John Simpson is the author of the new memoir The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary. He is the former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and an emeritus fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford. He lives in Gloucestershire, United Kingdom.
Q: How did you end up in the field of lexicography, and what are some of the perceptions and misperceptions about lexicographers?
A: I don’t think anyone who was appointed to a post on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) ever started off life wanting to be a lexicographer. The best editors are people who come at the job sideways, unintentionally: they have a natural curiosity (but not an obsession) about words, a concise, elegant writing style, and a strong analytical approach to problem-solving.
In the mid-1970s, I was turning into a medievalist. I was busy on a postgrad Medieval Studies course, and wondering what on earth a knowledge of the Icelandic sagas and 12th-century philosophy qualified me for in the real world of work. It turned out that the answer was “not much”, unless I decided to be creative.
So I answered an ad for an editorial assistant at the Oxford dictionaries and later that year started what turned out to be a 37-year stop-off at the OED, as we wrestled the dictionary from a Victorian masterpiece to a modern, dynamic, online reference resource.
Misperceptions? Is that even a word? Well yes, of course it is. The OED records it from 1722, in William Wollaston’s Religion of Nature Delineated. I was interested to see that its first recorded use is in the context of religion, and exploding hoaxes. That’s as far as I’ll allow myself to travel down the obsessive analysis route.
People expect lexicographers to be male, to sport flowing, white beards, maybe to wear white lab coats, and to delight in grammatical point-scoring and punning. Well, true lexicographers don’t ace many of these. Exceptional normality, that’s what we need.
Q: You write, "Fewer than 1 percent of new words are actually new--well, far fewer than 1 percent, actually." Why is that, and what are some of your favorite new words from recent years?
A: Lewis Carroll was one of the most successful new-word coiners, in his Alice books. Remember Through the Looking-glass: “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! He chortled in his joy.” OK, some of his coinages didn’t really make it, but “chortle” – it’s right there now in any dictionary, and it was his creation.
But that’s one of the 1 percent. New words aren’t usually completely new creations, because no one would understand them, and language is for communication.
Most neologisms consist of subtle shifts of meaning (from tablet “the writing surface” to tablet “the hand-held computer”) or they are new compounds recycling words we already have (air quotes from air and quotes), or they involve pasting old prefixes or suffixes onto expressions we already know, to create something new (post-truth is maybe one you’ve heard of recently).
There are other methods too: blending is popular, and fun: Brexit is a blending together of British and exit; some people think Carroll’s chortle combines chuckle and snort. The OED confidently reminds you that chortle is “quite unconnected” with churtle (a 16th-century word for “to chirp”), just in case you thought it was.
Q: What were some of the most important changes over the more than 35 years you spent working on the Oxford English Dictionary?
A: There were big changes in me, in the dictionary, and in the language. From my personal perspective, I had to become much more rigorous in my approach to analysing language data. It wasn’t good enough if a definition was almost right, or if the evolution of a word over history almost made sense. You had to learn to chase that “almost” out of the equation, and that’s a hard thing to do.
From the dictionary’s viewpoint, we took it from a multi-volume book resource in the 1970s and ‘80s to the dynamic online reference tool that it is now.
And that was risky – more risky than you’d think today. Back then there was no Internet, no mobile technology, and people played music on audio-cassettes.
The idea of putting the 67-million characters of the dictionary onto computer was cutting-edge: that was big data back in the day. Later we decided to try to put it online (that was the mid-‘90s), and even then we were one of the first 500 websites to exist.
And the language? Well, it wouldn’t stand still. We had to monitor all the big words that came along: AIDS, perestroika, email, website, biodiversity, even (like) like, and selfie.
And at the same time we were monitoring all the smaller changes to the language (when could you first podium in sport, as well as medal?), and all the new information streaming in about old words (we used to think that poodle was first used as the name of a breed of dog in 1825, but new research took that back to 1773).
Q: In the book, you also explore the contrasts between your own world of words and your daughter's world of wordlessness. How have her challenges affected your family and the way you think about words?
A: Ellie is now in her mid-20s, but she has a developmental age of about 18 months. I didn’t want to sentimentalise this in the book, but it was important to me to tell Ellie’s story briefly. There was a massive contrast between the wordy, creative atmosphere I was part of at work, and our growing realisation at home that Ellie would never participate in that sort of life.
She’s very happy in her own world, but despite all of our attempts to try to find new ways of communicating with her, we’ve hardly succeeded. Gesture, eye-contact, warmth and love: those are about the limits of our communication with Ellie, and we hope she understands.
On the other hand, anyone who comes into contact with her learns that communication isn’t just about words, but about context, about minor changes over time, about accepting limitations. And that in turn has been helpful to my work on the dictionary.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now? I’m having a wonderful time working on lots of projects. I do a bit of work remotely on the OED, mainly adding new first usages from 16th- and 17th-century sources (one of my pet obsessions).
I have a couple of websites you might want to look at if it’s raining: one deals with the language and characters peopling the novels of James Joyce; the other looks at the local history of the area I live in (the Pittville History Works).
I’m also researching the personal stories of the 19th-century poor, through parish records. And I’m wondering about The Word Detective: the sequel (or the prequel): is there any mileage in that?
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: That’s a big question! I wanted to write a book for people who didn’t think they would ever read a book about a dictionary. I was told: “Write it like you’re talking to your best friend.”
I was going to anyway, but I was pleased to receive an endorsement for being conversational and chatty – because lots of books about dictionaries aren’t. I’m sure there are many other things you should know, but is that ok for now?
--Interview with Deborah Kalb