Last fall, I had the opportunity to edit a somewhat different genre for me, but still within the scholarly realm: a 168-page English glossary of Nahuatl words, phrases, and place names, including some Hispanicized words derived from Nahuatl.
As a linguist who has spent countless hours consulting dictionaries over the years, and with an academic interest in historical linguistics and language-teaching materials, I jumped at the chance to put this massive list of words in consistent and consultable order.
What Is a Glossary?
First of all: What is a glossary, and how does it differ from a dictionary? According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (12th ed.), a glossary is “an alphabetical list of words relating to a specific subject, text or dialect, with explanations.”
So, a glossary contains a list of chosen words found in a specific text, unlike a dictionary, which lists all words. In the case of a bilingual glossary, a list of words in one language are defined in a second language. (And of course I can’t omit mentioning that the word glossary ultimately derives from the ancient Greek word glossa, meaning “tongue” or “language.”)
I originally thought that since it was in a list format, and not full sentences, this work would go much faster than a regular edit of a scholarly text. But I was completely wrong! It took me twice as long as copy editing scholarly prose with documentation, even though the glossary is based on a text that I am very familiar with, since I had already edited the main text (the English translation of a sixteenth-century Spanish text).
Some of the extra time required may also have to do with the fact that the original manuscript required many decisions to be made regarding format and consolidation of entries (and sometimes addition of entries), as well as much searching throughout the document.
10 Glossary-Editing Elements: A Case Study
Here are ten specific tasks involved in editing this glossary and elements I had to look out for:
1. Reviewing and reordering the terms according to letter-by-letter alphabetization, as the original glossary had been alphabetized word-by-word.
2. Devising a consistent format for presenting the main terms and their variant spellings (in this case, in bold), linguistic notes (e.g., etymology), literal translations, and main definitions within the entries, and ensuring that the punctuation within the entries remained consistent for each element.
3. Cross-checking throughout the glossary any word used within the definitions that also appears as a main term itself, to ensure that the spelling is consistent throughout all entries.
4. Consolidating repetitive terms or variant spellings of the same term into one entry and properly listing the variants.
5. Maintaining the definition only at the entry for the singular form of a term, when the plural form of the word also had its own entry as a term.
6. Double checking that all glossary terms were actually used in the main text.
7. Making sure that the glossary terms match the spelling and capitalization of how they are presented in the main text. The fact that I had copy edited the main text and had developed an extensive style sheet that included terms and names was a huge help in this regard and a welcome resource.
8. When definitions did not ring true, finding the use of the term in question in the main text to ensure that the glossary definition indeed coincided with the description in the main text.
9. Checking all Latin genus and species names of plants and animals used in definitions, because they were not always spelled correctly (and making sure that they were italicized, as indicated by the chosen style guide).
10. Performing regular copy-editing tasks on the definitions and explanations, such as correcting capitalization, spelling, and punctuation, and adjusting expression as needed.
As you can imagine, this work required a lot of searching up and down, back and forth, throughout the glossary text.
Similarities to Indexing
And I realized that I also seemed to be using some of my indexing skills!
For example, a term or name derived from another term on the list would require a “see” cross-reference to the base term, so as to avoid repeating definitions unnecessarily and to highlight the relationship between the two terms.
Also, similar to choosing main entries and subentries in indexing, here I frequently had to choose a main glossary term under which variant spellings—originally listed as their own main entries—needed to be moved.
Likewise, when the plural form of a singular term was listed as its own entry, it was sufficient to indicate in the entry only that it was the plural form of the already-listed singular form, since the main definition did not have to be listed twice. This felt much like cross-referencing in indexing.
Such similarities are actually not surprising, since both a glossary and a back-of-book index provide a list of words based on the main text, which aids the reader in accessing or understanding the main text.
As this was the first lengthy glossary that I have edited, I don’t know if editing other glossaries would be as complicated, time-consuming, or involved as this one. But I now understand the unique set of issues to be considered when approaching the glossary genre and look forward to more of this type of work.
Have you worked on a new genre recently that let you gain new experience? Or are you preparing a text for publication that may benefit from including a glossary?
I am Carla DeSantis, and welcome to my blog! I love language and words and books, and have turned this love into a business, helping others to perfect their written message.