Monday, March 28, 2005

To be hip, young and a lexicographer

Who's in charge of the nation's dictionaries?

This article from the New York Times (provided still by the fine folks at Word Detective) gives some insight by first looking at the pink-glasses-wearing "America's lexicographical sweetheart," Erin McKean.
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.
(Bespoke? Ah, custom-made.)

The whole article is worth reading. It includes a new word being added to the OAD soon ("Google" as a verb), one recently taken out ("information superhighway"), and the process lexicographers use to find new words. (McKean subscribes to 60 magazines [including The Oldie, a British publication for the elderly] and watches "The O.C.," known for being linguistically playful, she said.)

And there's plenty on these lexicographers' charm.
Mr. Sheidlower said that [legendary lexicographer Robert] 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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