The Art and Technique of Citation Reading

Laurence Urdang


The uninitiated often wonder where lexicographers find the words they list and describe in the dictionaries they compile, edit, and revise. Nonprofessional and unprofessional dictionary compilers may often get them from secondary sources, but “creative” lexicographers, bent on basing their work on original research, rely on the accumulation of large quantities of citations that illustrate the occurrence of words and expressions with enough context for the researcher to determine the meaning and use of a given word.

Earlier lexicographers, particularly Johnson and the original editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, devised and perfected the practice of gathering citations. But the OED is a historical dictionary and its editors were generally satisfied with any citation that provided evidence for the earliest use of a word; if meaning and usage were also illustrated, so much the better.

The purposes of the modern lexicographer are usually quite different. In many cases, he may require that a word be embedded in sufficient explanatory text to reveal as much of its meaning as possible. Some words have transparent meanings, occasioning little difficulty for the definer. For instance, the neologisms stagflation (an obvious blend of stagnation and inflation) and neonatology (the study of neonates, or new-born infants) have obvious meanings. But what of disintermediation? To be sure, it has something to do with `eliminating an intermediate,' but its application in the field of finance is far from obvious, and the definer must seek the aid of a specialist, in this case someone familiar with finance.

Many periodicals, when introducing a neologism, are careful to give it a gloss. The New York Times is to be commended for its efforts in this respect, and it goes even further by providing explanatory comments (if not outright definitions) for most of the terms, new or old, that may be unfamiliar to its readers.

The OED, which, as we said, is a historical dictionary, was based on something like six million citation slips. However, many of its citations yield little semantic information. For example, without the definition, “Unconformable to the common order; deviating from rule; irregular; abnormal,” it would be almost impossible to derive from the following citations the meaning of anomalous:

1655 LESTRANGE Chas. I, 137 These things... being anomalous, innovations and so severely urged, many ... separated themselves into factious sidings.

1667 Phil. Trans. II. 601 Some anomalous Feavers.

1789 BENTHAM Princ. Legisl. xviii. § 10 Offences of this description may well be called anomalous.

1872 HOLMES Poet Breakf. T. xi 347 Peculiar and anomalous in her likes and dislikes.

Contrast the citations given in Merriam-Webster Third International (1961):

<an ˜ verb> <in nature, the ˜ or lawless systems often are most interesting and instructive --Otto Glasser> <any hereditary perculiarity--as a supernumerary finger, or an ˜ shape of feature --Nathaniel Hawthorne<

Citations for names of ostensive objects, e.g., apple, dog, microbe, are worthless for defining purposes, though they may provide vital evidence for the existence of a term.

Both dictionaries give workable definitions, but we are discussing citations here, and the point is that unless either the definer already “knows” the meaning(s) of the word or determines its meaning(s) from some other source, it is highly unlikely that the sense(s) could be derived from the citations. (Because the OED sometimes uses definitions from other dictionaries as citations, those citations are generally more useful for deriving meanings, though they may offer little in the way of context for purposes of determining syntax and grammar.)

The OED citations were gathered by thousands of readers recruited from the ranks of the general public. Needless to say, some readers were more adept than others at ferreting out valuable citations. Also, some read a great deal more than others, and the quantities of citations produced varied greatly from reader to reader. My experience with citation readers has shown that those who use English as a second language--that is, those who are not native speakers--are sometimes more adroit at identifying new or unfamiliar senses of common English words than are native speakers. Neologisms, on the other hand, are more readily identified by the native speakers, perhaps because nonnative speakers seem to lack the security of being able to admit they are ignorant of a word, which, for all they know, might be a common word in the language.

If a given neologism or new sense for an old word (e.g., the slang sense of dig `understand') appears only once, it may be a nonce coinage or use, and, if so, it is important to know that fact. Therefore, once a citation has been prepared, it is not enough to stop there, for the frequency of use of the word or phrase becomes a matter of equal importance. For example, if the engineers at Bell Laboratories had coined the word transistor and used it only in their original research reports, that would be interesting, but scarcely as important as the word's subsequent extraordinary frequency in the language, evidenced by its widespread use. In using a citation file, the lexicographer pays close attention not only to the fact that a word or phrase occurs at all but also the number of citations gathered for it and to the variety of publications from which they were culled. Another factor to be reckoned with is the “exposure” of the work from which the citation is taken, for a technical term appearing ten times in a highly specialized monograph dealing with computer circuits is less important to the general-dictionary lexicographer than its one-time appearance in The New Yorker or The New York Times. By the same token, the regional distribution of a term is of importance to the lexicographer: it is more likely that words dealing with, say, oil drilling will have a higher frequency in the U.S. southwest than in the northeast.

The modern citation reader is not, necessarily, just an intelligent speaker of English, though that, obviously, constitutes one of the criteria. A more basic requirement is a familiarity with the language sufficient to be able to guess whether a new word selected for citation is already in the dictionary without having to waste time looking it up.

It is essential that the citation-reader include enough surrounding context from the original material to make the clipping meaningful, for the collection of citations is not merely the compilation of a word list.

A more-or-less standard form for citations is a 4" × 6" slip of paper (slips are usually used because cards take up very much more room in filing cabinets) to which is fastened the clipping (using only “Scotch Magic Tape”--the frosted, not the transparent kind) and on which the cited word is written in the upper left-hand corner with the source and date marked in the lower left-hand corner. Here is a typical citation form:

One splendid effort in 1971 featured districts that looked like giant chickens, districts that looked like coiled snakes, and districts with remarkable pimples in their boundary lines, zits that popped up to include the home of one liberal incumbent in the district of another liberal incumbent.

The individual citation-reader collects these and sorts them into alphabetical order.

All sources of language, written or oral, are grist for the citation mill. Needless to say, the early citation-readers for the OED had no access to radio, television, and recordings; but that has changed, and citations from broadcast material are today quite as important as those from printed matter, especially when it comes to pronunciations, though those require an expert phonetician for their accurate transcription. The form used would be the same, the difference being that the text would have to be written out longhand (or typed) in the space usually devoted to the printed citation.

If any of our readers are interested in conducting their own citation research and in accumulating files, the principles laid out in this article should be sufficient to make a beginning. We at VERBATIM are interested in such collections and those with the time and inclination to become involved should write to us for further information at VERBATIM, Essex, Ct. 06426. [This was the address in 1974; please email us now if you are interested in gathering citations!]