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A Chat With Erin McKean

Date:July 20, 2005, 6 PM Pacific (GMT -7)
[July 21, 1 AM GMT]
Topic:Dictionary making
Duration:One hour

Erin McKean is the Editor in Chief of US Dictionaries for Oxford University Press, and the editor of Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, the only magazine for word geeks. She is the author of Weird and Wonderful Words and More Weird and Wonderful Words. She lives in Chicago with her husband, her son, four computers, and three sewing machines.

Transcript

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Welcome to the fifteenth online chat at Wordsmith.Org! This chat is moderated. Questions and comments typed by the participants go to the moderator who will forward them to all participants.

Our guest today is Erin McKean, Editor in Chief of US Dictionaries for Oxford University Press. She is also the editor of Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, and author of Weird and Wonderful Words and More Weird and Wonderful Words. She is joining us from Chicago.

Welcome, Erin!

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Nice to be here, Anu!

Ken - Illinois
Just to get the ball rolling -- if you want a question -- Erin, comment on the reception of your two weird words books?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Hmm. I'd say "wonderful", but that's in the titles ... no, seriously, people have really gotten into them. They email me with suggestions (or quibble that if *they* know the words, the words aren't weird!)

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
Erin, I read in a NY Times article that you decided you wanted to be a dictionary editor at age 8. We're curious about your parents -- were/are they involved in lexical/linguistic pursuits?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
No -- my mom was a SAHM/art teacher, and my dad is in sales. Coffee, pantyhose, you name it. Now he sells EMT software.

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
What's SAHM?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Oh, sorry. A "stay at home mom". It's a fairly common abbreviation -- it's on my watch list for OAD. The counterpart is SAHD -- "stay at home dad".

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
Do you and Jesse S work together? And how do you decide which entry will go into either the OAD, the OED or both?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I'm lucky enough to get to work with Jesse, although we don't work on the same dictionaries -- he's OED, I'm Oxford American. We have independent editorial processes, for the most part, although I think more information flows from the OED to the OAD than the other way around -- it's a function of how big the OED is compared to the OAD!

Roger - US
Were words and language a common topic around the dinner table?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Hmmm. It's hard to say. My mom was a big reader (we used to each go through a book a day, when I was growing up). My parents never did anything but encourage me -- sent me to Latin fora (NJCL), arranged for me to take classes at a local college when I asked. Couldn't have asked for more, really!

Lauren - US
I'm interested in the proscriptive/descriptive language issue - what are your parameters and considerations, for the OAD and personally? Would you talk about this a little, and if it is still an issue or resolved in the industry?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Sure! The OAD (and most other major dictionaries) takes the position that dictionaries are recorders of language, not guardians of it. We describe what people actually say and write, and not what we think they should say and write. However, our responsibility INCLUDES making sure people know that certain words and usages are often frowned upon. We have usage note after usage note, at all the big sticking points: hopefully, disinterested, who/whom ... you name it. Personally, of course there are words that bug me ... but long ago I realized that I shouldn't correct people unless they asked me to!

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
Are there any college degrees around nowadays for lexicographers? I'm thinking about how Will Shortz created his own major at Indiana U : cruciverbalist.

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
There aren't any that I know of, although schools here and there teach classes. There are some at UGa. There are several MA-level programs in Europe.

Ken - Illinois
Can you comment on how computerization will, in the long term, affect the structure, usages, and preparations of dictionaries?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
It will make (and has been making) dictionaries BETTER. Faster, probably not so much. The more you have to look at, the better the books get, but the more you have to look at, the slower you go!

Ken - Illinois
An oddball question: are you aware of any errors in the Weird Words books?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Yes! The word limerence is put in as limerance. Or vice-versa. There's an errant vowel there. And there might be a typo or two. (My fault -- the manuscript editor was great!)

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
As you said, Erin, I wonder if it doesn't depend on the dictionary -- M-W is preferred by copy editors, while AHD and your OAD are more descriptivist?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I think that, although M-W is certainly a fine dictionary, and has lots of great people working on it, there's a problem of entrenchedness in the question of preference. People prefer what they have learned. However, I've not met a copy editor yet that limits herself or himself to just one dictionary ... I was emailed by two copy editors today!

