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A Day in the Life of a Lexicographer

David Barnhart comes from a lexicographical dynasty. He and his late brother, Robert, have both been in the profession of making dictionaries, following in the footsteps of their famous father Clarence L. Barnhart, author of the Thorndike-Barnhart series of dictionaries. David now works at home and in the local libraries, finding and defining words for his quarterly journal, The Barnhart Dictionary Companion.

So what is his day like? He starts by reading the paper and listening to news on the radio: “I feel lucky if on any given day I gather in half a dozen words to work on.” One day recently, for example, “in the Poughkeepsie Journal — a mediocre paper owned by the Gannett chain — I snared stingray from a USA Today story about police work. Then 16 more, only two of which were not in desk dictionaries. I’ll check the big ones tomorrow morning.”

Word-watching is a bit like birdwatching. Barnhart hunts in the wild of language for undiscovered specimens, words not yet defined by fellow lexicographers. When he has spotted one, he proceeds to search for more examples — many more, enough to comprehend the full range of meanings and parts of speech. Getting sufficient evidence was once a foreboding task, but it is now made much easier by the Internet and databases. Barnhart’s favorite sources include Nexis, NewspaperArchive, and ProQuest. As bounteous as these resources are, he says, they can clog the system with far more than one can digest in a reasonable time.

One morning he was on the trail of down-ballot. Or is it downballot? Or down ballot? He made a preliminary tally:

“1. There are 168 quotes in Nexis for downballot.

2. There are well over 900 in Nexis for down-ballot or down ballot. (Nexis doesn’t distinguish between those two forms in its tally.

3. eOED has a small entry for adj. (none for adv. or n.)

4. I’ve checked nearly 500 of the 900 for another n. example and found none.

5. eOED etymology shows down adv. + ballot n. as origin. However, I’m wondering if it isn’t from the phrase down the ballot, which I’ve seen several times.”

And within a few days, starting with sighting that one example, Barnhart produced a dictionary entry of more than 1,300 words, with copious citations. The hyphenated form down-ballot is his headword, with downballot and down ballot as alternate spellings.

His first definition is for the adjective: “of or having to do with candidates below the top of a voting ticket or among the less prominent candidates, often characterized as contests for subordinate positions or smaller electorates and positioned lower on the ballot.” Nine citations illustrate this use, in publications ranging from the Paris [Texas] News of 1982, courtesy of NewspaperArchive, to that instance in The Poughkeepsie Journal this month.

Next he defines it as an adverb, “from or to or occupying a position lower down on the ballot; not the top of the ticket.” For this too he has nine citations, the first from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in July 1991, courtesy of Nexis: “Young people who get in the habit of voting for Republicans election after election will ultimately start going down-ballot in their party choice.”

And then there’s one more part of speech, the noun phrase. Barnhart defines it as “the portion of the ballot for less prominent candidates or for those with smaller electorates,” and labels it (rare). There’s only one citation, again from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, this time in 1994: “The word is not yet out among Democrats, either, that they cannot vote straight party. Look, then, for confused voters and squirrelly results from down ballot.” The relatively lengthy citation is typical of his thorough documentation.

Meanwhile, the words in the wild keep coming — for example, a new meaning for make one’s bones (achieve success in a highly competitive field), hanger (anger brought on by hunger), Trumpy (no definition needed for those who follow politics) — there is no end.

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