Lexicographer Philip David Morehead on dictionaries and the evolution of language

A veteran of over thirty years as pianist and conductor at the renowned Lyric Opera of Chicago, Philip Morehead has extensive experience in the operatic repertory. He has conducted a widely varied list of concert works and contemporary music and performed in as varied a repertory of chamber music. A consummate musician, he has coached singers in operatic and concert repertory and given master classes in vocal and chamber music interpretation and performance. Philip Morehead is also my dad who I interviewed for the latest episode of the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

Lexicographer Philip David Morehead on dictionaries and the evolution of language Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast

James Morehead: Let’s start with a definition, appropriately. Define lexicographer. And is it more appropriate to say a dictionary is written or edited? 

Philip Morehead: “A brief definition of lexicographer is someone who writes, edits, or compiles dictionaries. There’s all sorts of ways of putting that, but basically it’s someone who produces a lexicon. In my case, it’s more like someone who edits dictionaries, because generally speaking I was working with, refining, editing, and updating an already existing publication.”

James: I remember growing up that you had a filing cabinet filled with index cards with one definition per index card. What are your earliest memories from watching your father work on the dictionary? 

Philip: “It’s true that in the earlier days it was pretty much one definition per card. There may have also been associated words and different parts of speech that relate to the main word included on that card. My father used to have special safes that were used to hold trays of index cards, but all those weren’t for the dictionaries, as they were already inprint at the time. These index cards were for the foreign language dictionaries, which was a big project my father got to produce in his later years.

“My first job was with him in his office and I was working for a colleague of his who was a German nobleman named Count Valdemar Von Zenwich. He was a rich old fellow who loved working with words and particularly with the origins of words, or what we call etymology. My first job was to take an index card which had on it the etymology of the word, and to copy the corrections that were on that card to another card, which was identical to the first one except without the corrections. And I discovered that even when doing something as incredibly simple as that, you can make numerous mistakes. They would go over my transfer of these edits iand point out the ways in which I screwed it up. What would seem like an absolutely effortless and errorless task, ended up being a very instructive first job.

“That was the first thing I did that was connected with the dictionary. And that was for a large multi-volume dictionary, which my father was in the process of trying to produce (which actually never never got produced). It was a contract for Simon and Schuster and it never happened, but they worked for years on these etymologies and it was quite instructive.” 

A selection of dog-eared reference books edited by Philip David Morehead

James: Creating a dictionary requires an extraordinary attention to detail. Did your love of words come out of working on dictionaries, or did you acquire a love of words from being immersed in so many definitions?

Philip: “I think my love of words came from growing up in the household that I grew up in because my parents were immersed in that world. Every word was a subject of conversation. Every word was something to play with. My father seldom used a word normally. He would always fool around with it because using the word normally was much too boring. I lived with this for my entire young life, and it was somewhat daunting because my father was a remarkable person and an incredible editor.

“When I was graduating from high school, I was the editor of my high school yearbook. We had finished most of the work on it, but I had page proofs for it. When I came home from a breakI showed it to my father, and out came the red pencil. This had all been proofread, but still out came the red pencil correcting innumerable things in this already thoroughly corrected manuscript, which of course was very instructive.

“You mention detail and I want to discuss a couple of things about that. The one thing about dictionaries is they have an endless supply of places to make mistakes, and for there to be typos or misprints. I have two little stories about this situation. For one, when we were doing a new edition of either the dictionary or thesaurus, I got the box of the newly printed books from Penguin. I opened the box with great excitement, picked up the first book, and the first thing I saw was a misprint and I was so furious about it that I slammed the book shut. I still have no idea where that misprint was. I’m sure this misprint is still in this book, whether a thesaurus or dictionary I can’t remember, but I’m sure it was never corrected because I could never find it again.

“The other story was with your sister Keren. We did one of the revisions of the Handy College Dictionary and decided for space reasons that we needed to take out the illustrations, which we thought were superfluous and not very helpful. The thing is, the people that do the cover are totally separate. It’s like the newspaper where the headlines are written by people who have nothing to do with writing the story. Whoever does the cover was in a similar situation and they had a cover they carried over from the previous edition which included ‘the only Illustrated dictionary at his class’. Well, it was the only Illustrated dictionary in its class—with no illustrations, as Keren discovered! At this point around 100,000 copies of the dictionary had been printed. I told the publisher about it and they corrected it for the next edition, but there are over 100,000 copies of this book out somewhere that are unIllustrated, vaunting the fact that they’re Illustrated.” 