Lauren - US
What are the biggest issues among professionals in preparing dictionaries today? Were you to gather, what would the lively topics be?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
We just had our conference in Boston in June. There were a lot of papers (mine one of them) on using language corpora. We have to do it -- there's just no choice. We have to look at the living language and corpora are it. It's like diagnosing diseases from patients or corpses -- you learn so much more from a living thing.

bingley
Do lexicographers from different dictionaries mix much? Do you consult each other on knotty points?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Well, we have a conference every other year (2007 in Chicago!). We're really friendly, for the most part. I don't think we have time to consult on knotty points, but I do remember getting an email from a friend at another book who (when several countries were voting on the Euro) said that if any of them changed he would be very upset -- he had just finished the whole currency set! (Oh, lexicographer's problems. So very first world.)

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
(Could be worse -- you could be a cartographer)

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I often say that being a lexicographer is like mapping the language.

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
Could you explain "language corpora"?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Sure. First of all, check out AmericanNationalCorpus.org. That's the site for the American corpus project. A corpus is a large (millions and millions of words) collection of running text with the purpose of providing a lot of data to look at. Running text means that you're not just pulling out fancy examples -- you're looking at the whole picture.

Does that make sense? I can go on (and on and on).

Roger - US
What about how computers have changed language? Spell-checkers, etc....

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I don't think that spellcheckers have changed the language so much ... computers have made us think that they are better readers than they are. They're still a long way off.

bingley
At what point do you decide a word is common enough to warrant inclusion or just an idiosyncrasy of a small group?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
We decide on a need-to-know basis: that is: will people other than this in-group ever need to know a word? It doesn't have to be strict utilitarianism; sometimes they might like to know a word just for entertainment value. Does anyone know the word "farb"? That's a good example of a word on the brink.

bingley
Never heard of farb (but then I'm not an American, anyway). What does it mean?

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
"Farb" sounds like "color" auf Deutsch.... ?

Ken - Illinois
OK, i'll bite. what's farb? :-)

Roger - US
Heh. Just looked up farb. So you think it will spread from re-enactments?

Roger - US
See farb.

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I don't know if farb will spread from re-enactors! But I'm willing to be it will. It means "not authentic, badly done" or someone who is inauthentic in their re-enacting. Fun word, huh?

Ken - Illinois
Are there any groups whose patois you feel is underincluded and merits serious work? Black slang, for instance? Others?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Everyone's patois, or dialect, or what-have-you is both under-researched AND worthy of inclusion and work. The fields of language research are wide open. We could always use more. That said, I think we really need a historical dictionary of African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

Ken - Illinois
How do you reconcile these two facts: 1) words are not added unless they have sufficient usage, but 2) the original OED includes thousands of words for which there is only a single non-dictionary cite, or none at all?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Oh -- good question. There's a difference between the editorial philosophy of the OAD and the OED -- the OED is for pure collection, of everything they can get their hands on! The OAD, being so much, much, much smaller is like a well-organized toolbox. Not every tool every made, but the ones that you really will need to use.

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
Has AAVE replaced Ebonics, then, as the term of choice?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Linguists prefer AAVE, as being less emotionally charged. Although there was a good post on Language Log (www.languagelog) this week by John McWhorter about the acceptance of Ebonics as a term.

Roger - US
I'm remembering that there were small, Matchbox style cars in the early 70s called "Farbs". I'll have to look those up, too... See farb.

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Probably no connection. But you never know ...

Glen - U.S.
Perhaps Farbs were poorly done Matchbox knockoffs?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Do people have words that they want to suggest go in the dictionary? Other than 'farb' which is already on the watch list? You can always email suggestions to dictionaries@oup.com.

bingley
We often hear complaints about American English taking over in other parts of the world. How much recent influence have you noticed from other Englishes on American English

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Well, I haven't heard anyone but lexicographers talk about "chavs" so I'm not sure how much there really is. Or if I would think, "Oh, that's NZ English," or "Oh, that's South African English" unless it were really obvious.

Lauren - US
Are there specific individuals or sources that you recognize as wellsprings - or look to for new words? (beyond the corpora, which I'll look into more off-line)

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
One great thing about being an OUP lexicographer is that I can rely on the lexicographers of the other English dialects to let me know of what they find. (To tie into the last question.)

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
If the movie "The Professor and the Madman" ever gets produced, who should play the title roles?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
For new words, I read like mad and also troll the Internet(s). And there are people who send me words, for which I am always grateful!

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
And for the movie ... hmm, I haven't cast it, even in my head!

