Eric Levin
November 23, 1987 12:00 PM

Kids! Tired of Mom yanking those comic books out of your hands and telling you to do your homework? Consider a career in dictionary editing. You can read all the comic books you want. Of course, you’ll also have to read, among hundreds of other things, aerospace journals, archery magazines, romance novels, menus, match-books, cereal boxes and massage-parlor handbills snapped your way by guys with upturned collars standing on city street corners urging, “Check it out, check it out.”

Having second thoughts? Here’s another fun part. Those thick, mushy romance novels? You will actually—as part of your job—cut them horizontally in half (so you won’t get sucked into the plot) and peruse one half for noteworthy new words and expressions while handing the other half to a colleague to do the same. As a dictionary editor, you’ll get to go to ball games and watch soap operas. You’ll also carry four-by-six “cite” cards in your pocket at all times to jot down any new slang and jargon you may overhear at lunch, on your commute and even while lying on the beach scouring a stack of computer magazines, culinary newsletters and journals of virology.

To a dictionary editor, everything in the world is of interest. More than 200 years ago Samuel Johnson, a lexicographer himself, defined a dictionary editor as “a harmless drudge.” But to Stuart Berg Flexner, editor-in-chief of the second edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language—the first, new, unabridged dictionary to be published in this country in two decades—more romantic images spring to mind.

“It sounds silly, because a dictionary doesn’t seem exciting,” says Flexner, 59. “But it’s almost like working on a newspaper, because you feel you sort of have a hot line to the world.”

If a newspaper were 2,500 pages long, weighed 12 pounds and cost $79.95, paperboys would need catapults to deliver it. RHD-II also took nine years and $9 million to produce, not exactly a “Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite!” schedule. But thanks to Flexner, his staff of 30 editors and their 400 consultants in 170 fields of endeavor, RHD-II does supply the latest, if not the last, word on the state of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing language.

“For a while there, the editor handling medical terms was on the phone twice a week to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta for the latest on AIDS,” says Flexner. “Long before the drug AZT hit the headlines, one of our consultants was telling us, ‘Be sure that’s in; it’s going to be a biggie.’ ”

The dictionary that Dr. Johnson compiled in 1755 contained fewer than 100,000 words. Today, says Flexner, “No one really knows how many words there are in English—some estimates are well over a million.” Arcana abounds: There are hundreds of thousands of insects, plants and chemical dyes, for example, each with a name. What RHD-II offers “is, we hope, every word in every field, from the most vulgar to the most technical, that we can expect anyone to come across,” says Flexner. That works out to 315,000 entries, some of them real freight trains (98 primary uses for “go,” 179 for “run”). With 470,000 entries, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary—the only other one-volume unabridged in English—is bigger but less current. Since it was published in 1961, 12,000 changes have been made through updates every five years.

Meanwhile, the RHD-II staff’s novel-slicing and card-jotting has netted 50,000 new words and expressions that didn’t exist or weren’t yet widespread when RHD-I was published in 1966. High-fives for you, Flex! A high-five, by the way, is concisely defined in RHD-II as “a gesture of greeting, good-fellowship or triumph in which one person slaps the upraised palm of the hand against that of another.” Also unearthed were 75,000 new meanings of old words (Example: RHD-II must have been a mother to proofread).

In the last 21 years America has gone high-tech, learning how to interface while knowing diddly-squat about how microchips work and maxing out on acronyms like CD, PC and VHS. Gay has become accepted as a nonslang word if not as a life-style. Guilty chocoholics laced up running shoes and entered triathlons until shin splints (which are the pits) turned them into “couch potatoes” who watch miniseries or the Super Bowl while pigging out on fast food and cannoli.

Yet not every new term passed muster. Couch potato was deemed not widely enough used to make it. Along with “dink” (double income, no kids) and “surimi” (that all-purpose fish product passed off as crabmeat in seafood salads), couch potatoes will have to wait for the third edition, due early in the 21st century. But they probably won’t mind.

Bummer barely begins to describe the end of the hippie era, when grunts returning from Nam made hooch and punji stick, free-fire zone and, especially, Agent Orange household words (though it sounds modern, the phrase household word dates to at least 1600, RHD-II says). To fast-forward a bit,-gate has become a ubiquitous suffix for scandal. Americans may be feeling glad about glasnost, but they would still like to find a way to make the ayatollah join the ranks of the desaparecidos (“the disappeared”).

At their monthly conferences beginning in 1978, the RHD-II staff thrashed out nettlesome issues such as whether it should be “lasagne” or “lasagna. The more prevalent lasagna won out over the older spelling, though some traditionalist editors felt it was too soon to change. On an even more ticklish issue, a clear majority prevailed in favor of including all the big-league curse words. Yep, even the F word, once described in the New York Times as “probably the most widely known word in English.”

The standard, with every word made the cut, strictly practical. Had the word established itself in the language? The F word did that a long time ago—between 1495 and 1505, according to RHD-II. Says Flexner: “I think al words should be treated equally.”

Flexner has built a career on his love of words. Born in Jacksonville, Ill., the son of a clothing retailer, he received diplomas from the University of Louisville before doing graduate study at Cornell. As a research assistant at Louisville, he interviewed bank robbers, pickpockets and prostitutes for a study of criminal argot, and co-edited his first lexicon, The Dictionary of American Slang, in 1960. He worked as a senior editor on RHD-I and wrote two popular books on language in American culture before being named editor-in-chief of RHD-II in 1980.

Now that the job is done, you might expect him to be zonked. No way! On Halloween, which happened to be his son Geoffrey’s 17th birthday—his daughter, Jennifer, 18, was away at college—Flexner and his wife, Doris, who works in advertising, invited friends over to watch three horror flicks on the VCR.

Flexner doesn’t much like horror movies, but he wasn’t being just an indulgent dad. He was scouting words for the third edition. He found none, but wasn’t disturbed. “You keep looking,” he says, “because they’re out there.”

Go for it, big guy!

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