The only constant is change

If you could travel back in time to your adolescent self (assuming most of you reading this are well past that stage in life) to give some career advice, what would it be? I don’t mean general bits of wisdom such as working hard (but not neglecting your family), but a specific career to pursue – different from what you actually did when you finished school.

These days they say most people will not only change jobs many times but change careers at least two or three times. I might be inclined to be skeptical if it were not that my husband and I personify that trend. I started out as a teacher (two jobs), then data entry clerk (two jobs), then computer professional (I’m on my third job). My husband started out as a molecular biologist, then became a pastor, and currently works as shift supervisor at a warehouse.

Some career changes come because the old jobs are cut. There simply aren’t as many jobs using unskilled labor as there once were. And sometimes as technology changes, those with now-obsolete expertise find it easier to change fields than try to get retrained in a field now dominated by people half their age. Sometimes jobs in a particular field are limited to one geographic region, and relocation due to the needs of other family members (due to jobs, health issues, education, proximity to relatives, etc.) makes it difficult to find a job in one’s preferred field.

But many people change jobs because they find something more in tune with their abilities and interests. It’s tough to know, at age sixteen when you’re looking at college options or at eighteen when just getting a paycheck is paramount, what you are really best suited for and would most like to do. I used to think computers sounded terribly boring, but that was because I had never done it. And despite the current efforts of school counselors to use interests inventories and job shadowing to match young people up with promising options, there’s no way most of them will manage to find the right kind of work from the outset (even without the added difficulty of an economy in recession).

It occurred to me today, that if I could go back to myself at age 15 or 16, I could suggest lexicography as a good career to pursue. I knew back then that I loved words – reading them, using them, learning their history, even playing with them. I wanted to be a writer but suspected I would have a hard time making a living at it – the kinds of writing that generate steady paychecks for an entry-level writer tend to be in journalism, where interviewing strangers is the source for most material, and where deadlines constantly loom. I hated interviewing and I met deadlines only by working frantically at the last minute – not something I thought I could sustain on a daily basis.

I loved languages too, and for a time planned on being a Bible translator. There are various reasons it didn’t happen – such as my lack of zeal to evangelize people I met as a college student in Spain, and my ineligibility for a summer missions trip because my pastor (who had been called to the church since I left for college) said he did not know me well enough to write a letter of recommendation. But largely it was derailed because I developed an intense interest in Spanish, and wanted to serve God as a Spanish teacher, helping mold young lives.

After my abject failure as a classroom teacher, I ended up learning computer languages instead, and it’s a job that fits me well. But it’s a field with a high rate of change, and I find myself several years behind now – mainly from having worked at small companies that preferred to stay well behind the curve in order to save money. Now that I work at a large corporation, there is much that I miss about small companies – I think I do well as a jack-of-all-trades IT professional rather than a specialist on the latest Microsoft tools (we are not quite a Microsoft-only shop but moving in that direction).

Now if I were a lexicographer, I would be surrounded by words, immersed in words, enlarged by words, enthralled by words – and getting paid for doing it. I can’t say I have extensive knowledge of a lexicographer’s work, but from what I read today, it sounds like work I would do well and enjoy. There is a lot of research – tracing word origins, determining what new words have come into use and which ones have fallen into disuse, noting ways in which the meanings of existing words have expanded or narrowed or simply changed. Then there is all the detailed work of carefully compiling it all. Computers have replaced slips of paper, so I’d also get to do computer work.

What got me thinking about dictionaries today was not my post yesterday, but a story travelling around blogdom today about changes to the Junior Dictionary published by Oxford University Press. Many of the words removed have to do with nature or with religion (mostly the Christian Church), while the new words largely deal with 21st century technologies. This has upset many traditionalists, some of whom compare this to the imposition of Newspeak in George Orwell’s novel 1984.

In the thread on this topic at worldmagblog, a number of us agreed that children’s dictionaries are hardly a strong influence on the culture. Limited to a very small subset of the lexicon, they are thus limited in their usefulness (and perhaps in their usage?). This one is apparently aimed at 7- to 9-year-olds, few of whom will use a dictionary of any kind without being required to by parents or teachers.

Much of the debate revolves around the question of whether a dictionary is to be descriptive or prescriptive. That is, does it tell us how people actually use words, or how they should use words? If the latter, then perhaps there might be more merit to complaints that words important to a people’s Christian heritage are being forgotten, or that children will learn less of nature when they are not encouraged to learn the words to talk about it. But if the dictionary’s purpose is to list the spelling and meaning of words that typical 7- to 9-year-olds in Great Britain actually use in daily life, then the new choices may be entirely appropriate.

I had hoped to be able to find information on changes in English dictionaries over the past century or so. After all, I’m sure that a dictionary published when my grandfather was a child would not have included such words as television and microwave, just to name a couple that are very common in the life of a child today. Automobiles were a novelty in his youth, so I assume he knew far more about horses than most children today. And even aside from technology, there have been other vast changes in culture since the end of the nineteenth century.

Yet I found nothing of what I was looking for – lists of words, even a sampling, of those added and deleted over some defined period of time. I’m sure the information is out there somewhere, though I can’t be certain it is publicly available on the internet. Part of the problem was my search terms. Any word I search for, together with the word “dictionary,” yielded mostly hits on the dictionary definition of the word. And since computer programs use dictionaries (either lexicons for word processing or data dictionaries to describe the structure of a database), I got many hits on those also. (Especially since dictionaries such as Microsoft Word’s let you add and delete words – exactly the terms I was trying to use.)

Still, I found a great deal of interest on the subject of lexicography. On the issue of unused words being lost from the language, take a look at this article: “Collins dictionary asks public to rescue outdated words.”

Do you know what a “ghost word” is? Learn about the history of dord.

Read an article about dictionaries and lexical change from June 1924. My favorite line is this: “It is, of course, as hopeless for the lexicographer to try to stem the flowing tide of new words and expressions as it was for Mrs. Partington to keep out the Atlantic with a mop.” Yet as an example of how meaning is tied to culture, I have no idea whatsoever who Mrs. Partington is/was.

This article is the one that made me think I would have liked being a lexicographer.

And this one, I thought, gives a very common sense response to the changes in OUP’s new Junior Dictionary.


3 Responses to The only constant is change

  1. renaissanceguy says:

    I too love words. I thought of becoming a lexicographer as a kid, but I figured that they were becoming more and more unnecessary.

    Off and on I think that I would have enjoyed being a lawyer. I would have become a defnse attorney, if I had gone that route. I actually have thought about the possibility of going to law school even now.

  2. marilee says:

    Info on Mrs. Partington

    Benjamin P Shillaber published the first humor magazine in America. The Carpet Bag. (1851-2) One of his repeated character sketches was of Mrs. Partington, apparently a country bumpkin type that others laugh at, come to the big city (of Boston.)

    Shillaber wrote many further stories about members of the Partington family, especially about an exuberant “bad boy”, Ike.

    Historical newspapers (ca. 1900) from various parts of the US tell of amateur theater groups performing the comedy drama, “Mrs. Partington and her son Ike”.

    [M. note. info obtained via several Google searches.]

    Thanks, Marilee!

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