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A Chat With Wendalyn Nichols

Wendalyn Nichol's picture
Date:Jan 31, 2001
Topic:World of words: Keeping Up With New Words in Dictionaries
Duration:One hour



Wendalyn Nichols is the Editorial Director of Random House Reference. She has a B.A. in Linguistics and European Studies from Seattle Pacific University, and an M.Phil. from Oxford University in European Literature. She taught composition, remedial English, and English as a Second Language for a number of years in the US and UK before becoming a lexicographer. She spent several years with Longman Dictionaries in Harlow, England, and joined Random House in January 1998. She is one of the Mavens at Words@Random.

Transcript of the Chat

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Welcome to the fourth online chat at Wordsmith! Wendalyn Nichols, Editorial Director of Random House Reference is our guest speaker today.

Welcome, Wendy!

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Thanks! It's Wendi, actually.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Sorry!

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
One of those junior high school whims--had to be different.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Could you describe how a word gets into the dictionary?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
We have a list all the time of about 1,000 words that we track. Around 100 of them make it in every year.

bridget-USA
And the criteria?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
That's a good question. A word can't be just jargon; it needs to be used in many different contexts. A word needs to turn up in lots of different kinds of texts and places, and it needs to have shown some staying power. However, since we update the College dictionary every year, we do take risks on some words.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Could you give some examples of words you have added recently?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
A word like B2B is being considered right now (business to business)--some that made the cut this last time around include edgy, arm candy, energy bar, wetware, and skysurfing. A lot of the words are coming from technology, obviously.

bridget-USA
Wetware?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Your brain, as opposed to hardware or software.

whiteoak
As an instructor, what were some of the terms that you liked to talk about. I always like to talk about my 1960's definition of yahoo.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
What was your definition of yahoo? I used to talk mostly about pet peeves in usage (not knowing lie-lay-lain, e.g.) rather than favorite words. Although my favorite word is probably 'serendipity.'

whiteoak
Yes, I like serendipity also. Yahoo in the 1960's dictionary is "(From Gulliver's Travels) one of a race of brutes having the form of man and all his degrading passions...A rough, uncouth person."

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
I'd forgotten about Swift's use of yahoo. My grandfather used it in this way, actually.

wow
Years ago, all dictionaries had a glossary at back of foreign words and phrases, with translation, why is this been abandoned. It was most helpful when reading a book with "sayings" in a foreign tongue.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Well, mostly it has to do with printing costs. People want their dictionaries to have everything in them, but they don't want to pay over $25 for a hardcover. It's very hard to keep them economical. So 'extras' like foreign language glossaries go out.

Scribbler (USA)
Are you able to date the entry of new words enlisted in, say, the last 50 to 75 years?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
A lot of the time what we do is give a date range, usually a 5-year range for more recent words. It's very rare that you can find a citation that everyone knows is the first usage of a word; by the time something makes it into print, it has usually been around in the spoken language for a while.

Beth -- CA
I work for a technology magazine myself, and we are constantly trying to find the right spelling and capitalization for new tech words. How do you decide how they should be?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Well, we don't really decide--we describe. For instance, we look at large databases such as Lexis Nexis and look to see what the prevalent spelling is of a word like the noun dot-com. We listed it as dot-com or dotcom, but not dot.com. We're all making up the language as we go along, really.

Bingley Indonesia
What was the most interesting query you've received working as one of the mavens?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Oh boy, that's a tough one. One of the ones we still have not settled is 'the whole nine yards', because the truth is that no one has definitively tracked that down, not even Barry Popick, famed word sleuth of the ADS listserv. That's American Dialect Society.

trebler
When do you anticipate the next Unabridged publication?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
The Unabridged is one of those massive projects that seems just to get bigger. Our database is huge right now, and we're afraid of how big it would be in print! So I'm looking at different types of publishing, not just print, and hoping that by the time we're done, there will be newer technologies to choose from. I can't reveal dates, I'm afraid--those are trade secrets!

Subscribe to A.Word.A.Day
The magic and music of wrds--that's what A.Word.A.Day is all about. Subscribe to it--it's free.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
OOH love that advertising.

Bingley Indonesia
Do you use spoken sources like interviews or semi-spoken such as Internet chats?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Yes, we do use spoken sources. They have to be documented just like written citations.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
We just went live on our own website (speaking of advertising) with a means of sending us citations. www.randomwords.com.

MarkC (UK)
How do you do most research these days? Visiting people, going through libraries, the Internet?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
It's a combination of old and new technologies. For raw, current use of the language, we do a lot of Net searching, including proprietary databases such as Lexis Nexis. For tracking older uses, we go into libraries, search through ancient dictionaries, and eavesdrop on every language site we can find!

MunichMom
I do translations. Sometimes when I can't find the definition/translation of a word anywhere, I just do a meta search on the word to see how it is used in context.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Contextual clues are often the best we have.

