Word Matters Podcast

Dictionary Arcana

Word Matters, Episode 80

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This week's episode is all about the small details that make up the dictionary. How do we decide the guide words that appear at the tops of pages? What are those dots that break up a headword at a dictionary entry? (Hint: they have nothing to do with pronunciation.)

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, arcana of the lexicographical type. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

It's possible to use a dictionary day in and day out for years without knowing its code in full. On the printed dictionary page, do you know how the pair of words at the top of the page really gets to be there? How about those dots separating the entry words into parts?

Neither is quite what it seems. I'll start us off.

If you use a print dictionary, which I recommend that everyone do because there's something so nice about leafing through the pages of a dictionary, but in a print dictionary you will find at the top of each entry page a set of words, and those words are intended to orient the reader so that the reader knows what vocabulary is covered on that particular page. We call them guide words. There's a set on the left side of the book and a set on the right side of the book, and it tells you all the different words that are on that page.

So for example, in my copy of Merriam Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary that I have in front of me right now on page 478, on the left it says flaw and then it says flexible. So the first word on that page is flaw. The last word is flexible. On the facing page, the first word is flexibly and the last word is flirt. Except when I look down at the very bottom of the page, the last word I see on the page is flirty, F-L-I-R-T-Y. It's entered as what we call an undefined run-on.

Peter Sokolowski: Which alphabetically falls after-

Emily Brewster: After flirt.

Peter Sokolowski: ... the range that is indicated by the bold face at the top of the page.

Emily Brewster: Yes. Now what happens is that people, other very observant, loyal, wonderful, beloved dictionary users, will also notice these kinds of things. And historically, it turns out that there are quite a few of these people because they write to us-

Ammon Shea: No.

Emily Brewster: ... and they tell us that our guide words are wrong.

Ammon Shea: No, nobody would do that.

Emily Brewster: Well, most of the time, Ammon, they're being helpful because they know that we want to have these things correct. And we do indeed. In fact, we are very fastidious about our guide words, but this is not a mistake because if you turn the page and go to page 480, did you hear that? I turned the page, the word at the top of page 480 is also flirt. It is the noun homograph this time. And so if we had made flirty be the guide word on page 479, it would not have been correct at all to have the first word on page 480 be the homograph flirt because that means that the guide word on 480 would come before the guide word on 479.

Now all of this is actually laid out in the front matter of the dictionary. So if you really are about these sorts of things, the dictionary does explain it all for you. And these are rules that in the editorial department at Merriam Webster, we are paying attention to these things when we actually put the dictionary together. But they're not always instinctively-

Ammon Shea: Apparent?

Emily Brewster: ... clear.

Peter Sokolowski: Actually, it seems superficially easy to understand that the guide words represent the alphabetical range of the page, the first guide word being the first alphabetically-appearing word in boldface on that page and the second guide word being the last boldface term printed alphabetically. But of course, there are exceptions, and that's what the front matter explores a couple of these exceptions for common sense and also for expediency, to be honest, is one of the words. For example, this flirty, this entry flirty, is an undefined run-on, which means it is run-on. It is an entry that has no definition, but is appended to the verb entry. And then there happens to be a page turn before you get to the noun entry, which means that the alphabetical range of the following page really does start with flirt without the Y.

Emily Brewster: That's right. But in general, the guide words are as they seem. They just do represent the alphabetical range. And in most cases, there is no issue like the one that we've just addressed here. It's actually very clear. The first one is the first word and the last one is the last word.

