Editor’s Note: a version of this column appeared in Laughing on the Inside, by Tom Carpenter. Best Publishing, 1998.

I just got back from a convention of the American Dictionary Society. It is a biennial gathering of linguists and lexicographers held on the campus of my alma mater, The Biloxi School of Bartending.

Nobody lives closer to the razor’s edge than a lexicographer, but I’m pleased to report that this year no conventioneers were 86’d from any public houses for raucous spelling bees or for parsing gang graffiti scribbled on bathroom walls.

While the convention events were held on the campus of the BSB, most of the attendees stayed at the nearby Motel 6 Convention Center. There are two discernible types among lexicographers. The regular attendees typically dress in athletic sneakers, khaki slacks and T-shirts emblazoned with “Lex Party!” The newcomers are earnest professionals recognizable in their gray slacks and blue blazers with paperback dictionaries protruding from pockets.

The highlight of the convention this year, in my opinion, was the panel discussion, “Shall or Will—Who Still Cares?” I was surprised to find it was standing room only in sub-level 2 meeting room, Ocotillo E. I would have thought the “Data/Datum” debate would draw the biggest crowd. It was scheduled for the no-host bar in the cocktail lounge back at the motel, which I did attend, but most of the crowd was attracted to the belching contest and cannonball challenge in the motel pool.

Back at Ocotillo E, the panel was comprised of some of the most distinguished lexicographers in the immediate vicinity. Dr. Miles “The Butchmeister” Steinberger had been scheduled to serve as chair of the panel, but bowed out at the last minute citing an injury he suffered earlier in the day during his presentation on “Tattoos and Taboos: Transitive Verbs in Skin Art.” Johnny R. R. Murray, a self-proclaimed picker of nits, filled his place on the panel. Also on the panel were Dr. Sonja Sonja of MIT (The Milwaukee School of Talking) and Dr. Horace Kite, Professor Emeritus of the Language Institute of Pomona (LISP).

For those who have never attended a lexicographer’s usage panel, it is difficult to convey the chills generated by an erudite debate. Initially, the give and take between Sonja and Kite resembled a center-court match at Wimbledon. Unfortunately, while Mr. Murray did his best to focus the discussion, it took a detour. Leaving behind the discussion of “Shall or Will”, as well as the decorum commonplace among scholars, the discussion became one centered on a freewheeling demonstration of the uses of the efficacious “#——.”

Soon, it was “#—— this” and “#—— that.” “Who the #—— do you think you are?” and “who the #—— cares!”

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Shouts and catcalls rang from opposing factions in the audience. Someone released a stink bomb. Everyone poured through the exits. Outside, the factions began pushing and shoving. The air rang with chants of “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Barking dangling participles and split infinitives through their megaphones, the police dispersed the crowd without injury. Sullen conventioneers went back to their rooms.

The convention committee will review the feedback forms in preparation for the next convention to be held biennially, or two years from now; whichever comes first.


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