PUBLICATION INFORMATION SPRING 2021
The DSNA Newsletter is usually published twice a year, in the spring and fall. Editor is David Jost. Associate Editor is Peter Chipman. Member news items can be sent for the moment to email@example.com. Other Newsletter correspondence, such as articles for publication, should be directed to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org but new addresses will be announced when available.
Our Executive Director is Lindsay Rose Russell.
Send correspondence re membership, etc. to
Dictionary Society of North America
Department of English, University of Illinois
608 S Wright St, Rm 208
Urbana IL 61801
This issue: Vol. 45 No. 2 (2021)
Cumulative issue #92
A Nest of Singing Birds
One of the pleasurable things about working with quotations is their capacity to surprise. Even a quotation which you know quite well, but have never had great reason to think about, may on investigation reveal an unexpected usage history. Recently, I came across just such an example, in a heading in the London Times: “Pit of vipers or a nest of singing birds: behind the scenes at No 10.” The heading introduced a piece on alleged factionalism in Number Ten Downing Street, with the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary, Allegra Stratton, claiming that contrary to reports “We are all a nest of singing birds.”
I was familiar with the phrase quoted as a coinage of Samuel Johnson’s, recorded by Boswell in his Life of Johnson, but it occurred to me that I would not necessarily today have expected to find it in live use as a quotation today. When I looked the original up to refresh my memory of the exact wording, it also appeared that the sense in which it was now being used had altered. As Boswell reports it, Johnson’s usage referred to literary achievement as the mark of many of his fellow members of Pembroke College Oxford. “Being himself a poet, Johnson was peculiarly happy in mentioning how many of the sons of Pembroke were poets; adding, with a smile of sportive triumph, ‘Sir, we are a nest of singing birds’”. Allegra Stratton, on the other hand, uses the phrase to suggest harmonious relations among a close group; something much nearer to the concept evoked in the hymn-writer Isaac Watts’ admonishment in Divine Songs for Children (1715), “Birds in their little nests agree/And ’tis a shameful sight, When children of one family/Fall out, and chide, and fight.” I decided to look at usage evidence to see if I could identify at what point the sense appeared to change.
In the main, examples found all supported the idea of literary (or musical) creativity. In Longfellow’s dramatic poem The Golden Legend (1851), Prince Henry uses it in addressing the poet Walther von der Vogelweide: “O noble poet! Thou whose heart/Is like a nest of singing-birds/Rocked on the topmost bough of life.” Walter Besant and James Rice employed it in a rather longer prose passage in their 1881 bestseller, The Chaplain of the Fleet, while evoking the atmosphere of a spa:
Everybody knows that a watering-place in summer is a nest of singing birds. I do not mean the birds of the air, nor the ladies who sing at the concerts, nor the virtuosos, male and female, who gather together to talk of appoggiatura, sonata, and—and the rest of the musical jargon. I mean rather those epigrammatists, libellous imitators of Pasquin, and love-verse writers who abound at such places.
Coming forward to the twentieth century, the literary context appears fixed. In 1942, a Times columnist reported on it as used in a New York paper:
A writer in the New York Herald Tribune drops a remark that it is good to read. He says that Hollywood, like Athens in the days of Greece’s glory or London in the age of Elizabeth (he might have added, like the Board of Trade in the days of Edmund Gosse and Austin Dobson), is a nest of singing birds. Even the bootblacks, waiters, and messenger boys write stories for the screen and carry the manuscripts in their pockets.
Just over fifty years later, in 1993, the journalist William Rees-Mogg commented on the literary make-up of his own neighbourhood: “Somerset has now become a county as full of columnists as Pembroke College, Oxford, was of poets in the 1720s. We are a nest of singing birds.” In 2013, commenting on a recent obituary of Oliver Bernard, the British writer and broadcaster Edward Lucie-Smith expanded on some of the details given. Bernard had worked for a time for Notley’s, a well-known advertising agency in London, and Lucie-Smith noted that “Notley’s, in the late 1950s and in the 1960s, was something of a nest of singing birds. Among the other copywriters were the Group poets Peter Redgrove and Peter Porter, in addition to myself. The novelist William Trevor (Trevor Bell) also worked there for a while.”