James: People likely don’t realize that there are many dictionaries, and each serves a specific purpose. Your library includes many different dictionaries. For the Handy College Dictionary how did you, and your father, approach the choices about which words to include, and how to write the definitions?

Philip: Well, I can’t speak for my father, because the putting together of these dictionaries happened in the late 40s, so this basic decision for the whole of the dictionary had long ago been made. But, when I did revisions of them, I did have to make decisions on what to add or delete. Although we very rarely deleted anything because these were small dictionaries and pretty much everything in them was standard English and common words one typically uses on a daily basis. So, there was not much material that was deletable.

“In terms of adding words, you have to make a decision based on your own experience and what seems important to you and your use of the language. We did compare with other similar-sized dictionaries and made word list comparisons to make sure we weren’t leaving anything obvious out. Beyond that, adding words is based on your own feelings about the language and what you deem as important. It’s going to be different for each dictionary because each editor has different backgrounds and tastes.” 

James: What resources did you use when working on revisions of the dictionary?

Philip: “One of the considerations was to avoid using similar-sized dictionaries we were competing with to avoid possible accidental plagiarism. With general definitions, we are all trying to say the same thing just in different ways, so it’s important to stay away from books that you could be accused of plagiarizing. So, generally speaking, I used books that were not competitive as a resource. I mean they were much bigger and not in nearly the same category, such as the Oxford English Dictionary. The closest North American equivalent of that dictionary is the Merriam-Webster New International Dictionary. For a long time, the second edition of the New International Dictionary was the standard on this side of the pond.

“Then the Third Edition came out and included a lot of controversial choices. I think one of the big things was words like “ain’t” were not listed as colloquial or slang. They decided to take out a lot of those kinds of judgment calls which caused a tremendous amount of annoyance in various circles. The New York Times for years would not switch over to the Third Edition. They used the Second New International Dictionary as a basis mainly because the Third Edition got rid of these judgments that a lot of people feel are important. The Second was the preference used by a lot of publishers, despite the fact that the Third was already out and in use. So, those were the two main sources I used for checking things over. Of course, you do look at your competitors, but not too carefully, and not as a source for the writing. The competition is used to compare what is out there.” 

James: In addition to a dictionary, you also worked on a thesaurus. For listeners, if you have a paperback thesaurus on your bookshelf with a red cover, it’s very likely when you open the cover you’ll see my dad and/or my grandfather’s name. You mentioned to me recently that a thesaurus is somewhat unique to the English language. Share more about that. 

Philip: “Well, English is one of the largest languages in the world, if not the largest. The reason for that is that English has two very complete sources of vocabulary – the Germanic side of things and the Latin side of things. So in English, for every concept you have at least two words with one Latin and one Germanic. English also borrows from everywhere. There has been an attempt to keep English pure, but my father felt very strongly that the language should be open to all sources. It is very hard to keep the language pure because people are going to do and say what they want. The English language has really grown and there are tons of words.

“You need a lot of words for a thesaurus to work. The kind of thesaurus we usually have in English is called the Roget’s Thesaurus which is based on the idea of putting all words together with the things that relate to them. In the case of the original versions of Roget’s Thesaurus, there was a collection of over 1000 categories, like “death” or “taxes” for example, and every word that relates to that category, whether a noun, verb, adjective, etc, would be put in the same place. Within those categories there were cross references that would refer you to another category if you had a particular interest.

“My father’s thesaurus that I worked on many times was a modification of that. He wasn’t the first person to do it, but it was in effect a synonym dictionary with categories. Essentially, there is a list of words and their synonyms, but only the part of speech is the same as the word you’re looking up. So, if you’re looking up a noun, you will find a bunch of nouns that mean the same thing. Then in the category, you will get that noun you are searching for plus all the different parts of speech (adjective, verb, etc) that relate to that word or concept.

“The alphabetical thesaurus combines those two methods. So, you have a word list of synonyms, but within those there are references to categories which bring you together with other words of different parts of speech that relate to the same concept. The fundamental part about a thesaurus is cross-referencing.

