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  • Traversing Lexicographical Borderlands:Introduction to Forum on Vernacular Lexicographies1
  • Orión Montoya (bio)

vernacular, adj. and n.

6. Of arts, or features of these: Native or peculiar to a particular country or locality. spec. in vernacular architecture, architecture concerned with ordinary domestic and functional buildings rather than the essentially monumental.

OED s.v. vernacular [End Page 87]


When Ed Finegan asked me to help assemble a forum focusing on "lay lexicography," my attention kept pulling to the other side of the implicit boundary—to the idea that there must exist a "real lexicography" that excludes whatever "lay lexicography" is. Presuming that descriptions and discussions of meaning have existed for as long as language has existed, how were the disciplinary borders of lexicography imposed to render "lay lexicography" a distinct subject? Who is in a position to police these borders, and how? Most importantly, what might we make possible by erasing the borders, by looking beyond the "essentially monumental" to consider the whole assemblage of "domestic and functional" practices by which people grapple with meaning together? How might we understand our own lexicographical practices from that broader viewpoint?

We calque the etymon de-finitio as 'fixing of a boundary', and many of the questions that thread through the articles in this forum are questions of boundaries. Each contribution in some way crosses a border—be it disciplinary, formal, functional, structural, historical—and together they offer a new perspective on the territory we inhabit.


Lindsay Rose Russell here addresses artists books that engage with the dictionary in its ever-polysemous cultural and artifactual forms. Russell shows these books to be both responses to, and enactments of, the dictionary. Many of these responses engage, more deeply than commodity dictionaries, the fundamental instability of meaning as it is enacted in the lives of language users. Dictionaries attempt to contain words, but words themselves, Russell says, are "open containers that authorize actions and consequences previously unimagined." For all our talk about focusing on users of dictionaries, practitioners preserve our loyalty to our training and theories. Artists' books drive our attention to the places we dare not look. [End Page 88]


Annette Klosa-Kückelhaus and Lotta Stähr assemble and study a corpus of dictionary-style definitions that are offered for sale on T-shirts. When this kind of ephemeral vernacular lexicography first caught my eye as a lexicographer, I could only see the ways that it fell short of editorial standards for publishability. Klosa-Kückelhaus and Stähr use quantitative methods to focus a very revealing lens on the reception of lexicographical practice by creators of mass-market merchandise. T-shirt lexicography was one of the topics I most wanted to bring into this forum but without a clue about how to bring it to an acceptable level of academic rigor. Klosa-Kückelhaus and Stähr have transformed the topic from an amusing novelty to a truly informative survey of how untrained people adapt the forms of a dictionary to their own self-expression (albeit packaged for sale to others).


Annina Seiler's diachronic study of 1,000 years of unicorn definitions shows that, at every stage, a dictionary entry "indexes both the moment and the situation in which the word was created." Unicorns in Ælfric's Glossary fight elephants to the death; in Urban Dictionary they fart rainbows. In our daily lives it is often hard to understand our place in history, more so in 2020, when a decade seems to happen every week. The single-threaded diachrony of a historical dictionary gives us a snapshot of how a semantic space is mapped at the moment the citations are sorted. Seiler's semantic historiography shows us how semantic spaces are constructed differently in different time periods. Perhaps a dictionary can be monumental, but monuments must be interpreted in historical context—and interpretations of historical context have their own histories!

This is further illustrated by another article in this forum, which at one point mentions "a vernacular based on Germanic roots, to which other ingredients...


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pp. 87-92
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