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Biographical Entries in a Children's School Dictionary Erin M. McKean "Great geniuses have the shortest biographies." — Ralph Waldo Emerson By Emerson's reckoning, all of the people mentioned in the Thorndike Barnhart Intermediate Dictionary (TBID) are great geniuses, because their biographies are exceedingly short. There are many questions to be answered when choosing biographical entries for school dictionaries. The first question may well be, "Why have biographical entries at all?" The reason may not be a noble one, but it is very persuasive: the user and the purchaser (who are not at all the same person!) expect them. American teachers and students expect their dictionaries to have a strong encyclopedic content , often including not only biographical entries, but geographical entries, maps, charts of weights and measures, information about the fifty states, and much more. The dictionary that falls short of these expectations will not have a long tenure in the marketplace. So biographical entries are a necessity. The second question that should be asked, but that may not come readily to mind, is, "How are biographies in school dictionaries different from biographies in other dictionaries?" The special constraints of the school dictionary need to be foremost in the mind of the lexicographer. School dictionaries are eccentric in several ways. Most importantly, the school dictionary has two sets of users who must be satisfied: the teacher or parent, and the student. Very few twelveyear -olds rush out with their lawn-mowing, baby-sitting, or computertutoring money to buy the latest edition of a children's dictionary, no matter how attractive, educational, or useful it might be. And very few 136Erin M. McKean parents or teachers actually use the shiny new four hardbound pounds of literacy they have purchased for their child or classroom. Satisfying the often contradictory expectations of the purchaser (the teacher or parent) while being a useful and enjoyable resource for the reluctant user (the child) can be difficult. For instance, the frustratingly contradictory expectations of the purchaser specify that a dictionary be crammed full of words but small in size and with plenty of white space on the page, that a dictionary be easy for children to comprehend and contain a large scientific and technical vocabulary, and that a dictionary be both bursting with color and inexpensive. Another way in which the school dictionary is set apart from general dictionaries for adults is in the demands that the school curriculum places on the content of the dictionary. School dictionaries are expected to parallel in most ways the curriculum at their grade level. Never mind that most textbooks have perfectly serviceable glossaries that are much more convenient, and never mind that many of these "curriculum words" are completely transparent two-word phrases; in they go. Of course, much of the influence the curriculum has on the school dictionary is a welcome aid to choosing the word list, but the unwelcome pressure must also be acknowledged. The third important way in which school dictionaries are set apart is what we call the PG-1 3 Problem. Lexicographers are often hardened souls, able to discuss the most vulgar of lemmas for hours with nary a blush, giving citations that sailors might only whisper. All this must be forgotten for the school dictionary. Any definition, citation , or headword that could conceivably send a classroom of twelveyear -olds into shrieks of embarrassed laughter should be reworked until even the most prurient-minded can get no joy from it. The dirtiest of taboo words are, of course, completely absent. The organs and actions of reproduction are blandly clinical and often deliberately obscure . Once the special needs of the school dictionary are fixed in the mind, attention turns to the twin problems of choosing the subjects of biographical entries and defining them once they are chosen. In essence, the problem of deciding who gets in and who does not is perhaps one of the most vexing tasks ever encountered in making a dictionary. Quite simply, there are Too Many People, and more and more of them are becoming famous, noteworthy, or notorious every day. The first thing that must be done is to choose categories of accomplishment that qualify one for inclusion in the...


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pp. 135-146
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