Lies! Murder! Lexicography!

HERE’S a tip: if you see the words “dictionary” and “scandal” in a sensational headline, prepare to be disappointed.

Last week, the British newspaper The Guardian broke a story from the dictionary world that seemed, at first blush, to be quite scandalous indeed. “An eminent former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary covertly deleted thousands of words because of their foreign origins and bizarrely blamed previous editors,” it began.

But the truth, it turns out, is more prosaic. The former editor, in compiling material for four supplements to the O.E.D., had not seen fit to include everything that was in a previous supplement to the dictionary’s first edition, published in 1933, including thousands of words borrowed from foreign languages.

As the O.E.D.’s editor at large, Jesse Sheidlower, clarified, even the omitted words are being reincorporated into the dictionary’s current revision project, so nothing in fact was ever “deleted.”

But who wants to hear such details when the bad-news headline is juicier, or at least can be spun that way through shoddy journalism? The Guardian’s version of events made for some prime link bait online, generating interest on Twitter and gossipy blogs like Gawker.

As the O.E.D.’s editor at large, Jesse Sheidlower, clarified, even the omitted words are being reincorporated into the dictionary’s current revision project, so nothing in fact was ever “deleted.”

But who wants to hear such details when the bad-news headline is juicier, or at least can be spun that way through shoddy journalism? The Guardian’s version of events made for some prime link bait online, generating interest on Twitter and gossipy blogs like Gawker.

All of this over some editorial decisions about dictionary entries several decades ago! How does a media-generated “scandal” like this get cooked up in the first place, especially involving a profession as unglamorous as lexicography?

This isn’t the first time that the O.E.D. has been the victim of wildly off-the-mark coverage in the British press. In 2010, The Daily Telegraph ran a story with a headline ripped out of a Dan Brown novel: “Secret Vault of Words Rejected by the Oxford English Dictionary Uncovered.” The paper quoted a design student working on an art project about “non-words” who said he had learned about “a very hush-hush vault” where the O.E.D. locked up rejected words.

As an informal (and unpaid) consultant for the O.E.D. for the past several years, I had to chuckle at the breathless reporting. The O.E.D. has long kept filing cabinets full of citation slips for words under consideration, though nowadays the work is mostly done online. There is nothing surreptitious about it — it’s all part of the mundane work that lexicographers do to keep track of how words and phrases develop over time, in order to shape and revise their entries. If you saw how dictionary editors actually went about their day, you’d quickly understand why Samuel Johnson famously defined “lexicographer” as “a harmless drudge.”

Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, started a blog last year called (you guessed it) Harmless Drudgery. In her initial post, she sought to dispel the “fiction” that a lexicographer’s life was full of “glamour and intrigue.”

“My day consists of sifting through citations of words in context and puzzling over how to succinctly describe the glob of dust and crud that makes up a dust bunny,” she wrote. (Ms. Stamper said she settled on “aggregate.”)

Read the rest HERE

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