An American Editor

October 15, 2018

Indexes — Part 5: Names in Indexes

Ælfwine Mischler

A potential client recently asked me what an index is. Does it contain every name and event in a book? How is it different from a concordance?

A concordance maps every occurrence of words in a work or corpus, usually with the surrounding words to provide some context. A concordance might categorize the words by parts of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) or by form (run, running, runny). There are, for example, concordances for the Bible, Shakespeare, Old English literature (which has a limited corpus), and the Qur’an (in Arabic). For most books, though, a concordance is not very useful.

Imagine a book about aardvarks — do you really want to know where every occurrence of the word aardvark is? Wouldn’t you rather want to know where to find information about the diet, habitats, mating habits, diseases, and natural enemies of aardvarks? That is what a well-written index provides. Indexers create entries for the topics discussed in a book and — if they do the job right — break long topics into subentries so readers can easily find what they want. Nobody wants to check all the pages in a long string of page numbers (or other locators) to find particular information.

What about names of people — should every instance of every name appear in an index?

Not usually. A computer-generated index might pick out all the words beginning with a capital letter and index them without differentiating between those that are passing mentions and those attached to substantial information. If a page says that Fay Canoes went with Bob Zurunkel, and that Fay did X, Y, and Z, and Fay said “yadda yadda” and “blah blah blah,” Fay is going to be indexed for that page, but not Bob. He is just a passing mention there. If Fay appears many times in the book, a human-produced index will usually have subentries for Fay, but a computer-generated index will not.

Often, a trade book or one that has limited space for the index will have longer strings of locators — and, thus, fewer subentries — and fewer details in the index.

As I said, usually not every occurrence of every name will appear in the index. There are exceptions, of course, and indexers should anticipate the needs of the reader. For example, in local histories, even passing mentions of every person or place (building, street, town, etc.) should be indexed because they might serve as clues for later researchers. In a handbook of literature, every author’s name might be indexed even if they are only mentioned in passing, but book titles might be indexed only if there is substantial discussion of them. What constitutes “substantial discussion” is sometimes a subjective decision.

Authors used as sources may or may not be indexed, and practice varies from one field to another. In the social sciences, it is common to have a separate name/author index that includes all sources, even if they are named only in parentheses, without subentries. The indexer has to refer to the bibliography to get the first name or initial(s) of authors, so bibliography pages should be counted in the page or word count used for pricing the index.

In other works, sources might be indexed only if there is substantial discussion of their material, or only if the source name appears in the text as opposed to only in a footnote or endnote. Authors and editors should make their expectations clear to the indexer before indexing begins.

Human indexers can decide which names to include in an index. They can also index people with nicknames properly (e.g., recognize that Frank and Buddy are the same person), people whose names have changed over time, and people who are referred to by a title or family relationship. A computer program will not index such people correctly, if at all.

So what goes into an index? That depends on the nature of the book, needs of the reader, practice in a given field, and space available for the index. If you have particular needs or questions, discuss them with your indexer before work begins. If you are the indexer, be sure to have this conversation before you begin the work.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

September 11, 2013

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

In the land of word resources, one stands above them all: The Oxford English Dictionary. Why? Because once in the OED, always in the OED.

Alas, the same cannot be said for the dictionaries and usage manuals most editors rely upon. Each edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary runs about the same page length and uses about the same size typeface, and is about the same thickness as previous editions. The only way this could occur is if some words got dropped as new words were added.

In olden days, I kept all my “outdated” dictionaries, largely because I liked books and couldn’t bear to part with a book. But after getting estimates to move books across country (several times), I realized that the heavyweights that I no longer ever opened needed to go. And so they did — a move that I regretted once I settled down and knew that any further moves would be local.

“Outdated” dictionaries and word usage books do have a place in the editor’s arsenal. If you are editing a novel that takes place in the 1950s, slang from the 2000s won’t be very helpful. You want to be able to check meaning and usage that is relevant to the period in which the action takes place.

Authors are products of their times. Authors write with the words with which they are familiar, the words they grew up with, that they learned in their schooldays — words that may have been removed from the dictionary to make room for more current words. And just as authors are products of their time, so are editors. We tend to use words the way we were taught to use them, and occasionally learn from an astute editor that the way we used the word is no longer acceptable. (Someone very near and dear to me drives me crazy by constantly saying “cool”. But I do recognize the lexicon era from my much younger days :).)

What brought this to mind was an article in the September issue of The Atlantic, “When Good Words Go Bad” by Jen Doll (with a different title online: “How to Edit a Dictionary”). I remember some of the now-gone words, like “ostmark” and “tattletale gray.” Another word/phrase the article mentions is “complement-fixation test,” which I still come across in material I edit.

I have also noted changes in hyphenation of compound words/phrases.

An editor has to be word knowledgeable, but what does an editor do when a word needs to be checked but it isn’t in the dictionary? Today, the easiest path is to search the Internet. I’ve done that, but never have felt comfortable relying on such a search. I’m from the days when the value of a source was measured by the source’s (national or international) reputation. I don’t know an English language editor who wouldn’t agree that the OED is a reliable source or, for American editors, that Bryan Garner’s opinion as to word usage is more valuable than general Internet search results.

Consequently, I find that I am not only saving and using older versions of what I consider to be reputable sources, but that I am buying them when I come across them in bookstores. My path backward in time is a split road — some paths go back decades, some only an edition or two.

One of the most interesting resources I have is H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (4th ed., revised). I have the original fourth edition along with its several supplements, a multivolume discourse on and exposé of the American language. You can find these books and the supplements at places like AbeBooks.com (e.g., at this link) and other antiquarian book shops. They are not popular and thus are often inexpensive. I recommend buying them if you want to learn about the American language from a person who was a recognized language authority.

Although I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked, the point I’m trying to make is that my outlook about resource books has changed. In my youth, I would never have considered having and using prior editions of dictionaries or usage books. After all, I live today and my language should be of today, or so I thought.

Now that I am an older, wiser, and more experienced editor, I recognize that in the absence of those older resources, not only is language forgotten, but writings can become less meaningful. What bohemian meant in 1930 was not the same as it meant in 1950 or in 1970, and certainly not what it means today, but what it meant in 1930 might make the difference between understanding and not understanding the allusion Sinclair Lewis was making when he used the term in 1931.

I know I have written before about the resources a professional editor has (should have) on hand (see, e.g., Working Effectively as an Editor — New Print Resources and The Business of Editing: On My Bookshelf), but what I failed to discuss — perhaps even consciously recognize — is the value of prior editions of major resources in my day-to-day work.

Another interesting aspect is to see how respected resources have changed — “grown” or “matured” — over time, which is visible by comparing editions. When I have time, I’ll pick up the three editions of Bryan Garner’s American usage books and compare an entry. Sometimes the changes are subtle, sometimes they are more obvious, but what they always are is informative.

When I am uncertain about how an author has used a word — my recollection of its meaning being different than the author’s use would indicate — I’ll open a couple of editions of a dictionary and see what changes, if any, have occurred over the years.

What I have discovered is that being able to research through prior editions of a language resource has made me a better editor. It certainly impresses authors when I can give a meaningful comment that traces language usage and explains why the current word may not be the best choice. The corollary, I have also discovered, is that impressed authors ask my clients to be sure to hire me to do the editing on their book.

Do you keep a library of older resources that you have replaced? Do you use them or are they just taking up shelf space? Or are you an editor who relies on the Internet?

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