The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Lexicographic leeway: the case of quagmire

Recently, I chatted to Lindsay Clandfield for an episode of the TEFL Commute podcastabout dictionaries. When I listened back to the full episode, lots of things that came up in the chat between Lindsay and his co-presenter, Shaun Wilden had me wanting to chip in. Perhaps one of the most interesting was Shaun's comment that he always tests a new dictionary by looking up the entry for 'quagmire' to see whether the literal, concrete sense (a wet, boggy area of ground) or the metaphorical sense (a messy situation) is listed first. It's an interesting test and, I think, a case worth explaining from a lexicographer's perspective.

The frequency principle:
In general, modern learner's dictionaries are based on the principle of frequency at all levels. Whether it's which words to include, how to order the different senses of a word or which collocations and patterns to illustrate in the example sentences, the most frequent typically take priority. The thinking being that the most frequently used words and senses are likely to be most useful to a learner, so they should get priority. That frequency information comes from a corpus (a computerised database of language consisting of hundreds of millions of words from books, newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, websites, conversation, etc. which we use to represent the language as a whole). The frequency of individual words can be retrieved quite easily, but determining the frequency of different senses comes down to the judgement of the individual lexicographer; computers can't yet distinguish meaning. So when compiling an entry, you might get up a sample of, say, 500 examples and scan through to work out which is the most frequent sense. Looking at 'quagmire' on the British National Corpus (BNC) the split is roughly 54% concrete uses vs. 46% metaphorical uses. Undoubtedly, that would vary for different corpora, but it's clearly a close call in terms of frequency.

Meaning and metaphor:
There are, however, cases where other factors override the general frequency rule. In the case of words with a concrete and a metaphorical meaning, the question is raised as to whether it's easier for a learner to understand a metaphorical usage by explaining the physical one first. Is it easier to understand the idea of a group of politicians bogged down in a metaphorical quagmire, if you can picture them stuck in a load of squelchy mud? Some vocabulary acquisition research argues that encouraging learners to create visual representations of words, either literally as drawings or at least in their mind's eye, aids both comprehension and retention. And of course, there's all the language that comes along with the original metaphor. To understand why we talk about people being bogged down in, sinking into or wading through quagmires (all collocations that came up in my corpus search at metaphorical uses), does it help to understand the concrete, physical sense too?

Styleguides and individual judgments:
Each dictionary will have rules about these types of cases set out in a huge document, called a styleguide, which lexicographers refer to as they're compiling entries. In some cases, that will be a hard-and-fast rule (frequency always first or concrete before metaphor), but often the styleguide will leave it down to the judgement of the individual compiler to weigh up the relative frequencies of the two senses and how useful the physical sense is in understanding the metaphorical one. That's why you'll find a different treatment of 'quagmire' in different learner's dictionaries (Oxford and Cambridge go for concrete first, COBUILD and Macmillan start with the metaphorical usage); it's one of those cases where you could just argue either way.

I'll leave you with a few more to think about yourself - if you were explaining the metaphorical uses of these in the classroom, would you start by describing the concrete, physical sense first or not? Which factors would influence your decision?

inundate, swamp, battle, grasp, tweet, mammoth, giant, nightmare

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