Ammon Shea: I think it's fascinating that people assume an alphabetized structure to the dictionary. And for the most part it is, but there are definitely cases in which there are individual words which seemingly are out of that order, but they are hewing to some kind of structure. I mean, if you had the word egregious, for instance, and then if egregiousness as "quality of being egregious" is stuck under egregious, then egregiousness is going to come before egregiously.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Ammon Shea: And so it's out of order, except that it's in a different kind of order than maybe people are expecting. It would be very difficult to make it entirely 100% alphabetized.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: And there's another example that, to me, possibly more common then the flirt/flirty example, because the fact is flirt is an entry that is, in effect, spread over two pages because you have a flirt verb on one page, flirt noun on the following page, and the derivative flirty of the verb happens to be linked to the verb entry and therefore is alphabetically after the next entry. Another example, and I think one that occurs more frequently in the book, is one that we find at page 661, IQ to ironness. So ironness, meaning the quality of the metal iron, is alphabetically placed as the final word on this page. However, it occurs in bold face a little bit above the midpoint of the second column. In other words, it's far from the last word that appears on the page physically. The last word on the page physically is ironmongery, which is obviously a word that starts with an M after the iron, right? I-R-O-N-M, ironmongery. But ironness is that undefined run-on of the word that is run on at the entry for iron itself. And so that's why even though it appears, whatever, five inches above ironmongery it alphabetically expresses is the entire range of this page of the dictionary.

And that is fairly tricky because a lot of people can see that ironmongery is the last word and they'll write us into, again, correct us. In the old days when we had that correspondence, I used to see letters almost every month going out to explain carefully that no, in fact ironmongery is followed by ironness in an alphabetical range that expresses everything that can be found on this one printed page.

Emily Brewster: Yes. And sometimes I think people romanticize the idea of creating dictionaries. They think that it's all just ruminating on the meaning of words and coming up with definitions. And that is the fun part, but some of it can be stultifyingly boring or fascinating, if this is your kind of thing.

Ammon Shea: No.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, the thing is sometimes we have to keep in mind that these guide words are printed in bold at the very top of the page, which means that yes, they're utilitarian, they're there for a purpose, but they're also extremely exposed. They're easy to see and they may, in some sense, draw attention to themselves in ways that words embedded in the text of the dictionary do not.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Ammon Shea: Which reminds me, Peter, of my favorite guide word story, which I think I may have told on this podcast before. But if you have a guide word story, you have to bring it out when the occasion calls for it.

A famous story about a politician is Spiro Agnew, who was formerly vice president under Nixon who was known for these alliterative phrases, nattering nabobs of negativism, the pusillanimous pussyfooters, the vicars of vacillation, and most, if not all, of these were supposedly written for him in speeches by William Safire, the famous, much-beloved language columnist for the New York Times for many, many decades.

And somebody told me story about this one time, which seemed like it checked out. These speeches were all written in the late '60s, early '70s, and somebody pointed out to me one time that he had a copy of Barron's Vocabulary Builder from 1964, which was just a list of fancy words you could learn to make your vocabulary look good. And he said if you look at the guide words, page 137 or whatever it was, it went from nabob to nattering. And you flip forward a couple of pages and it goes from pusillanimous to pussyfooter. Maybe it's a coincidence, but the guide words happens to just perfectly match the alliterative phrases that William Safire wrote for Agnew. It's nice to know that they might have some kind of long-term effect on language.

Emily Brewster: That is such a great story. Guide words guided, in this case-

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: ... moreso than we think that they usually do.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, indeed.

Ammon Shea: This is the case of these guide words. They really made it big.

Peter Sokolowski: But they end up having a prominent place, an unusually prominent place, on a printed dictionary page, and that does mean that for dictionary publishers, dictionary producers, dictionary editors, some care has to be taken. And although there's no official policy, it's clear at times that some entries have been gently nudged either in one direction or another so that the head word that the entry represents is no longer the first or the last alphabetical head word on a given page.

Emily Brewster: That's right. We would never let a dictionary go to print with the F word as one of its guide words-

Peter Sokolowski: For example.

Emily Brewster: ... for example. Even though so many people are looking that word up, we would never let that be a guide word. Instead, we would add an example sentence. We would put in an illustration. We would do something to make the page fall differently.

