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Information, Please

The major ink the Obamas’ fist-bump cover gets in Wikipedia’s “New Yorker” entry suggests one of the problems with crowd-sourced reference works.

Allan Metcalf recently reported in this space that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had acquired and will presumably continue to publish Webster’s New World Dictionary. Roughly at the same time, word came that the Macmillan Dictionary and Thesaurus would no longer come out in print editions, only online. The editor-in-chief of the line said: “The traditional book format is very limiting for any kind of reference work. Books are out-of-date as soon as they’re printed, and the space constraints they impose often compromise our goals of clarity and completeness.”

He clearly has a point, especially when it comes to the subject matter in which he deals, words. Investigators in that field—so long as they have a device, a browser, and an Internet connection—have at their fingertips resources beyond the dreams of their counterparts even a quarter-century ago. The free online dictionaries provided by Merriam-Webster, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, and many other sites are no less valuable than their paper counterparts and surpass them in many ways, including allowing you to hear how a word is pronounced.

The online Oxford English Dictionary is not free, but if you’re lucky enough to be associated with an institution that has a license to use it—or you can afford $295 for an individual annual subscription—you’ll find that it is an unbelievable resource that, in my hardly controversial opinion, is splendidly suited to and elegantly designed for online use. Such innovative sites as Wordnik and Visual Thesaurus use both algorithms and expert judgment to provide valuable and ingenious perspective on words. Moving to the purely crowd-sourced, various Google products provide jaw-dropping instantaneous data on how and when words and phrases have been used over time. And even Urban Dictionary informs me that someone posted a definition of humblebrag as early as May 2, 2011, and helpfully elevates to the top of the page the definition that has gotten the most “likes.” (“Subtly letting others now about how fantastic your life is while undercutting it with a bit of self-effacing humor or ‘woe is me’ gloss.  Uggggh just ate about fifteen piece of chocolate gotta learn to control myself when flying first class or they’ll cancel my modelling contract LOL.”)

However, Urban Dictionary also contains a multitude of offensive, made-up, libelous and/or illiterate entries, which suggests the principal problem of the online reference resources that rely on the wisdom of crowds: Their inherent unreliability necessitates triangulation, or cross-checking, before you are sure that what you’ve read is solid.

Wikipedia is famously subject to being punked, but egregious falsehoods are usually pretty quickly corrected, and overall it’s an invaluable resource. However, a  serious problem is distortion of emphasis. Having written a book about The New Yorker, I check Wikipedia’s entry on the magazine from time to time. When I first looked, a few years ago, I found just a handful of errors (founding editor Harold Ross was quoted as referring to “the little old lady in Dubuque” rather than “the old lady in Dubuque”), which I successfully figured out how to correct. But I didn’t know how to change the fact that roughly half of the entry was an apparently accurate but wildly excessive discussion of the various typefaces The New Yorker has used. Looking at the entry just now, I see that there are just two sentences about fonts. However, roughly 10 percent of the entry is about a 2008 New Yorker cover showing Barack and Michelle Obama in a mock-terrorist fist-bump. And while I was glad to see that my book is mentioned, I was sad to find two significant errors in the two sentences about it.

But I am actually here to talk about paper reference works, not online ones, and specifically their role in the second part of the Horatian twosome of “instruct and delight.” I started thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I had reason to consult Jonathon Green’s three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Volume I (A-E) certainly provided appropriate instruction for my purposes—insight into the adjective douchey—but it was also a delight to browse and read. Its design (including the typefaces) is pleasing to the eye, and it’s big enough, as all reference books should be, to lie flat on the table in front of you. You can take a quarter-inch stack of very thin, very white pages between your right thumb and forefinger, lift and flip them; they fall to the left with all deliberate speed and land with a satisfying thuddy snap. Then your eye alights on the entry for cloyer: “a pickpocket of cut-purse, spec. an experienced one who demands a share of their younger peers’ profits,” followed by citations ranging from 1602 to 1850.

Writing this post inspired me to pull down from a high shelf and out of its slip-case my copy of the first edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 1969), which contains the career statistics of every major-league ballplayer through 1968 and is as pleasing to the touch and conducive to the browse as Green’s History. My friends and I used to look through it hour after hour—flipping randomly, or pursuing some particular goal, like a comparison between Mickey Mantle and Al Kaline. The flipping would almost always pay off in some delicious nugget, like coming upon the entry for Moe Solomon, whose career consisted of eight at-bats and three hits for the New York Giants in 1923 and whose nickname—this is the nugget—was “the Rabbi of Swat.” (One of Babe Ruth’s many monikers was “The Sultan of Swat.”) Remarkably, a New York Times review this past Sunday of a book called Jewish Jocks mentioned “Giants manager John McGraw’s futile attempt to trump the Yankees by finding a Jewish version of  ‘the Babe.’ An exhaustive search turned up a prospect named Mose [apparently a more correct version of his first name] Solomon, likened in the press to an exotic animal. (‘McGraw Pays 50K for Only Jewish Ballplayer in Captivity.’)”

There are lots of other reference books I am sweet on. The other one I’ll mention is The Yale Book of Quotations, which, besides being well-conceived, -produced, -written, -researched, and -designed, is especially valuable because the Internet gets nothing wronger than quotation attributions. (I speak as a biographer of Will Rogers. Other than “I never met a man I didn’t like,” I never saw a Rogers quote online that he actually said.)

I wonder what Lingua Franca readers would name as their favorite paper reference books? And equally important, are they still in print?

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