One very cool upcoming development we're involved with is the American National Corpus project, which you can read about on the American National Corpus americannationalcorpus.org Website (I think that's the URL).

US slave
Can you explain how the initial "X" in words of Greek origin (Xenon, Xenophobia,Xerox, etc) came to be pronounced as "Z." In other Indo-European languages it remained "ks."

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Not really--I'm afraid our pronunciations expert has gone home for the day. Actually, both the sound Z and KS are located in the same place in the back of the mouth, and one is voiced and one is not. You find voiced and unvoiced pairs, like t and th, f and v, all over the Indo-European languages.

I lied. Z is in the front of the mouth, I just tried it. But the fallacy here is to treat orthography--spelling--as if it always corresponded to sounds

Chris
Ms. Nichols, how do you and your colleagues regard slang words that are common in some areas or among some groups, but not used all over the English-speaking wo rld?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
For Chris's question... If you mean regional slang, we tend to put that in the larger dictionaries and not in the smaller ones. But we can't help being American, so a lot of British slang, say, will not be in our books.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Back to Z and KS--the Greek symbol for that sound is closer to our Z than our X

trebler
When I worked on the 2nd ed. of the RH Unabridged we had "shoeboxes" full of citations.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Trebler--were you on staff? We still have those shoeboxes, but we now have an electronic database. But it's a bad idea to throw out paper, methinks.

A favorite word story? Well, there's a word snob I once knew who kept misusing 'enervate.' What do you all think it means?

MarkC (UK)
Enervate=weaken.

babelfield -- portugal
To get on one's nerves? :)

bridget-USA
Oh, i thought it was an adjective to mean the state of being weak

cww
To sap strength.

trebler
Enervate means to weaken. Yes, I was on staff: pronunciation was my beat.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
From the look of it, you'd think it was 'annoy' or 'energize', but cww and MarkC have it right.

MunichMom
Ms. Nichols, what can you tell us about the "splintering" of English into various versions? I increasingly see specific references to British English and American English. Even the technical terms seem quite different sometimes!

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
I think 'the two Englishes' are fascinating, having lived in England for nine years. We're watching language change as we speak--what a privilege! The way the two varieties have diverged--and indeed the way antipodean dialects also differ--is a classic case of language variation.

People become isolated and develop new words for new objects or technologies; they also develop slang independently.

Catrina - USA
Has The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White ever been important to your work as an editor?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
:-) Every editor here has a copy of it. That and the Chicago Manual of Style. And not to plug a competitor or anything, but Merriam-Webster's usage book is great.

Bingley Indonesia
Do you think they will become mutually unintelligible or are there enough factors in play to prevent that?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
No, I think that with the ubiquity of the media now, they are more likely to slow down in their divergence.

Bingley Indonesia
How did you come to move from teaching to lexicography?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
I was teaching ESL with no benefits or job security to posh businessmen in London, and I was looking at the Media Guardian every Monday for jobs. I saw an ad for 'lexicographers--will train--Americans wanted' and I got my first job at Longman.

MunichMom
I'm curious, just how far apart will the different versions of English evolve? Will texts someday require labelling "British English" or "American English"?

Scribbler (USA)
There are splintering problems even inside USA. Many fast food restaurants use monitors to "translate" the English of the order takers to the English of the customers.

Robb - Canada
Hey... don't forget 'Canadian' English!

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
We don't--in fact, we added/updated about 200 Canadian terms to our College dictionary this last time around. Saltchucks unite!

MarkC (UK)
What criteria do you use to decide when a word of foreign origin is used enough to go in your dictionaries?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Dictionaries have been labeling for a long time. But texts? Probably no more than they do now, for example with the different covers and edited texts of Harry Potter in the US and the UK.

Yes, regionalisms can present problems.

When it comes to stand for a concept, and we tend not to have an equivalent word in English, we will put it in as an English word--like 'angst'. If it's recognized and used, but still perceived as foreign, it goes in in italics, as in 'weltanshauung.'

Bingley Indonesia
As an American living in the UK, did you ever get into trouble with the differences?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Oh, yes. The first time I said the word 'fanny'.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Which here is polite for 'bum'.
And there means 'cunt'.

Chris
Eek.

Bingley Indonesia
Oh no, it's much more polite than cunt.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Not in Oxford, it wasn't!

cww
They will be glad to hear that! Thank you!

cww
One of my students wants to know your opinion - Considering language changes from Shakespeare's time to the present, where do you think language will go in the next 400 years - totally phonetic, universal, or . . . ?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Oh, I don't think it will be either phonetic or universal. The funny thing about language is that some things simplify, like our pronoun inflections, but other things get more complicated, like our prepositional system. I think more people will be bilingual.P> I do think that more of the grammatical distinctions that are on their way out will disappear--like 'whom.'

I also was baffled by someone going out to buy mints for the bolognese--that's 'mince' (ground beef) for the spaghetti sauce.