Peter Sokolowski: In these examples, it's important to remind people that these are typeset books. It was a lengthy process of writing, editing, copyediting and then typesetting, proofreading, copyediting again, and often the typesetting stage is when you would see how the entries actually fell in terms of pagination. And so that was when you might add an illustration, for example. And by illustration, I mean an engraving or a drawing, or you might add what we call a verbal illustration, an example sentence, or maybe two to add some length or remove one. Anyway, you can fiddle with the typesetting a little bit for the pagination to fall in a more, let's just say, felicitous way. But there are other things to worry about, which is that the prominence of these guide terms that are boldface and sitting at the top of the page also means that it's very obvious if an error has been made, for example. And not an offensive word, but I remember early in my time at Merriam Webster, a new edition of one of our paperbacks came out. And what would happen in the office is everyone would get a copy of the new book, so we had the full line of books at our desks. And it was given to me and I just kind of thumbed through it. And I came to the entry in the Cs, and the guide word was coffeehouse, but it was spelled with only a single E after the Fs. So it read as coffehouse. I wasn't trying to be smart or funny or anything, but I just said to the production designer, "Is that correct?" Of course, the entry had two Es. The poor person, I could see them turn green. There's so much care that goes into these, and I'm sure in the very next printing it was corrected of course, but it's the kind of error that might jump out at you.

Emily Brewster: We do proofread these things multiple times. That is the kind of typo that is pretty devastating at that point in the process.

Peter Sokolowski: And it's gone through so many hands. It's not that it's somebody's fault. It's just that, how did it happen?

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be right back with more deep dictionary nerdery. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: We're heading into more arcana. Things are getting typographical. The guide words are the words that are at the very top of each page of the dictionary, but each entry on the dictionary has a head word, that is the word that is being defined, and the head word has got dots placed amongst its letters.

Peter Sokolowski: And many people think improperly that those represent the syllabic breaks of a word.

Emily Brewster: That's right. I assumed, before I started working at Merriam Webster, that those were syllabification marks, that they would tell you where to break the word into syllables. But they are not. The syllable breaks are shown in the pronunciation key that immediately follows the head word. There are syllable marks there. But those dots in the head tell you what, Peter?

Peter Sokolowski: Well, it's something else and it has to do, again, with publishing conventions. These are the line break conventions. This is where you would hyphenate if you were typesetting this word and it came to end of a line and you needed more space.

Emily Brewster: This tells you where it's appropriate to place the hyphen if you have to break the word.

Peter Sokolowski: They're different from the actual syllabic breaks because syllables are phonetic, which is why we present them as hyphens within the phonetic transcription of the word. So they're there. They're given, and there's no reason to duplicate that. The center dots, the end line breaks, are different for a lot of reasons. One obvious thing is that in typesetting, there's the phenomenon of the orphan. If you have a word like area or something, you don't put a hyphen after the a. You bring the word down a line.

Emily Brewster: You don't strand a single letter.

Peter Sokolowski: You don't strand a single letter.

Emily Brewster: You never leave a letter alone on a line.

Peter Sokolowski: And there are conventions that are easy to notice if you think of them as you look at a page. I'm looking at this section of the letter I here, and I can see, for example, that we do not provide the center dots for words that are compound terms, where the term itself has a dictionary entry somewhere else. So for example, iron curtain has no center dots whatsoever because you can look up curtain and see where it would fall. But you can see that there is one for, for example-

Ammon Shea: Ironmonger.

Peter Sokolowski: Ironmonger. Yes, there is. A quick, easy way to understand these is often, they break down where the words themselves separate if they are, like ironmonger, compound words.

Emily Brewster: Now, the thing about these division dots is that we don't really use them anymore.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, because of word processing.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that I remember from the history of Merriam is that a huge amount of time and effort has gone into dictionary production to make things smaller so that you can fit more information in the book, so much so that when we were doing Websters third International Dictionary, they came up with using, I think, what was it, the tilde rather than-

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, yes,

Ammon Shea: ... use the word in citations?

Emily Brewster: Mm-hm.

Ammon Shea: Because every time you take out one word from every citation, you're saving dozens, scores of pages of text and you can fit so much more. And yet, here's this totally outdated convention that it's fairly safe to say nobody is going through our dictionary to say, "Where do I put the line break on this word?" And yet, we're still giving it all this real estate.

Emily Brewster: Well, I wonder if that will be changing in the future.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: I expect that it would. That is not my decision to make, but it'll be interesting-

Ammon Shea: Right.