Ken - Illinois
What would you say distinguish OAD from the plenitude (plethora) of existing dictionaries? Why should someone rush out and buy OAD? (smile -- here's your chance for a sales pitch)

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Thanks! Well, for one thing, the access to the Oxford databank of more than 200 million words and for another, the completely new arrangement of entries. Instead of arranging definitions in historical order, or by order of frequency, OAD is done in a core-sense, sub-sense arrangement. This means that related meanings within parts of speech are grouped together. You have to see it to understand how cool this is. You can follow figurative or logical extensions of a word's meaning without jumping all over the place! You can navigate the entries so quickly!

Roger - US
What about Harry Potter? Have those words had an influence?

Ken - Illinois
A new Harry Potter book was released Saturday, so perhaps it's appropriate to ask you if you have any comments on Rowling's use of the language?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
VERBATIM printed a whole article, a couple years back, on Wizard Words -- the Language of Harry Potter. It should be up at our website, or googleable -- I gave a lot of reprint permissions for it. I'm in favor of interesting new words in general (and I'm waiting for my copy of the new book to come from Amazon.co.uk)!

bingley
Have you got the fan fiction sense of 'slash'?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Yes, we do! And I'm running an article in VERBATIM in a couple of issues about fanfiction terms in general.

Roger - US
Do you find the UK versions of HP to be quite different than the US version?

bingley
What do you think of the decision to 'translate' the Harry Potter books from UK English to US English?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
A little different. Mainly, I bought a British version of the first one and now I must have them all matching. It's a thing. The main difference is you miss one joke: in the UK editions, they have "spellotape" which only makes sense if you know that they call "scotch tape" "cellotape." ...

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I figure Scholastic knows what it is doing, in terms of reaching the biggest market for the Potter books (aka EVERY LIVING HUMAN).

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
Speaking of rarely heard words, have you heard of "geehawing", meaning "meshing with"?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Never! I like it! ::scribbling it down::

MaxQ NZ
How much presence do non-US flavours of English have in US editions of OUP works? Especially South Asian and Antipodean English?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
We keep in as much as we can, especially words that would make it into popular culture (terms of abuse, food, cultural terms). Not so much the sports terms and flora and fauna, sadly. It's a space problem, mostly.

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
Back to your comment on corpora (I studied linguistics back in the 70s when all our resources were brick n mortar): I don't understand how to use AmericanNationalCorpus.org... is it a subscriber-only site?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
You can't look up things in the corpus yet online, because of licensing issues. The site will tell you about the project, and (hint hint) how to donate your text for the common lexicographic good!

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
A newbie at AWAD brought "geehawing" up. It has a very small Google base, but he claims it is more widely used off line. You could check it out at Wordsmith Talk

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I will! Thanks!

Roger - US
Is there a field that tends to spawn more new words than others? Such as sports, or music?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
The field that spawns the most new words is the one you happen to be studying at the time. Seriously. I've never known any field of human endeavor (that was ongoing) to NOT come up with new words.

Ken - Illinois
You're grateful to those who send you words? Great! How would we do so?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Send them to dictionaries@oup.com! You might get a form email back ("Thank you ...") or a request for more info. Please look up your word in OAD before you send, if you can! Otherwise you'll get the "I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that your word is already in the New Oxford American Dictionary ..." email!

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
People who send us a lot of words will get free pens and sticky notes!

Anu Garg (Moderator)
What advice would you give to someone who aspires to be a lexicographer?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I think you have to really love getting into the guts of the language up to your elbows. It's messy and illogical and there's a lot of duck tape involved. Learn about computers; they're your friends. Have a good grounding in basic linguistics, as well as grammar. Read quickly! Read a lot!

Lauren - US
Building on Anu's question, how large of a professional (paid) team do you work with and what percentage are volunteers/volunteered information?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
We have a very small permanent full-time paid staff, a larger group of dedicated freelancers, and only a couple volunteers that are specific to the OAD. Worldwide, of course, Oxford has an enormous number of lexicogs, comparatively, and many many more volunteers. We're hoping to encourage more volunteers who are interested in specifically American dictionaries.

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
Duck tape! Do you believe that is the original form?

Ken - Illinois
Quote: "there's a lot of duct tape". How do you personally stand on the ducktape-vs-ducttape issue? (he asked facetiously)

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I only use Duck Brand duct tape. :-)

Lauren - US
How do you approach all of the newly-coined works in IT/computer industry, many of which are simply acronyms? Is there a staying-power / length of time words must pop up in usage to consider?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
It's the same rule: is it really useful to people outside the field? Will it spread? Who needs to know this word? I'm not against a good acronym, especially if it's useful. We put RTFM in the latest edition, as well as plenty of others.

