The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Lexicographic leeway: the case of quagmire

Recently, I chatted to Lindsay Clandfield for an episode of the TEFL Commute podcastabout dictionaries. When I listened back to the full episode, lots of things that came up in the chat between Lindsay and his co-presenter, Shaun Wilden had me wanting to chip in. Perhaps one of the most interesting was Shaun's comment that he always tests a new dictionary by looking up the entry for 'quagmire' to see whether the literal, concrete sense (a wet, boggy area of ground) or the metaphorical sense (a messy situation) is listed first. It's an interesting test and, I think, a case worth explaining from a lexicographer's perspective.

The frequency principle:
In general, modern learner's dictionaries are based on the principle of frequency at all levels. Whether it's which words to include, how to order the different senses of a word or which collocations and patterns to illustrate in the example sentences, the most frequent typically take priority. The thinking being that the most frequently used words and senses are likely to be most useful to a learner, so they should get priority. That frequency information comes from a corpus (a computerised database of language consisting of hundreds of millions of words from books, newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, websites, conversation, etc. which we use to represent the language as a whole). The frequency of individual words can be retrieved quite easily, but determining the frequency of different senses comes down to the judgement of the individual lexicographer; computers can't yet distinguish meaning. So when compiling an entry, you might get up a sample of, say, 500 examples and scan through to work out which is the most frequent sense. Looking at 'quagmire' on the British National Corpus (BNC) the split is roughly 54% concrete uses vs. 46% metaphorical uses. Undoubtedly, that would vary for different corpora, but it's clearly a close call in terms of frequency.

Meaning and metaphor:
There are, however, cases where other factors override the general frequency rule. In the case of words with a concrete and a metaphorical meaning, the question is raised as to whether it's easier for a learner to understand a metaphorical usage by explaining the physical one first. Is it easier to understand the idea of a group of politicians bogged down in a metaphorical quagmire, if you can picture them stuck in a load of squelchy mud? Some vocabulary acquisition research argues that encouraging learners to create visual representations of words, either literally as drawings or at least in their mind's eye, aids both comprehension and retention. And of course, there's all the language that comes along with the original metaphor. To understand why we talk about people being bogged down in, sinking into or wading through quagmires (all collocations that came up in my corpus search at metaphorical uses), does it help to understand the concrete, physical sense too?

Styleguides and individual judgments:
Each dictionary will have rules about these types of cases set out in a huge document, called a styleguide, which lexicographers refer to as they're compiling entries. In some cases, that will be a hard-and-fast rule (frequency always first or concrete before metaphor), but often the styleguide will leave it down to the judgement of the individual compiler to weigh up the relative frequencies of the two senses and how useful the physical sense is in understanding the metaphorical one. That's why you'll find a different treatment of 'quagmire' in different learner's dictionaries (Oxford and Cambridge go for concrete first, COBUILD and Macmillan start with the metaphorical usage); it's one of those cases where you could just argue either way.

I'll leave you with a few more to think about yourself - if you were explaining the metaphorical uses of these in the classroom, would you start by describing the concrete, physical sense first or not? Which factors would influence your decision?

inundate, swamp, battle, grasp, tweet, mammoth, giant, nightmare

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Disability works

Those of you in the UK may have noticed that last week, the BBC was focusing on disability in the workplace with its Disability Works theme. 28 February is also International RSI Awareness Day, so it seemed like a good time for a post about working with a chronic pain condition. For those of you who don't know, I had to leave my in-house job with a publisher back in 2000 because I was suffering debilitating pains in my hands, wrists, neck and shoulders that made it impossible to sit at a desk nine-to-five every day. At that time, I was diagnosed with RSI, but over the years it's morphed into a more general chronic pain condition, but still mostly affecting my hands, arms and shoulders.

Until recently, I would have described myself as having a chronic health condition rather than being disabled. A few months ago though, I started a part-time MA course which involves commuting from Bristol to Cardiff a couple of days a week for lectures. I was a bit wary about how my studies would fit around my work, but I hadn't been ready for how physically challenging I was going to find it. After 16+ years of working from home, managing my time and controlling my environment, it was a real shock to the system.

It sounds a bit silly to say that I struggled with getting up early - leaving the house at 6.30 in the morning to get the train to Cardiff - but my pains make getting started slow-going some days, especially if I've had to take painkillers the night before which leave me feeling drowsy and 'hung over'. On a bad day, a 30-minute walk to the station in the cold and damp is really the last thing my body needs. And carrying a bagful of stuff has been a real killer. My shoulders are where the worst of my pain is, so I tend to avoid carrying bags as much as I can. I started term heading off with a packed lunch, a flask of tea, notebook, tablet and of course, a brand new pencil case. I soon gave up on the lunch and the flask, and on days when there are library books to take to and fro, I've had to ditch the tablet too.

I'm finding ways to cope, but it's really made me think about how much my health makes me unable to do - it really is a disability. It's also made me realize just how much I appreciate being self-employed.

Self-employment and disability:

Environment: The most obvious thing people think of when I tell them about my situation is my desk set-up. My work station does take into account all the usual ergonomic advice, but I don't actually use that much specialist equipment. Having tried all kinds of things over the years, the main difference to my set-up is a graphics tablet instead of a mouse - which I find gentler on my hand because I don't sit and clutch it all the time. I do have voice recognition software, but I only use it occasionally.

Time management: What I think is far more significant is being able to manage my own time. For me, the biggest no-no is sitting at my desk for long stretches, so I take LOTS of breaks. I generally work for 3 stretches in a day with significant breaks between (one stretch in the morning and two in the afternoon), but between those longer breaks I fidget a lot. I rarely stay sitting for more than half an hour before I find some excuse to get up - make a cup of tea, go to the loo, collect the post that's just arrived, put on the washing/dishwasher, empty the washing-machine/dishwasher ... you get the idea. And perhaps even more importantly, I can manage my work around how I'm feeling. My condition's very variable, so sometimes I can manage a fairly full, 6 or 7 hour working day, other days I'm struggling to think at all through the pain. As a freelancer though, on a bad day, I can just do less - get up late, work on easier stuff, go for a longer swim - whatever helps get me through.

Choice: Similarly, I can choose to take on work that I know will suit me. A lot of the time that just means taking on less work. I know from speaking to freelance colleagues that I take on less than most and I do less juggling of several projects running at the same time. I only take on as much as I think I can cope with without overdoing it. I can't afford to find myself working long hours and weekends because everything's come at once - my body just won't allow it. That means that my income is effectively that of a part-timer, but that's something I've accepted. I also think carefully about the nature of the work I take on. Some time back I found that I had to pull out of a couple of projects that involved work on digital materials because the work was just too fiddly - lots of keying in or copying and pasting text repeatedly to fill fields. It killed my hands and just wasn't sustainable. Now I'll ask about formats and templates, etc. up front before I agree to work on something.

Overall, I love being self-employed and most of the time, it enables me to lead a productive working life while managing my condition. I know lots of other freelancers who are working with health issues that limit what they can do to a greater or lesser degree, so I just wanted to give a shout-out to all of you. Hope your work-arounds are working!

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