The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Is café working really workable?

Working from home is fabulous. I’ve been doing it for 17 years now and most of the time I love it.  Just occasionally though, domestic life gets in the way. For the past week and a bit, we’ve had workmen in renovating our bathroom. The work was pencilled in months ago when I had no idea how it’d fit into my work schedule and inevitably, it’s come at exactly the wrong time, just when I’m at my busiest, juggling a couple of projects and really can’t afford the disruption. What with the noise, the mess, no loo and the water and power going on and off, it’s meant that I haven’t been able to work from home.

Because I can’t afford to lose the hours, I’ve worked through the past two weekends, I’ve been squeezing a couple of hours in each evening and I’ve been trying to get in a few hours during the day working in cafés. All of which has left me exhausted, frustrated and having actually achieved very little in the way of work.

The idea of the freelancer sat in acafé with their laptop seems very appealing, but in my experience, it’s really not a workable solution.

I’m lucky that living right in the city centre, I have a huge choice of cafés all within a few minutes’ walk, so I can pick spots that are relatively quiet. Even so, there is inevitable background noise and distractions. And however laid-back the café, you’re always a bit conscious of the time. The waitress has cleared away your coffee cup and you’re wondering how long you can stretch it out before you order something else. Or the free wi-fi only lasts for an hour.

That’s not so bad when you’re working on things that don’t need your full focus and that you can pick up and put down. I soon exhausted those tasks though and found that I was onto new, from-scratch writing that really needed my full attention and an uninterrupted run. In trying to squeeze in bits and pieces here and there, I was being really unproductive – spending ages puzzling over the same thing, going back over stuff again and again and just not moving forward. To the point where I just had to give up and admit it was better to lose a few days.

I generally work at a desktop pc, so decamping to a café means transferring stuff to my laptop. That isn’t that difficult in an age of Dropbox, but it still requires a bit of thought and planning. Making sure you’re always working on the latest version, uploading all those incidental files you might need to refer to and oh yes, coping with slow/intermittent wi-fi.

For me though, the real killer is the physical workspace. As someone who suffers from chronic pain, working at a laptop for an extended period is generally a no-no – you’re hunched over with the screen at completely the wrong height in relation to the keyboard and those horrible fiddly little trackpads are a nightmare. Then when you add to that flimsy café chairs that don’t offer any proper support and a table that’s at the wrong height for the chair, it’s a recipe for disaster. This morning’s café stop, for example, had a nice quiet table with a reasonably comfy chair, but the chair was much too low for the table and within minutes, my shoulder was killing me. This afternoon, I’ve switched to somewhere with a high, bench-style table and a seat that puts me at the right height for my arms to drop down more comfortably onto the keyboard, but I’m perched on a stool with no back, which is starting to take its toll on my lower back.

The good news is, the work on the bathroom is due to finish tomorrow, so fingers crossed, I’ll be back at my own desk by Thursday. And yes, at least I’ll have a nice new bathroom …

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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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