March 19, 2005

Lexicographers are cool.

What's the coolest thing in this article about editing dictionaries?

1. Noah Webster was inventing American iconoclasm when he decided to oust the "u" from words like "glamour."

2. The first name of the author of the article is Strawberry.

3. Erin McKean, the new editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, while doing an interview in her office with NYT reporter Strawberry Saroyan, doesn't sit in a chair but sits on a black exercise ball and bounces.

4. An editor of the American Heritage Dictionary has a phonetic vowel chart tattooed on his back.

Ah, but now wait. This lexicographer coolness thing is all about marketing. The way they sell new dictionaries is by calling attention to all the new words they've located. So naturally, they need the kind of editors who can tune in to high tech terms and youth slang. Take McKean:
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.

Well, at least The Oldie got in there, so it's not all about youth. (The Oldie really is a pretty cool magazine, which I've had bookmarked for years.)

I'm sorry dictionaries are so focused on slang and high tech, even though I realize they need a way to convince you to buy a new edition. But I've bought a lot of dictionaries over the years, and I've never cared about which one had the most new words. I've cared about the presentation of the really useful words in the rich, beautiful vocabulary of the English language. How sharp is the usage advice? How clear are the distinctions between near synonyms? Is this book going help me see how to use words better?

It seems as though these dictionary people think the main use of a dictionary is to look up words you encounter while reading. I'm more likely to Google for definitions of such words. There seems to be a lack interest in the use of a dictionary for writing purposes. These new editors are all jazzed up about finding more and more new things, but I want a more insightful presentation of the the old -- the existing English vocabulary, which is always slipping out of our grasp.

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