Saturday, December 25, 2010

Dawgspeak: An Experiment in Lexicography

So, I might have mentioned a time or two before that I'm a Linguistics major. This requires me to spend a lot of my time looking at languages and how they work. I've studied languages from a general perspective (general Linguistic classes), and up close and personal (actual foreign language classes). This past semester, I got to look at an aspect that I don't normally pay a lot of attention to: Lexicography.

Lexicography is the study of dictionary making. It's something that not a lot of people actually think about, but almost everyone is affected by the decisions that lexicographers make. Lexicographers decide what words actually go in the dictionary, how it's defined, whether or not the definition includes a picture, etc. I took the class because I needed to fill in requirements for my Linguistics major, but I ended up falling in love with the class.

My teacher was Don McCreary. He's everything you would possibly imagine a professor to be: incredibly intelligent, wears "professor"-y clothes, and a dry voice that you would imagine would instantly send you into a land where words become monsters that try to eat you (e.g., sleep). But, on the first day of the semester when this professor describes the class, and he says a word like "cluster-f*ck", you start to pay a little more attention. It turns out, this class was not only going to teach me how dictionaries are made, but in fact my class was assigned to take on the editing of Dawgspeak, a slang dictionary that documents colloquialisms from the past couple of years. It was originally printed in 2000 (Dr. McCreary has been the "Editor-in-Chief" of this for the entire duration), and has been updated every couple of years ever since.

Our job at the beginning of the semester was to pick out all the words from the last edition (in 2008) that were no longer being used. We took out words like "cockpocket" (another name for a vagina) and "6 Flags over Jesus" (a large church that spends way too much money on its buildings and has restaurants and such inside). While they were very funny, nobody had ever heard of them before, so they got tossed onto our survey. The next step was to ask students who weren't in our class whether or not they used any of these words on our list (since each small group had their own sets of letters, naturally some good ones slipped through the cracks, because each person knows their own set of words, and not necessarily all of them. Personally, I only knew the computer-related ones). Once that long and boring process was finished, we were finally allowed to start adding our own words in. I put in words like WoW whore (a person who has no social life except to play the popular computer game World of Warcraft) and FTW (saying something is really awesome.  This acronym stands for “for the win”. The abbreviation is used only in text, though the phrase itself is commonly spoken). We then would read the entries aloud and double check to make sure that we weren't just making stuff up to get  a good grade. 

Towards the deadline, we realized that we forgot about the help pages. I was asked to edit the "Teh Interwebs Help Page" after I told the professor what "Rule 34" was (click at your own risk. Though the site is safe for work, further research may cause your retinas to burn indefinitely. Remember, what has been seen cannot be unseen). Then we were home free, and received our printed copies just in time for Christmas (the online version is cool, but it's not as satisfying as actually seeing yourself in print).

In all honesty, this class was probably one of my favorite classes in my entire college career. I've never laughed so hard while learning so much. So, if you ever need to take a class, and you see "Lexicography" in your course list, take it: you never know how much fun it could be.

I'm going to keep this one short and without pictures because, well... it's CHRISTMAS!!! I'll probably give you a blog tomorrow (but be forewarned, it's going to be a candy-induced hyper one, so don't expect Shakespeare). Also, I'm sorry this post is not one of my better ones, but I've been stuck on it for a week now, so I figured I'd go ahead and post it and just ask for forgiveness. See you next time!!


  1. Nina,
    I enjoyed your review of Don's class. I met him at a linguistics conference a couple years ago and agree with you. He is awesome indeed. Have you checked out the website One of my friends pursues the flighty world of slang -- and does a powerful job of it. As for me, I just write!

  2. Thanks for reading it!! I'll have to check out that website. Studying slang has always been a pet project of mine, and I'm always looking for new ways to learn!

  3. Hi

    I attached your blog to my Facebook.I am a teacher, a poet and a first time slang lexicographer and independent slang researcher. I started delving into slang back in 2003. My project is quite comprehensive covering over 5 centuries of Anglophone slang. You could call me Jonathan Green's (renowned British slang lexicographer) competition of sorts. I'd rather think that I am just a slang buff who takes slang more like a calling. Please feel free to check out my blog for futher info. Also, there you can find a link to the abstract which I presented at Oxford Uni back in June 2010.