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CART-Wise: You are only as good as your dictionary

By Jennifer Porto
How many times have you been on a job and thought, “Why don’t I have that word in my dictionary?” For every easy job, there is that one job that humbles us when we quickly realize that we will never have enough words in our dictionary, nor will we ever write fast enough.
My story begins on the first day of a new semester. With my first glance — or whiff — of the professor, I knew this was not going to be a typical Bio 211 lecture class. The lanky professor kicked off his worn Birkenstocks as he unpacked his satchel of textbooks. Staring, I willed myself to look away.
Why does it smell like cinnamon and sweaty socks? I couldn’t take my eyes off of the brown cotton socks with snags where the buckles from his Birkenstocks rest. His frayed, multistained Levi’s made me wonder if he had worn these jeans while foraging for wild mushrooms. His hair mimicked a shorter version of Einstein’s.
The student whom I was writing for and I made our introductions. The professor asked if I had ever captioned a biology class. “Of course; no problem,” I told him.Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, I thought. Math, biology, chemistry, and the like are my favorite classes to caption.
I had done everything in my power to prepare, just as I do for all of the classes I am assigned. I create what seems like never-ending lists of words before each class. I knew that most of the words would be multisyllabic, so it would not be enough to merely put the words in my dictionary just once. I would stroke out each phonetic syllable over and over, creating new prefixes and suffixes.
I was 100 percent confident in my dictionary — until the professor began the PowerPoint presentation on the subjects to be covered during the semester.
The first time he said, “synapomorphy,” my fingers froze. I thought, Syn-nappy-what? I sat up straighter. I was repeating the syllables in my head as I cleanly stroked SEUPB/AP/PHOR/TPAOE, scolding myself, “Why don’t I have a brief for ‘morphy’? What did he say?” Words and syllables that I’ve never heard were whizzing past my ears like bullets in a combat zone. “Symplesiomorphy,” SIPL/PHRAEUZ-what? “Autapomorphy,” AUTwhat-PHOR/TPAOE. I knew I had to drop, but he was speaking so quickly that there was not a clean place to pick it up again. This is about when my self-talk got the best of me. He’s talking so fast! “Clades.” I write KLAEUD/Z, Thankfully, I knew that word would come up. “Cladogram,” Okay, I can get this word to come up too. Concentrating, I stroke, KHRAEUD/O/TKPWRAPL. “Cladogram.” Ugh, that’ll have to be good enough. I’m no longer rhythmically writing; rather, I’m pounding because my fingers feel like they have weights attached to them. I’m suddenly aware of the horrible acoustics in the auditorium. Is that the acoustics or is he mumbling? He’s mumbling. My thoughts were frantic now. Why is he walking around in holey socks? Stop mumbling.
When the professor finally spoke the words, “Okay. See you next week,” I inhaled deeply. I must have been holding my breath for what felt like the entire two-hour class. My legs were aching from pushing my feet hard into the floor to help me channel my concentration. Saving the transcript and turning off my computer, I thought about the tiresome task of editing the notes for the student. I knew I would be Googling every other word. There was only one positive thing I could be certain of: I was going to have a stellar dictionary at the end of the semester.
Briefs, unfortunately, were mostly of no use in this case except for a few. Synapomorphy came up often, so I used SAEUP. Most of the terminology changed weekly as the class progressed through the textbook; unfortunately, the only constant was the stinky, shoeless professor and his holey socks.
I am not the first reporter to be blown away by the terminology on a job. When we arrive at our jobs, while we will never know if we have a chair to sit in or if the environment around us will be a distraction, one thing we can be in control of is how well our dictionary is prepped. How do you make your dictionary better? To me, editing my transcripts and working on my dictionary are a priority. The better your dictionary is, the better you write because the words will, hopefully, come up on the first attempt; ultimately, your concentration will be better, and the job becomes less stressful. Prepping may be tedious, but having an idea of the terminology allows me to think less because I’m not struggling to write every word. I write faster and easier.
There are many things I do to find new words to build my dictionary. One of my rules is to look up every word before putting it in my dictionary to make sure I have the correct spelling, capitalization, whether it needs a hyphen, and so on. What good is a word in your dictionary if it is not correct? When you read the morning paper, novels, recipes — these are all resources to finding new words that are not in your dictionary. There are also a variety of lexicons that can be useful to finding terminology on specific topics. For
example, I had a job once that was discussing the Harry Potter books as they relate to Greek mythology. Do you have Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape in your dictionary? I didn’t.
For me, hearing the words as I realtime is the most efficient way. How many times have you phonetically entered a word by sight, and then realized the word is pronounced differently than the way you phonetically stroked it? It happens to me all the time when I’m inputting words from the lecture’s PowerPoint. I use websites such as Khan Academy, YouTube, and TED Talks for dictionary-building resources. You can search almost any topic and listen to lectures and speeches to help you practice writing the words.
While in school, we are so focused on building our speed that we don’t spend a lot of time building our dictionaries. I believe it is our duty to provide the best realtime possible for our students and/or clients. One of the greatest aspects of our job is that it is different every day. There are always a multitude of situations where we must be flexible and solve problems on the fly, but you are in control of your dictionary before you walk through that door. Ask yourself: Aside from editing, how much time do I spend researching words? Can I watch the news and know that every word said is in my dictionary, if just for one minute? Try it.
Jennifer Porto is a CART provider in the Southern California area. She can be reached at