[Paleopsych] NYT: In Land of Lexicons, Having the Last Word

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In Land of Lexicons, Having the Last Word
March 19, 2005


    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 [1]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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