realize that more explanation or context may be valuable to the user of the dictionary, so we add brief notes of an encyclopedic nature. Because of these notes, as well as other features in an entry, the Dictionary of Archives Terminology is a bit of a hybrid reference work—mostly dictionary, but part encyclopedia and even part thesaurus. Most of these features originated in Richard Pearce-Moses’ Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology (SAA, 2005). The Dictionary of Archives Terminology is built upon and will extend the range of that glossary. The thesaural feature reveals the archivist’s interest in context and connections. Using the usual syndetic features of a thesaurus, this section of an entry shows the relationships between the meaning of the lemma in that entry and those of other lemmas throughout the dictionary. These relationships include pointers to terms that are broader and narrower in meaning, terms that are synonyms, and terms that are related to the original term but with less absolute associations. This resource in the dictionary provides the user with a map of the relationships of meanings, which gives the user an improved sense of the differences and similarities of related terms. An Array of Features The Dictionary of Archives Terminology will also include a couple of sets of labels that help categorize the words defined within it. The simpler of these is a set of regional labels used to indicate when a term is used only or primarily in part of the English-speaking archives world. Some words in the dictionary are used primarily in the US, others in Canada or Australia, and others in the UK. We use these tags sparingly, and only when the citations show usage restricted to certain countries. For instance, the term archivy (which was invented during SAA’s first Annual Meeting) is used only in the US and Canada. No other country picked it up from us. The more important set of labels used in the dictionary are the subject tags. The working group devised this set of tags to systematically categorize the range of topics and activities in the archival world. We assign subject tags not at the level of the lemma but at the level of the sense within the lemma, because different senses of a word might relate to different subjects in archivy. Since the dictionary will be online, these tags will also be only hyperlinked to alphabetical lists of all terms in each subject area. We envision that users interested in one subfield within archives might use this functionality to create micro-glossaries focused on their specific interests. The dictionary also has features common to most dictionaries. We always identify the part of speech of every lemma, to help a user better grasp the meaning of the term. We also include the pronunciation for words with multiple pronunciations, such as the word provenance. Finally, for a few nouns, we include illustrations, since pictures can sometimes be the best definitions of words. Acceptable Words What the Dictionary Working Group is doing for our field is building a complex dictionary that supports the work of archivists. We are defining words new to our profession and words that have fallen out of use but still have historical utility. We are parsing the multiple senses some words have, and we also accept any words commonly used in the field, such as the verb archive, even if everyone doesn’t appreciate each word. A dictionary is always a good place to start an argument about what is or isn’t an acceptable word. We don’t expect everyone to agree with our conclusions—our lemmasmithing!—but we know the Dictionary of Archives Terminology will provide value to every user. Get acquainted with archives terms by subscribing to Word of the Week (see www2.archivists.org/word-of-the-week).
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