I specialize in English lexicography. When people ask me what I specialize in and I say “lexicography,” I usually get responses like, “Lexicography. So there’s a field like that,” and “Lexicography. I’ve never heard of it before.” I believe the situation is no different in England, where the field of lexicography is best developed. When I did an internship there during my student days in the dictionary department of a publisher nearly twenty years ago, the employees would say things like, “The worst is when people ask me about my job at parties. When I tell them I’m a lexicographer, they say, ‘What is that?’” But there probably isn’t a single person who hasn’t heard of dictionaries or doesn’t know what they are. Everyone must be familiar with dictionaries, but how and by whom are they made? Assemble the Boats [Fune wo Amu] (Kobunsha, 2011) is a novel by Shion Miura set in a dictionary editorial department that won the Japan Bookseller’s Prize in 2012. It was even made into a movie, The Great Passage, released in theaters this April. Although the novel was written by a Naoki Prize-winning author, it was still surprising that it became a best-seller and received so much publicity with such an unglamorous setting as lexicography. I would therefore like to look at the appeal of Assemble the Boats (despite my lack of experience with Japanese-Japanese dictionaries).
The “Unglamorous” Work of Lexicography
Compiling and editing dictionaries is very mundane work. In Assemble the Boats, this fact is not glossed over. Mitsuya Majime, the protagonist, heads the revision of a medium-sized Japanese dictionary called The Great Passage (Daitokai). During the proofreading, they discover that one of the entry words is missing. Even with the entire editorial department and student part-time workers working around the clock, it takes an entire month to check all 230,000 words. In the end, they find there are no other missing words, and the story becomes a legend. In addition, Mr. Matsumoto, the editor-in-chief, always keeps cards on hand and notes down new words he sees and hears and how they are used. The words are compared in several different types of existing dictionaries, and the data from the comparison becomes one of the tools that helps them decide what to include and leave out of The Great Passage.
“Conservative” Lexical Description
The book also draws attention to the fact that descriptions in dictionaries tend to be worded carefully and conservatively. Midori Kishibe, who is transferred from the glamorous fashion magazine editorial department to the dictionary editorial department, objects to the interpretation of the words “man” and “woman.” She argues that the division of sex into the two categories of male and female and the definition of “woman” as the sex that has organs for giving birth, which hinges on the ability to conceive, are outdated. She proposes an interpretation that acknowledges diversity: “The sex that is not male. Or, those who so identify themselves.” But Mitsuya Majime, the protagonist and person supervising the work, tells her this description is “too rash” (p.199). Dictionaries reflect the state of words of a certain time period, but at the same time, once that state is reflected in a dictionary, the record of it acquires prescriptiveness. The interpretation of fundamental concepts thus requires especially careful judgment, and this often ends in a “wait-and-see” approach.
The “Passion” of Lexicographers
The mundane and conservative world of dictionaries does not seem very appealing, but it also includes the passion of lexicographers for words and compiling dictionaries. Majime becomes concerned about the difference between the words agaru (rise) and noboru (ascend). While on a date with Kaguya, the woman he is in love with, he suddenly becomes fixated on the semantic analysis of noboru when he starts feeling “so happy he could fly” (ten ni mo noboru kimochi: the feeling of ascending the sky). Majime’s passion for The Great Passage infects Nishioka and Kishibe who had felt out of place in the dictionary editorial department. In an interview, Ms. Miura said she is interested in people who can’t help but get caught up in their work and that in Assemble the Boats she wrote the story of a person obsessed with the creation of dictionaries “as an ideal model of human life.”
The “Craftsmanship” of Lexicographers
The late Yoshiro Kojima, a professor emeritus at Waseda University who has edited numerous English-Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries, says dictionary-making is a form of craftsmanship: “Making a dictionary that is practical and easy to use is the same as making dyed goods or ceramics that are comfortable to handle and easy to use. In any case, a dictionary is worthless if it’s not user-friendly.” He continues, “When you make something, you need to incorporate innovative ideas. You’ve got to draw on long experience, intuition and insight to create a piece of work that is easy to use, attractive and well-organized. Above all, it is a work of craftsmanship, so the product must look good. It is the same as with other tools and eating utensils.”
As science, technology and corpus linguistics progress, it seems that the objectivity and consistency of lexical description are improving while dictionaries are losing their individuality. I had lost interest in today’s English dictionaries. But I could sense the spirit of dictionary craftsmen that I longed for in Assemble the Boats and developed a new interest in dictionaries. I think it may be this creative spirit that has fascinated so many readers.
In conclusion, I would like to finish by introducing Hiroaki Iima’s book Assemble the Dictionaries [Jisho wo Amu] (Kobunsha Shinsho) that was published this year. In the book, which includes comments by Shion Miura on the “obi” dust jacket, an editor of the Sanseido Japanese-Japanese Dictionary [Sanseido Kokugo Jiten] (“Sankoku”) introduces the Sankoku method of compiling dictionaries in an accessible way. I recommend it as a book that will allow you to sense the spirit of successive generations of dictionary craftsmen.
- ^ “Featured Interview: Author Shion Miura [Kantou Intabyuu: Sakka Miura Shiwon-san].” Sanseido Word-Wise Web.
- ^ The Dictionary-as-Art Society, ed., 2004, The World of English Dictionaries [Eigo Jisho no Sekai], p. 201.