A defining moment

By Michele Callaghan, manuscript editor

Okay, I admit it. I have been known to read dictionaries for fun. When I was growing up, my siblings and I would challenge ourselves with foreign language Scrabble. We also played a sort of a “stump the band” where we would try to find words in the dictionary that the others didn’t know and attempt to fool them with mock definitions. So, yes, I like words and learning their definitions and origins. But sometimes as an editor I struggle with the issue of whether I should be a living dictionary and provide definitions of terms that I assume readers will not be familiar with.

In academic publishing, it is common to print books that advance scholarship in a given field. Authors of these books often use terms known to others in their field that may not be household words for the average reader. Even when I am not familiar with these terms, I am fine with leaving them in the books undefined. The understanding is that the authors’ fellow scholars will not stop and scratch their heads as they read and would, in fact, be more surprised to have the flow of the argument interrupted to explain something they all already know.

But what about books aimed at a wider audience? Many times I work on a book that combines concepts key to a certain profession—and maybe understood only by that profession—with others of great interest to the lay reading public. Then I ask myself: Do I need to help people learn the meaning of unknown terms, or should they be expected to search websites and dictionaries as they read? Should I view the authors of my book as cryptic souls playing inside baseball when they use terms that others don’t know, or assume they are following a pedagogy that says, “Make people stretch their knowledge and they will grow”?

I have come to the conclusion that some balance is needed. It is easier than ever to look things up in Wikipedia and online dictionaries. I have found that, if you have to research something, it can stick with you and expand your vocabulary permanently. However, if there are too many unfamiliar terms (and obscure abbreviations), readers might flip through a book and determine that it is for others and not for them, depriving the author of an expanded audience, the field of a possible new scholar, and the university press of customers for other publications.

My advice to everyone is this: Readers, be curious! Look things up, and you will expand your horizons. Authors, be clear! Don’t be abstruse and recondite in your approach, and you will reach more people and win a bigger following.

Word challenge

Here are some words I had to look up in recent books I worked on and decided to define to clarify the authors’ arguments. What do you think, dear readers, am I misjudging you? Would you have known them?

nosology

amniote

retconned

brumation

apomorphy

chronotype

7 Comments

Filed under Editing, For Everyone, Language, Writing

7 responses to “A defining moment

  1. Emily

    I looked up nosology thinking it was a word I might need in my research (deceptively nose-like, that word), and I know what a chronotype is but wouldn’t expect an audience to, but I find myself thinking, “Retconned isn’t a common word?” — which probably shows how geeky I am.

    • Michele C.

      Or it could just show that I am an older geek! Comics in my youth hadn’t yet been “retconned.” Thanks for writing!

  2. Denise

    Right on, Michele. I couldn’t agree with you more. Balance is key. I’ve spent a good amount of time reading the dictionary and encyclopedias for fun or getting distracted during research. Alas, I didn’t know the meaning of any of the words you posted. Good challenge!

  3. Glorious Being

    I have a vague idea about “amniote,” but the only of those words I really know is “retconned.”

    My arcane vocabulary tends more to the literary, like “amphibrach.”

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