The New York Times

March 19, 2005

In Land of Lexicons, Having the Last Word


CHICAGO - Erin McKean answered the door to her brick apartment building in the Lincoln Square neighborhood here wearing a casual outfit accented by bright, pink-framed glasses and a pair of beat-up black-and-white Converse sneakers. She led a visitor down the wending stairs to her basement office, where she proceeded to sit down - or rather bounce - on a black exercise ball.

"Drink?" she asked. She brought the beverage in a neon-blue glass.

Might Ms. McKean be an escapee from a local version of Cirque du Soleil? A young woman in the throes of suspended adolescence?

Hardly. 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.

Such personalities are not entirely new in this small but competitive field, which comprises about 200 full-time English-language lexicographers - 400, if academic and scholarly dictionaries are included. Noah Webster cut quite a swath through East Coast society and attracted more than his share of controversy when he invented American spellings of English words like "glamour." (He left out the "u.")

But some say today's rise of young, hip lexicographers reflects changes in the culture at large. The computer revolution has given her tech-savvy generation an edge in many arenas, Ms. McKean said, but particularly in a highly digitized profession like lexicography. She added that she regarded people who weren't online as she would "people who didn't have electricity or running water."

Sidney I. Landau, a former editor of Cambridge Dictionaries and the author of "Dictionaries: The Art And Craft of Lexicography" (and at 71, a member of an older generation), said a shift in people's interests had also played a part. "In the early part of the 20th century, science and technology were very big in terms of marketing dictionaries, and they'd make claims about having 8,000 words dealing with electricity or mechanics," he explained. But now, he added, "I think there has been a shift in terms of recognizing the importance of youth culture and slang." In other words, people like Mr. Barrett, who marvels at a term like "ghetto pass," which refers to street credibility for nonblacks, are in demand. He can trace its mainstream usage back to the hip-hop artist Ice Cube in 1991.

John Morse, the publisher and president of Merriam-Webster, said many young lexicographers had a natural social aptitude that helped them rise in the field. "I think if you go back 20 or 30 years, dictionary editors kind of sat in their office, did what they were supposed to do," he said. "But what we realized - at least what I realized about 10 years ago - is that we needed to put a public face on dictionaries. Editors needed to be engaging with the public. And I think that activity is something younger editors stepped up to." Ms. McKean often appears on public radio talking about words, and she has been dubbed "America's lexicographical sweetheart" by National Public Radio's program "Talk of the Nation."

Despite such generational changes, Ms. McKean said the tasks of dictionary editors were basically the same today as they had been throughout history. "Lexicographers are language reporters," she said, and estimated that the "news" entering dictionaries - that is, new words and new meanings of existing words - can number as few as 100 a year or as many as 2,500 if a revision covers five years.

To find new words, Ms. McKean said she subscribed to 60 magazines, including The Oldie, a British publication for the elderly; The New Scientist; and Entertainment Weekly. She also watches television shows like "The OC," which she said was known for being linguistically playful. She also relies on her staff, freelancers, a group of four or five people she calls the "friends of the dictionary" and even small talk at cocktail parties.

Mr. Sheidlower said the O.E.D. (which shares its databases with the O.A.D.) had a more comprehensive approach. It has several "reading programs," composed of dozens of people, chiefly volunteers, who scout out changes in the language, and hundreds of paid consultants in specialized fields who report on changes in their areas. (Other dictionaries and lexicographers have their own approaches, but they generally echo those of Ms. McKean and Mr. Sheidlower's divisions.)

To help decide if a word is ready to be entered into the lexicon, many lexicographers Google new terms. (So popular is this Internet search engine that its name has become a verb in general use - and will appear as such in the new O.A.D. next month.) They also look them up in their company's corpus, a database of citations of new words, and in outside databases like Each company has its own guidelines for the number and breadth of citations necessary to qualify words for dictionary inclusion, but Ms. McKean said gut feelings sometimes come into play.

One big difference for this generation is the computerization of word databases. Before, Mr. Landau said, "Merriam-Webster had a collection of six million slips of paper on which were typed little quotations from language taken from texts, newspapers and magazines, so if a definer wanted to define 'absurd,' he or she could pull these slips of paper from file drawers and spread them out."

The downside of the new ease with which citations can be found, Ms. McKean said, is that words sometimes enter the dictionary too quickly. "We occasionally take words out," she said. "We thought they were working, and they just ended up not." She cited the term "information superhighway," which was removed from the new edition of the O.A.D., explaining, "People aren't using it as much, and if they are, they're using it in a jokey way."

This generation of lexicographers is also increasingly diverse, and Mr. Landau noted more powerful women in the field in particular. Chief among them is Ms. McKean. After giving a visitor a more complete tour of her office - which included bookshelves lined with titles, among them "The Joy of Lex," and previewing a circle skirt she was sewing of fabric printed with letters - she displayed a touch of anthropomorphism, saying, "I try not to play favorites with words because they get their feelings hurt."

But like her peers, she is also well educated and serious about learning itself. And though there is no well-marked path to becoming a dictionary editor, Ms. McKean said she had wanted to be one since she was 8 and read an article about the legendary lexicographer Robert Burchfield, who oversaw the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Mr. Sheidlower said that 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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