DictionaryEdit: back-form. < Editor

Conundrums and their cousins form one of the many backdrops to most of our upbringings: Which came first – the chicken or the egg? Don’t put the cart before the horse. Existence precedes essence. Something cannot come of nothing. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, how many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?

In a New Yorker cartoon from a few years back, a chicken and an egg are sitting up in bed, discreetly covered and smoking post-coital cigarettes. One of the figures – we can’t for certain tell which – says, “Well, that answers that.”

And so the conundrum continues . . . as it should. Webster’s New World Dictionary (third edition) lists fifty-five pages of words that begin with co, many (but not all) of them directly linked to that familiar-unto-invisibility prefix’s definitions: together; mutually; equally; joint or jointly.

Will Rogers famously said that everything he knew he learned from the newspaper, and the fact that this could not have been true is, paradoxically, a vital part of what makes it so true-seeming and interesting. I’m strongly inclined toward making a similar claim for my own brain’s contents, substituting for “newspaper” the word “dictionary.” As I wrote that sentence I was enticed toward grabbing my dictionary and looking up dictionary, but I resisted because of other fish that need frying before either you or I get too hungry. Still, something about frying pans and fires leaps to mind as part of my resisting.

However, I’ll turn instead to what I turned to before beginning this riff: the page in myWebster’s that includes editor and its cognates. (Cognate: “related through the same source; derived from an original form” – and, though this isn’t a part of the official entry, “begins withco.”) I love dictionaries so much, I suspect, because they can always confirm and/or dispel and/or augment what I think I know or am. See here: I have occasion virtually every day of my life to think or to be told that I am an editor. So, today, out comes the very good book, which tells me the following about editor: “a person who edits; often, specif., one whose work is procuring and editing manuscripts.” And the etymology? “L < editus, pp. of edere, to give out, publish
< e-, out + dare, to give.”

Two stages, procuring and editing. Sounds right to me, but I’ve got to look at edit as well, since I am “a person who” does that. Edit: “to prepare (an author’s works, journals, letters, etc.) for publication, by selection, arrangement, and annotation; to review and make ready (a manuscript) for publication; to supervise the publication of and set policy for (a newspaper, periodical, reference book, etc.).” And then the matter of etymology: “back-form. <EDITOR.” (Note the period, please: “back-form.” is short for “back-formation,” which Webster’s defines as “a word that actually formed from, but seeming to be the base of, another word.”)

I’m picking up some sounds here: chickens squawking and scratching around inside carts, eggs rolling around under the hooves of horses. What I am is defined by what I do; what I do grows out of – is “back-formed by” – what I am. Confusion threatens, and damage is possible.

“Well, that answers that . . . not.”

The procuring part is the privilege, at least for a literary editor. (Procure: “[[ME procuren < MFrprocurer, to procure < L procurare, to take care of, attend to < pro– + curare, to attend to <cura, care.”) The manuscripts flow in, day after day and year after year, on what feels like a self-perpetuating stream – and “all” I have to do is identify the works I love and therefore want to share with other readers. The etymology (“origin and development”) of my literary taste is, like everyone else’s, complex and only partly identifiable – and, for present purposes, irrelevant except for the fact of its existence. The aforementioned privilege lies with my being allowed to use my taste to create what I hope will be enjoyable and useful gifts: issues of The Georgia Review.

The editing part, the preparing for publication, is also a privilege – but of a different order. Consider, as a potential analogy, the differences between respect and love. Although I often grumble to myself and to my Review colleagues about the low quality and the indistinguishableness of so much of the writing that comes our way for consideration, I am – as I have had occasion to say frequently and to write numerous times elsewhere – respectful of virtually all people who are moved to examine themselves and the world via written language. (A great other tale remains to be written about that phrase “virtually all,” but not today.) Ergo, I must respect nearly all writing – but, one possible motto for an editor could be “Respect for All, Love for a Few.” What I love is what I want to publish; I want to publish what I love.

Respect is essentially externalized, intellectualized, and thereby distanced. Love is internalized, emotionalized – try to use a fancy word now and then – and thereby in close. I have to feel that closeness to a piece of writing to want to, and to be able to, “prepare it for publication.” My reading of a poem, story, or essay has to pull me in, almost literally, so that I gain the kind of connection with the work that will allow me not only to love it as a reader but also to engage with it as a sympathetic, useful shadow of the writer – which action might, I would argue, constitute a further definition of editor.

An accomplished and famous (all things being relative) living American poet is on record as believing that editors ought to leave his/her and other good writing alone – ought, in other words, to procure and publish. This view makes me sad, and not just because Webster’s says “procure and prepare” and I like falling back on dictionaries. No, I am saddened because this writer is closing off options, is missing bets, is putting him/herself above the work. (Nobodyreally cares about Shakespeare; we care about the plays and the sonnets.) An author sends me a wonderful poem or story or essay into which he or she has put, presumably, one hundred percent of the effort involved so far. I push back with ideas about altering perhaps one or two percent of that whole so as to make the other ninety-eight or ninety-nine even better – i.e., even closer to what I believe they were intended to be in the first place. (Even X nods.) That’s preparation. That’s editing. That’s my job, which is a back-form of what I am – which is then, I guess, a front-form of what I do.

I note that Webster’s does not include an entry for “front-form.” Apparently even my favorite book’s editors need some editing.

I’ll get on that next.

Stephen Corey is the editor of The Georgia Review, with which he has worked since 1983; prior to that, he co-founded, co-edited, and edited The Devil’s Millhopper, an independent poetry magazine, from 1976-1983. He is the author of ten poetry collections, most recently There Is No Finished World (White Pine Press, 2003), and his poems, essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in a range of periodicals. Since 2005 he has served as editor-in-residence for the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.

[Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in Soundings, the quarterly newsletter of the Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.]