Roger - US
What about swearing? is there more acceptance of that now?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I think there's more acceptance of profanity as a rhetorical device. It's like weaponry: when everyone is dropping the f-bomb then you are in an arms race of expression, and you have to keep up. It's just as effective, though, sometimes, to use very high diction to show your strong emotion or displeasure!

MaxQ NZ
What do you see as the major lexicological differences between US English, and the rest, especially as India cements its place as the largest English-speaking country on Earth?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I think it's all in the collocations. It's the little words that give things away. Think of the difference between "in the hospital" and "in hospital"!

Selvakumaran-India
Why silent alphabets are required in words. e.g "k" in knife?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
They're historical accidents -- the appendices of words. Also, they balance the words across the letters of the alphabet better.

Roger - US
Is there upward mobility for volunteers? ;¬ )

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Well, we've just started, but I'd be surprised if there weren't!

bingley
Do you find that your work on the OAD and with Verbatim complement each other or do they clash sometimes?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
They complement about 99% of the time, and the 1% is mostly that OAD keeps me so busy that VERBATIM deadlines slip (the Spring issue STILL hasn't gone to the printer). I've signed VERBATIM writers to Oxford book contracts and printed VERBATIM articles from Oxford writers -- it's nice to have a right-size forum for whatever size work they have to disseminate.

MaxQ NZ
Thanks for the comment about high diction as a substitute for the "f-bomb" (another phrase I'm going to steal.

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
Try it sometime: icily formal will cool anyone else's heat.

Selvakumaran-India
John is the second son of Mark. I would like to ask Mark, is John your second son without making any assumptions like Is John your second son. How do I ask it? In my native language "Tamil" I ask it as "John is ur "ethanavathu" son?" where the question in raised in the middle. Why there are no such type of question that can be raised in the middle of the sentence in English when they are there in other languages?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
And don't forget gratuitously polysyllabic. That works too.

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I'm afraid I don't know enough Tamil (okay, ANY Tamil) to be able to make a good comparison between it and English. I'm sorry.

Lauren - US
With New York the self-acclaimed US Lit-city and California creating many words, how did you end up in Chicago (not to imply that it isn't quite a city)

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I came here to go to college (University of Chicago) and never left ... it's so easy to live in Chicago (and I get to travel to NYC quite often, which is nice). It's easy to get a lot of work done when you work from home.

MaxQ NZ
Which non-English language has had the biggest single impact on US English, in your opinion?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
It depends on the time period you want to focus on. There are arguments to be made for French, Latin, even Old Norse (as another Wordsmith.org chatter, Joe Pickett, pointed out). OUP has a great new book out, Word Origins by Anatoly Liberman, that explains HOW to do etymology -- it goes into a lot of detail about "feeder" languages for English.

Roger - US
Do you think there is more of a "Hobby-class" linguist today than say 50 or 100 years ago?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I think so! There's more dissent over what's wrong and what's right, and there are better tools for mucking around with data. I'd say "pro-am" though, not "hobbyist". :-)

MaxQ NZ
Thanks for the tip. I was more interested in those languages that have influenced specifically US English, rather than the family of bastards that is global English

Selvakumaran-India
the short forms of words in emails n chats r widely used n r understood by many. y no efforts taken to make this part of modern English or classify them as Internet English?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
I was going to type this whole thing in l337 but I refrained. We have been watching Internet abbreviations and several OUP dictionaries have SMS or texting appendices, but nothing in the A-Z of the dictionary as yet. Still waiting and watching!

Anu Garg (Moderator)
And that was our last question for today. Thank you, Erin, for being here today and thanks to all the participants.

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
You're very welcome! Thanks for the great questions -- this has been tons of fun.

Roger - US
Thanks, Erin! And Anu!

Ken - Illinois
Anu, please allow us to thank you for running this chat.

Glen - U.S.
Thanx.

Selvakumaran-India
Thnx, Erin.

AnnaS&Faldage - Ithaca NY redux
Thank you for coming, Erin.

Garrick - U.S.
Thank you.

Selvakumaran-India
n thnx Anu for arranging this.

Lauren - US
Thank you Erin and Anu.

MaxQ NZ
Thanks, it's been very informative, and great fun.


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