I was never cut out to be a language teacher. In the summer of 1980, I was teaching English in London. The school wasn’t very good, and I was even worse. I answered an ad for ‘trainee lexicographers’ to work on a new learner’s dictionary, and soon found myself in a publisher’s office, doing a test to see whether I had the requisite skills.
Part of the test involved writing sentences to illustrate particular words in natural-sounding contexts. And one of these words was dapper. Hmmm … what to say? I knew it meant ‘smart’ (in the British sense of ‘well-dressed’) and I was pretty sure it was a word you only used about men. Eventually I came up with something like: He was a dapper little man in a dark suit.
There are two additional features here: the dark suit hints at a certain kind of ‘smartness’ (formal and correct, rather than stylish or unconventional); and the little implies that dapper men are usually of less than average height. With the language resources available to us now, we can confirm that both these features are typical. For instance, our corpus includes about 40 cases of dapper occurring with small, short, or (especially) little, and in most cases the subject is a middle-aged or older man – as these examples show:
We were met by a regular army sergeant. He must have stood all of five foot tall, a short dapper little man.
Silver-haired and very dapper in black jacket, waistcoat, and striped trousers, he was the quintessence of an old-school Cambridge don.
But where did that sentence of mine come from? The late John Sinclair – the father of corpus lexicography – often warned against relying on intuition, rather than on the objective evidence of a corpus. And in principle he was right: our intuitions about language are subjective and often untrustworthy. But somewhere in our mental lexicons, there are facts about what words mean and how they combine. We may not be able to articulate them, but we draw on them whenever we write or speak. Donald Rumsfeld famously distinguished ‘known knowns’ (things we know that we know), known unknowns (things we’re aware that we don’t know) and – what worried him most – ‘unknown unknowns’ (things we don’t even realise we don’t know). But he missed one out: unknown knowns – things we do know at some level, but without being conscious that we know them. And that includes our intuitions about language.
The test made me think about how wonderfully subtle words can be (offering such precise shades of meaning) and made me realise that it would make more sense for me to work with language than to try teaching it. Oh yes, and I got the job.
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About Michael Rundell
Michael Rundell is Editor-in-Chief of the Macmillan dictionaries and a director of Lexicography MasterClass, a company that runs dictionary projects and training courses in lexicography and lexical computing. He is the co-author (with Sue Atkins) of the Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography (2008).