Bingley Indonesia
What do you think of the use of they etc. as a non-specific pronoun?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
I really don't object to it. This is another classic case of language change. We had a need for a non-gender-specific singular pronoun, so rather than invent one (like 'shay' which was mooted in the 1970s), we borrowed a word we already had. We did the same thing with 'you' about 350 years ago.

wordyUSA
Will 'Y2K' ever make it to the dictionary to describe a period of time?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
It's already in. The question is whether it will stay: we do monitor things that need to go out, too. We took out the macarena.

wordyUSA
How about Y2KAOS?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
You're going to have to help me here...

Bingley Indonesia
Do you think the people who object to it are on a losing battle?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Yes, I do--just like I'm fighting a losing battle to get my husband to stop saying he's going to lay down for a while.

MarkC (UK)
'Lay down' appears to be rife in the US and UK.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
A good thing to remember is that English is much more fluid than you would think, and it had a lot of silly Latin rules applied to it in the Enlightenment period.

ERB
I think you have the greatest job in the world. What will you do when you retire?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Thanks. I love my job.

Retire? I never have to retire from being a word nerd.

wow
You heard it here : word nerd!

ERB
What is your favorite book of all times?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
I absolutely adore the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. Most of my favorite books are actually children's books.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
A lot of people still want print dictionaries. We don't remove anything from our database--just put a 'kill' tag around it.

Print dictionaries only have so much space.

Catrina - USA
What qualities about the English language make it mandatory in so many other countries? That is, why is it so important for other countries to learn English as their second language?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
It wasn't anything about English itself; it was the British Empire, and then the superpower status of the US, that led to its spread. Size matters.

Bingley Indonesia
Print does have the advantage that if you don't spell it just right you can still usually find it.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Yes, but fuzzy logic usually takes care of that.

wow
Your first name is lovely. Is there a story behind it?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Yes, it's actually on mavensword.com--you can look it up in our archives. It might be under Enid and Wendalyn.

wordyUSA
Do you have a short list of favorite words?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Nope! Sorry, I really should.

I do like the word ubiquitous, and also a British swear word I shouldn't repeat.

Bingley Indonesia
Oh, go on.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
F***wit.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
It's very useful for yelling at taxi drivers here in New York.

Bingley Indonesia
And what do they yell back or are they too dumbfounded?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
They have already driven by. It's more a sense of personal satisfaction that I need.

Slim USA
Have you ever thought about inventing a word yourself?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
I haven't, but there's a sales manager here who really wants me to put 'pindledebaz' and 'dreadmohosis' in the dictionary. Trouble is, he can't define them.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
He also can't meet the ubiquity test--lots of citations in lots of places.

MarkC (UK)
Do you wish you were back in the UK sometimes?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Oh, yes. Especially after the recent election, I have to say.

ERB
Are your friends all word lovers?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
A lot of them are. My husband is in publishing too. But a lot of my most helpful friends are scientists and computer programmers.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Also I have a jazz singer and a painter and an architect as three of my closest friends here.

Bingley Indonesia
What was the most difficult word you've had to define?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
The hardest one is 'set'. It has pages of meanings that are very hard to differentiate.

wow
What are your least favorite words?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Slurs. I just think there's no place in a civilized society for them.

MarkC (UK)
What hobbies (other than words) do you have? (c:

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
I love to cook; I swim; we watch a lot of movies and play a lot of board games with our downstairs neighbors. I'm from the NW originally, so I love hiking too. And I used to sew when I had time.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
That was our last question for today. Would you like to say any parting words, Wendi, before we finish?

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Thanks to all of you for some great questions. I love talking to word lovers!

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Thank you, Wendi, for being our guests at Wordsmith.org, and thank you to all the linguaphiles for joining in.

Wendalyn Nichols (Guest Speaker)
Cheers!

cww
Thank you to Mrs. Nichols and to AWAD - It has been an interesting hour!

TylerGordon USA
Thank you for a fascinating evening!

wordyUSA
Thank-you Wendalyn... You were wonderfully ubiquitous!

Catrina - USA
Thank you for your time!

wow
Delightful!

MarkC (UK)
Thank you very much.

trebler
Great chat!

Bingley Indonesia
Thank you, Anu and Ms. Nichols. It's been fascinating

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Our next guest is Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at MIT and author of a number of books on mind and language. This chat takes place on Feb 8, 2001, at the same time. For more details, please see wordsmith.org/chat/pinker.html. We hope to see you all there.


Chat Events:  

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Barbara Wallraff  
Atlantic Monthly  

Joseph Pickett  
American Heritage  
Dictionary  
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Sreenath Sreenivasan  
Columbia University  

Lisa Simeone  
National Public Radio  

Richard Lederer  
Language & Humor  

David Crystal  
Encyclopedia of English  

Steven Pinker  
Brain & Language  

Robert & Jean H.  
Dante's Inferno  

Joseph Bruchac  
Poet  

John Simpson  
Oxford English Dictionary  

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