Emily Brewster: ... to see going forward. The fact is that our word processing programs make these choices for us. We as individual writers no longer need to think about where an appropriate place to put a hyphen is. Unless we're dealing with a compound word. So we still do very much care about whether you're going to hyphenate whistleblower or not. Both are fine, by the way. Those kinds of hyphens, people still have to give consideration to. Those are matters of usage and style that are shifting constantly and that we do still very much want to report on. But where the hyphen goes if you want to split the word dictionary to fit it on a page, nobody has to think about that anymore.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, some people do, which is to say professional typesetters. There are still people who work in the publishing industry who have always referred to our dictionary or someone else's dictionary for this purpose.

Emily Brewster: That's a very good point, Peter. I don't mean to leave out the professional typesetters.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. My point is, where do they go if they don't get this information in a dictionary entry? It's a job that was taken, in some ways, more seriously in the past because typesetting was something that happened at many different levels. You might have a school newspaper, for example, that was done by students or amateurs, but then it would go all the way up to the New York Times. So the fact is, there were more typesetters because of technology of print. This was one of the mechanical necessities that standards were required, and little things that you don't think about.

For example, it's mentioned in the preface to Websters Third, to the Unabridged Dictionary, a couple of examples. And they give examples of typesetting conventions and then immediately show the counter example that even though a syllable for a word like cardiovascular, but again, you have to keep in mind that word is never split at cardi hyphen ovascular. You would keep the cardio because of the its etymological connection to one idea, one lexical unit, and the vascular to a different one. So you respect those. And then there are others where phonetics have to do with it. For example, they give the example for the word cyclic, C-Y-C-L-I-C, but they give the pronunciation cyclic as an alternative. And they say, "Well, the problem with that is that if it were cyclic, it would be broken after the Y, cy- but if it were cyclic, it would be broken after the C, cyc-." So they start getting into the nitty-gritty of phonetics and you realize that if you don't have a guide for the center dots, you may find yourself wasting a lot of time wondering, "Where do I put this hyphen? Where does it go?"

If you don't mind a few sentences of this lovely text which is from 1961, it's an essay in the style of the time on this subject. It's charming. "The centered periods in bold face. Main entries indicate places at which a hyphen may be put as the last character in a line of print or writing when the rest of the word must be put at the beginning of the following line. We have made an effort to insert the periods only at places where hyphens would actually be used by publishing houses whose publications show a conscientious regard for end-of-line divisions. Such publishers probably never divide the word oleo between the E and the O. If there is room for a hyphen, there is room for the O. They avoid dividing between the O and the L, except in extremely narrow measure as when an illustration narrows a column." So they give this kind of example and rationale for the utility of these center dots.

Emily Brewster: Yes. And also, they show that again, even in this, the dictionary is being descriptive. It is describing-

Peter Sokolowski: That's right.

Emily Brewster: ... what carefully-run publishing houses do as their practices.

Peter Sokolowski: Another example they give that I think is really charming is when you have to break a term that is itself hyphenated such as self-centered, so self-centered is spelled with a hyphen between the self and the centered, and they point out that you would divide it after the N in centered: "Because the hyphen is used at the end of a line is identical with the hyphen that occurs between the F and the C of a word like self-centered, many find objectionable the breaking of such a word at the end of a line at any point other than the hyphen." But as they point out, of course you can break it because the idea has to be all of one. Self-centered. So if you see the self-cen-, you can read that quite comfortably.

Emily Brewster: Now, Merriam Webster's house style is to put a double hyphen.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: ... that actually tilts up if you are breaking a word like self-centered. It breaks the end of the line. You put S-E-L-F and then you put this tilting up double hyphen, almost like an angled equal sign, and then you put the word centered on the next line. That tells you that the word that has been split has a hyphen in it at that point, even when it is on a single line.

Peter Sokolowski: And it does make it easier to read because you recognize, "Okay, this is an intentional break of a single lexical unit."

Emily Brewster: Unless you think about it too much, and then it's all incredibly distracting. Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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