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Author Archive: "Erin McKean"

Goodbye for Now (and a peek at the future)

Thank you very much for all your comments this week — I have really enjoyed bloviating and pontificating (I mean blogging) here!

I was thinking about making this last post something REALLY light and fluffy, like my favorite dictionary-related songs ("Dictionary" by Muckafurgason is probably pretty high on that list) or some words from my Weird and Wonderful Words books, but instead I'm going to talk about something else.

The death of the dictionary.

Whoa. I know, right? All week I've been cheery and bubbly and rah-rah-rah dictionaries YAY! and now (on Good Friday, of all days) I'm going to step right up and give some kind of eulogy for the very book I've been championing?

Well, I don't really think the dictionary is going to die. I think it's going to mutate. I think it's going to change. I've been working on dictionaries for a long time now (going on fourteen years) and sometimes I feel as if I have been feeding a caterpillar and watching it build a chrysalis.

Here's the thing: the dictionary is outgrowing its physical body, the book. There is so much information packed into a printed dictionary now that ...


These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

Part of the joy of working on reference books is finding really unusual reference books. Here are my top five (non-dictionary, non-thesaurus):

The Word Menu:
Really, this book is indispensible. I send it to people so often that I buy it in bulk. It's like a giant thesaurus of nouns — what other book will give you three pages of all the different names for kinds of underwear? A marvellous book for anyone who wants to call things by the right names.

The Encyclopedia of Associations:
This multivolume work is one to consult at your local library — it's very expensive, and updated every year. This is the best source (yes, better than the internet, Virginia) for finding out groups of people with special interests. It's wonderful for just browsing, too. Last time I checked there were groups devoted to armadillos, paper ephemera, and Ladies Opposed to Being Called Women.

The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:
This is where to go to find all the stuff you can't find in dictionaries. When someone makes an allusion that has you saying "Huh?" instead of "Aha!" this is what you turn to. For instance, if someone

...


What’s a Word Gotta Do to Get in This Joint, Anyway?

Lots of people (and by "lots" I mean roughly 99% of everyone I've ever spoken to) believe that the dictionary is a Who's Who of words. That it's like Ivy League college admissions. That only the really good words, the ones that have eaten all their spinach and who play the oboe and who get high scores on the SAT, make it into the dictionary. That the words that make it into the dictionary are somehow "realler" than the words that don't.

Well, that's not exactly true. It does take a bit of work to get a word into the dictionary, but inclusion in the dictionary is not an honor. The dictionary words are not more real than the words not in the dictionary. What they are is more USEFUL.

Think of the dictionary as less of a Social Register for words and more like a word general store. I am the manager of the word general store. Do I stock only words in my size? Only in the flavors I like? Only the words I wish people would use? No — I provide a wide selection of words for the use of all my customers. And ...


What Do Lexicographers Do All Day, Anyway?

In the comments to yesterday's rant, Trout asked:

I'd love to hear about how dictionaries are made, but I'm at least as curious about what a lexicographer actually does. I mean, once you get to work, then what?

Do you even "go" to work? As in, to an office? If so, do you spend long hours in a lab, staring deep into the nooks and crannies of old words to make sure they won't break down under the weight of modern expression? Do you gather in soundproof rooms, speaking new words aloud to determine how to spell them phonetically? Do you take field trips with colleagues to remote provinces to examine language in the wild? Do tell!

Well, because I am the Editor in Chief of Oxford's American dictionaries, and thus charged with herding lexicographers, I mainly answer email. Lots and lots and lots of email. And I plan out the books, which is like directing a military campaign, but with numbers of entries and new features as our targets and objectives. And I go talk to people about dictionaries, which I call "dictionary evangelism," and which certain other people call "Quick! Hide! Erin's coming!"

I like the "lab" ...


Introductory Lexicographical Rant

I'm really happy to be a Powell's guest blogger/guest lexicographer this week. I'm going to try posting a little bit about how dictionaries are made, a little bit about other reference books that are well worth your attention and shelf space, and a little bit of ranting. (Never turn down an opportunity to rant.)

In fact, maybe I'll start with a rant. I mentioned to a friend that I was going to be guest-blogging here, and he said, "You know everyone will be scared to comment on your posts, right? Because they'll be worried their English isn't 'good' enough?"

"Oh, HMOG," I said. (I like to use internet-chat abbreviations in spoken conversation, don't you? HMOG = "Holy Mother of God!") "Do I EVER correct anybody?"

"No," he said, "But they don't know that. They just know 'lexicographer.' If that."

So here's my official disclaimer. Comment away. I don't correct people's English unless I'm asked to (or unless you are my six-year-old son, and last time I checked, he wasn't reading blogs, much less commenting). That's because lexicographers ('people who make dictionaries' — there, I saved you from having to look it up) aren't Language Enforcers. They're Language ...


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