When I was eleven, I spent an afternoon looking up dirty words in a dictionary with a friend. We had a grand time laughing together at how stiff and academic the wordings of those definitions were. Of course we didn’t really consider that they were written by actual people. And never did I think I would someday be one of those people.
But somehow, at the age of twenty-two, I ended up in the editorial department of Merriam-Webster in Springfield, MA. I’d just graduated with a degree in philosophy, and having no clue what to do with the rest of my life, sent a resume to Merriam on a whim. But from the very first time I saw the citation files, they fascinated me: rows of drawers resembling a card catalogue, full of millions of citations (or cits) drawn from books, magazines, newspapers, advertisements, etc. I’d be spending my days working with words, flipping through piles of those citations.
Perhaps fitting—after my eleven-year-old behavior—that the first word I ever worked on was ass. It wasn’t assigned to me specifically. Editors simply sign out boxes of citations for small portions of the alphabet, and the ass-assembly line box was next in line when my two fellow trainees and I ceremoniously signed out our first boxes. Citation after citation for ass. I had several questions, so I sheepishly brought them to my boss. I struggled to keep a straight face as we discussed ass in hushed tones in his corner cubicle. Most of the new cits were for the use of ass to refer to the whole person (e.g. “Get your ass over here!”). But to my disappointment, someone had already added that sense of the word to the definition. After ass, I eagerly tackled assacu, assagai, assail …
Soon, however, the novelty of defining wore off, and I began to I find the silence of the editorial office difficult to take. My coworkers were not unfriendly—the work we did simply didn’t require a great deal of discussion. On top of that, I was shy and afraid of making usage errors when speaking to more seasoned editors.
The solitude tended to give way to daydreaming. When I’d come across older handwritten citations, I wondered about the people who had written them. Who were they—behind the disciplined anonymity of their work? Were they ever driven a bit crazy by the silence, as I often was? I’d heard that in previous decades the quiet of the office had been even more severe. Talking was frowned upon. Editors were encouraged to communicate through interoffice memo whenever possible. I imagined office romances being conducted on paper, the evidence stashed in the cit files.
Once, while shuffling through the files, I imagined myself stumbling upon something scandalous—or even dangerous—in the citation files from days past. It wasn’t a story or book idea at the time—just one of those passing “if-my-life-were-a-movie” kind of thoughts. But since my life has never been much like a movie, no such citation appeared—on that or any other day of my four years there.
Long after I’d left Merriam-Webster, though, I started a story about a secret being hidden in the files of a dictionary company—and that story became The Broken Teaglass. In a way, the novel satisfies my original childish impulse—to seek something secret and forbidden in the dictionary—and to discover a little unexpected humor and humanity there beneath all of the formality.
Emily Arsenault has worked as a lexicographer, an English teacher, a children’s librarian, and a Peace Corps volunteer. She wrote The Broken Teaglass to pass the long, quiet evenings in her mud brick house while living in rural South Africa. She now lives in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, with her husband. You can visit Emily Arsenault’s website at www.emilyarsenault.com.