Word nerd

Bio by dictionary's former editor is, in a word, enjoyable

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For many of us, the dictionary is one of those things that’s just there — we don’t put a lot of thought into how it came to be or how much work it is to manage. For lexicographer and former Oxford English Dictionary chief editor John Simpson, the better part of his adult life was focused on just that.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/11/2016 (2143 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For many of us, the dictionary is one of those things that’s just there — we don’t put a lot of thought into how it came to be or how much work it is to manage. For lexicographer and former Oxford English Dictionary chief editor John Simpson, the better part of his adult life was focused on just that.

The Word Detective is Simpson’s memoir of his nearly 40 years with the OED — from the time of his first assignment in the summer of 1976 (he was asked to read a translation of Christian Metz’s Film Language to search for words used for the first time in English, finding “screening room” and “prefilmic”) to the first word he was given to define (queen), to his rise to co-editor and eventually chief editor.

The title of the memoir could not be more accurate. The amount of effort it takes to catalogue an entire language — dating back to the earliest possible known uses for each word — is an investigation in the truest sense of the word. Simpson outlines the processes of both adding a new word to the dictionary and updating existing entries in exhaustive detail, including the trips back and forth to the dictionary’s file storage room, the edits and re-edits for clarification, and the examination of every possible piece of reference material. It becomes easy to understand how the initial 10 volumes of the OED took 44 years to compile.

At the same time, Simpson also dips into his personal life, telling a somewhat parallel storyline about his wife, Hilary, and two daughters, Kate and Ellie. Ellie was diagnosed early on with a developmental disease that, among other symptoms, made her unable to speak. For a man who deals with words all day, to have to learn to communicate non-verbally with his child makes for an interesting and, at times, heartbreaking addition to his otherwise relatively formal storytelling style.

Simpson does have a few blips of the stereotypical dry British humour, but if you read too quickly, there’s a good chance you’ll miss them. It’s clear he’s got quite a funny streak in him when given the opportunity, most evident in the 12 pages he spent relaying the etymology of the F-word and his descriptions of how some letters (S, especially) are much more difficult to get through than others.

There are quite a few etymological injections in which Simpson dissects a particularly interesting word he uses in the course of his book. For example, he dives into the fascinating evolution of the word “marriage,” which he notes had to be updated to reflect the inclusion of same-sex partnerships. Here he also makes another excellent and often-overlooked point — that lexicographers must be unbiased and non-political when crafting new definitions.

Simpson was at the OED during the hugely transitional period — the conversion to digital. On a logistical front, creating an online database for the dictionary was a harrowing, massively time-consuming but absolutely necessary process. Simpson says the OED website was one of the first 500 to appear on the web. And in a linguistic context, English had developed a whole new genre of words having to do with technology — cyber, Internet, byte, etc. — that lexicographers struggled with.

On the definition of “debit card,” Simpson says: “That’s not a definition I am — in retrospect — proud of, but it was a child of its time. Its interminable length shows how lexicographers struggled with these emerging concepts and technologies. At the same time, we had to write definitions in a style that would help readers understand both concept and meaning. As a result, we provided them with what amounts to a short manual in place of a definition.”

Caleb Jones / The Associated Press files

The tension embedded into the transition to the digital era is enough reason to pick up this memoir, but for lovers of words and the development of the English language, The Word Detective in its entirety is a must-read.

Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer at the Winnipeg Free Press.

Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Manager of audience engagement for news

Erin Lebar spends her time thinking of, and implementing, ways to improve the interaction and connection between the Free Press newsroom and its readership.

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