“One quick funny story about this. In later years, I think even after I had stopped doing revisions, New American or Penguin decided it would be good to have an electronic version of the thesaurus. So they put the book on Kindle, but they didn’t do anything about cross-referencing. So, you have a book you’re supposed to kind of read like a novel, but that’s not what a thesaurus is. The only reason I found out about this is because they got a letter from a reader who said they had just bought the online thesaurus and wondered “What do I do now?” because there was no way to go from one place to another in the online version! I responded back to the reader and promised I would see if the publisher could do anything about this, which I’m sure they still haven’t. But the thesaurus is a wonderful thing in most languages. The Roget’s version is the version that I think is the most thorough in the world of any language.”

James: Language evolves. Over the decades that you worked on new editions of the dictionary, what were your criteria for adding a word? And did you ever remove words, and if so how did you make those decisions? Where in your judgment do you think a word goes from being colloquial to becoming part of the language and more bedrocky to the extent any word is bedrocky?

Philip: “That’s a judgment call for whoever is putting together the book. Now the big organizations, like Merriam Webster or Oxford, have whole departments to deal with this question. They are questioned by a lot of people outside about this, so they really have to justify their decisions on how a word is labeled or if it is included. I think that Merriam Webster and Oxford both put out annual lists of new words that they consider having arrived as part of the generally accepted vocabulary, but again it’s a judgment call. In my own case, when I was doing updates of the dictionary, I would base on my own experience and look through all sorts of sources, like Oxford and Merriam Webster, for new words. Then, on the basis of space and how much we wanted to enlarge the book, I would decide which words I thought were worthy of being added.” 

James: Before I read a poem by your dad, have there been any connections between your work as a lexicographer and your day job as a classical musician?

Philip: “For the most part, my professional paid work as a classical musician dealt with vocal music, either opera or song literature. In those fields, the sense of language is critical. For me, the most important thing about an opera or a song is the words. That’s not putting the music down, but if the words weren’t there, it wouldn’t mean anything. So, my language background was very important to my day-to-day work at the Lyric Opera.” 


My late grandfather, Albert H. Morehead, was also a prolific poet. I recited on this episode, and share below, a sestina he wrote one evening in an impromptu poetry writing competition with a friend. That he was able to produce such an accomplished sestina in just a couple of hours one evening is remarkable – the sestina is a poetic form I have yet to conquer.

Loving Rain
by Albert H. Morehead (1931)

There is music so great in the sound of the rain
Beating time on the slate of my roof as I write,
Though its thrills penetrate through my flesh to the lane
Of my veins, and elate me, its rhythmical might
Makes me feel that my Fate and the visions I’ve seen
In the rain indicate what the future may mean.

Much the fairies disclose; can I tell what they mean
From the water that flows, from the mists and the rain,
From the glistening snows? Many secrets I’ve seen
Where the rain-water glows. There the elves often write
Secret legends in prose. Ah, if only I might
Read the writing that shows in the mud-puddled lane!

Many nights I have spent ill at ease. I have lain
On my bed, discontent and with worrisome mien,
Feeling captured and pent, lacking strength, lacking might,
While the rain-clouds were rent and were pouring forth rain.
Had I followed my bent I’d have rushed to the scene
Of the rain, for absenting myself was not right.

And when skies are soft and blue, and the stars hold their rite,
Shining bright through and through in the infinite lane
Of the Heavens; though true be the thought that the scene
Is enchanted; though new and divine be the mien
Of the moon, where in lieu of the sun she may reign,
All I think of is dew, though there be but a mite.

Potent oracle, tell me one thing, if you might:
Is there water in Hell? If there’s not, is it right
To deprive men as well of the glorious rain?
Even damned folk who fell from God’s grace and have lain
Through the years in a cell in His dungeon so mean
Should be basted. I yell for this merciful scene.

Ah, the rain’s gentle tone seems to die, and I’ve seen
Nothing yet, I must own, though I’ve studied with might
For a sign on a stone of the hail that might mean
Something mystic. I groan, as I sit here and write,
For I’m left all alone, and I gaze down the lane
Still in ignorance. Flown is my dream, with the rain,

And my hopes, like the rain, can no longer be seen.
Have they passed down the lane, as a rivulet might?
Melancholy I write, and with tempest-racked mien.
Musician and Lexicographer Philip David Morehead

One thought on “Lexicographer Philip David Morehead on dictionaries and the evolution of language

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  1. This is a fascinating story of lexicographer and – as I have learned – an illustrious scholar and player of card games, especially Bridge. Thank you, James and Philip, for this precious interview.

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