[Paleopsych] NYT: In Land of Lexicons, Having the Last Word
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Thu Apr 14 19:05:34 UTC 2005
In Land of Lexicons, Having the Last Word
March 19, 2005
By STRAWBERRY SAROYAN
CHICAGO - Erin McKean answered the door to her brick apartment
building in the Lincoln Square neighborhood here wearing a casual
outfit accented by bright, pink-framed glasses and a pair of beat-up
black-and-white Converse sneakers. She led a visitor down the wending
stairs to her basement office, where she proceeded to sit down - or
rather bounce - on a black exercise ball.
"Drink?" she asked. She brought the beverage in a neon-blue glass.
Might Ms. McKean be an escapee from a local version of Cirque du
Soleil? A young woman in the throes of suspended adolescence?
Hardly. She is one of the youngest editors in chief of one of the "Big
Five" American dictionaries: At 33, she is in charge of the Oxford
American Dictionary. (The others are American Heritage,
Merriam-Webster, Webster's New World and Encarta.) She was appointed
last year, and the first Oxford dictionary created under her auspices
will hit stores next month. And she is not alone. Ms. McKean is part
of the next wave of top lexicographers who have already or may soon
take over guardianship of the nation's language, and who disprove
Samuel Johnson's definition of a lexicographer as "a harmless drudge."
They include Steve Kleinedler, 38, who is second in command at
American Heritage and has a phonetic vowel chart tattooed across his
back; Grant Barrett, 34, project editor of The Historical Dictionary
of American Slang, whom Ms. McKean describes as looking as if he'd
just as soon fix a car as edit a dictionary; and Peter Sokolowski, 35,
an associate editor at Merriam-Webster and a professional trumpet
player. Jesse Sheidlower, 36, editor at large of the Oxford English
Dictionary, is best known among the group so far, partly because he is
also editor of "The F-Word," a history of that vulgar term's use in
English. He is known for his bespoke English suits, too.
Such personalities are not entirely new in this small but competitive
field, which comprises about 200 full-time English-language
lexicographers - 400, if academic and scholarly dictionaries are
included. Noah Webster cut quite a swath through East Coast society
and attracted more than his share of controversy when he invented
American spellings of English words like "glamour." (He left out the
But some say today's rise of young, hip lexicographers reflects
changes in the culture at large. The computer revolution has given her
tech-savvy generation an edge in many arenas, Ms. McKean said, but
particularly in a highly digitized profession like lexicography. She
added that she regarded people who weren't online as she would "people
who didn't have electricity or running water."
Sidney I. Landau, a former editor of Cambridge Dictionaries and the
author of "Dictionaries: The Art And Craft of Lexicography" (and at
71, a member of an older generation), said a shift in people's
interests had also played a part. "In the early part of the 20th
century, science and technology were very big in terms of marketing
dictionaries, and they'd make claims about having 8,000 words dealing
with electricity or mechanics," he explained. But now, he added, "I
think there has been a shift in terms of recognizing the importance of
youth culture and slang." In other words, people like Mr. Barrett, who
marvels at a term like "ghetto pass," which refers to street
credibility for nonblacks, are in demand. He can trace its mainstream
usage back to the hip-hop artist Ice Cube in 1991.
John Morse, the publisher and president of Merriam-Webster, said many
young lexicographers had a natural social aptitude that helped them
rise in the field. "I think if you go back 20 or 30 years, dictionary
editors kind of sat in their office, did what they were supposed to
do," he said. "But what we realized - at least what I realized about
10 years ago - is that we needed to put a public face on dictionaries.
Editors needed to be engaging with the public. And I think that
activity is something younger editors stepped up to." Ms. McKean often
appears on public radio talking about words, and she has been dubbed
"America's lexicographical sweetheart" by National Public Radio's
program "Talk of the Nation."
Despite such generational changes, Ms. McKean said the tasks of
dictionary editors were basically the same today as they had been
throughout history. "Lexicographers are language reporters," she said,
and estimated that the "news" entering dictionaries - that is, new
words and new meanings of existing words - can number as few as 100 a
year or as many as 2,500 if a revision covers five years.
To find new words, Ms. McKean said she subscribed to 60 magazines,
including The Oldie, a British publication for the elderly; The New
Scientist; and Entertainment Weekly. She also watches television shows
like "The OC," which she said was known for being linguistically
playful. She also relies on her staff, freelancers, a group of four or
five people she calls the "friends of the dictionary" and even small
talk at cocktail parties.
Mr. Sheidlower said the O.E.D. (which shares its databases with the
O.A.D.) had a more comprehensive approach. It has several "reading
programs," composed of dozens of people, chiefly volunteers, who scout
out changes in the language, and hundreds of paid consultants in
specialized fields who report on changes in their areas. (Other
dictionaries and lexicographers have their own approaches, but they
generally echo those of Ms. McKean and Mr. Sheidlower's divisions.)
To help decide if a word is ready to be entered into the lexicon, many
lexicographers Google new terms. (So popular is this Internet search
engine that its name has become a verb in general use - and will
appear as such in the new O.A.D. next month.) They also look them up
in their company's corpus, a database of citations of new words, and
in outside databases like www.americannationalcorpus.org. Each
company has its own guidelines for the number and breadth of citations
necessary to qualify words for dictionary inclusion, but Ms. McKean
said gut feelings sometimes come into play.
One big difference for this generation is the computerization of word
databases. Before, Mr. Landau said, "Merriam-Webster had a collection
of six million slips of paper on which were typed little quotations
from language taken from texts, newspapers and magazines, so if a
definer wanted to define 'absurd,' he or she could pull these slips of
paper from file drawers and spread them out."
The downside of the new ease with which citations can be found, Ms.
McKean said, is that words sometimes enter the dictionary too quickly.
"We occasionally take words out," she said. "We thought they were
working, and they just ended up not." She cited the term "information
superhighway," which was removed from the new edition of the O.A.D.,
explaining, "People aren't using it as much, and if they are, they're
using it in a jokey way."
This generation of lexicographers is also increasingly diverse, and
Mr. Landau noted more powerful women in the field in particular. Chief
among them is Ms. McKean. After giving a visitor a more complete tour
of her office - which included bookshelves lined with titles, among
them "The Joy of Lex," and previewing a circle skirt she was sewing of
fabric printed with letters - she displayed a touch of
anthropomorphism, saying, "I try not to play favorites with words
because they get their feelings hurt."
But like her peers, she is also well educated and serious about
learning itself. And though there is no well-marked path to becoming a
dictionary editor, Ms. McKean said she had wanted to be one since she
was 8 and read an article about the legendary lexicographer Robert
Burchfield, who oversaw the second edition of the Oxford English
Mr. Sheidlower said that Burchfield's level of excellence was what he
and his peers aspired to, and that if they reached it, it would come
from their love for language. "I wear suits," he said, "and Erin wears
these funky glasses, but most of the time you are sitting in an office
looking at a computer screen. So you have to really like it.
Otherwise, you're going to go nuts."
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