Up to the second decade of the twenty-first century, therefore, the phrase appeared in the same context, and could arguably be said to have developed its own lexical identity, since it was not necessarily accompanied by any explicit reference to Samuel Johnson. It was however at this point that I found a change, attributable to what appears to be a favourite expression of what it is perhaps reasonable for a lexicographer to call a lesser Johnson. The current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom appears to reach for it naturally when wishing to evoke a sense of goodwill and harmony among those between whom less than cordial relations have been suggested. To take a couple of reasonably high-profile examples, in October 2013 on a trip to China with the then Chancellor George Osborne (“two potential successors to David Cameron” as the Guardian put it), when asked who was in charge, he responded that “”It’s a nest of singing birds is how I would describe it. It’s total harmony.” He used the same expression in September 2016 when he was asked by the Sun newspaper about his relationship as Foreign Secretary with his colleagues David Davis and Liam Fox and replied “We are a nest of singing birds.” Perhaps small wonder, then, that the phrase is a natural one for his Press Secretary to use to allay concerns about reported strife, but it will be interesting to see if in the longer run the original sense reasserts itself, or if the shift in sense remains. And it would be fascinating to discover at what point, and how, it became part of Boris Johnson’s own political vocabulary. Is it perhaps an example of a quotation half-remembered and misinterpreted as an image of peace and unity rather than one of literary creativity?
Elizabeth Knowles, March 2021
A Haiku Dictionary?
My recent columns for the newsletter have been retrospective. This one, as I indicated in my conference presentation, is prospective. I hope it will spark some interest among readers and I will be especially grateful for feedback and engagement with the project.
When I bought the domain HaikuDictionary.com a few years ago, it was a baby step towards bringing to life an idea that had been floating through my mind long before: a dictionary in which the “definitions” are all in the form of haikus.
What would be the point of such an undertaking? To summarize in one word, fun. I also think it would have some practical uses, which I’ll talk about a bit below. The motivation arose like this: after you have defined a word for native speaker dictionaries, a children’s dictionary, ESL dictionaries, and you’ve suppled the gloss for it in a couple of bilingual dictionaries, is there anything left to do? Is there any challenge? Can you keep the monotony of it at arm’s length? No, I thought. Unless you introduce some new constraint or challenge.
So in this situation, back in the day when I spent endless hours of every week defining for various dictionaries, I sometimes found myself formulating haikus for various words that were not so much definitions of the words as evocations of them: such that if you read the haiku, the word it referenced would come immediately to your mind, often in a way that brought a chuckle or a small insight along with it. This was a lot of fun and it became an amusing pastime.
Here are a some of my examples that are exemplary in serving as models, though probably not exemplary in being commendable:
My life needs a fix.
Download, install, open, click.
My life needs a fix.
See my big white teeth?
Please look at me when I smile.
That’s why I do it.
Picture a doughnut.
Take away taste, color, smell.
What shape do you see?
Not long after I purchased HaikuDictionary.com I was alerted to the work of Mary Soon Yee, a British writer, who had composed haikus for all of the 118 elements of the periodic table. Here are some of her haikus:
Before the Bronze Age,
before history began,
bent to the smith’s need.
The dinosaurs are gone:
your fingerprint in the clay.
lurking down in the basement,
plotting your decay.
This gladdened my heart! It was evidence that I was not alone in thinking that evocative haikus representing words were a wondrous thing.
I purchased HaikuDictionary.com when I was still working full-time and not in a position to develop it, but it has always been in my mind as something I wanted to do, when I had the time. I have the time now (almost), but I do not have the expertise, and this is where I hope to engage the interest and energies of DSNA members and other newsletter readers to carry the idea forward.
Putting together a website of the kind I envision involves numerous skills and experience that I lack. At my creaky age, it is not productive (perhaps not even possible) for me to acquire and master such skills in order to get the website running. I would like my main role in the website to be content curation. But there are so many other things to be done that I would much rather outsource to people who know what they are doing. The main skill areas required are:
- Web technology and design
- Content provision
- Marketing and SEO
- Legal and financial concerns
The best way to unpack these is to explain what I would like HaikuDictionary.com to look like.
The prima facie best model in terms of functionality is UrbanDictionary.com. That is, I would like the Haiku Dictionary to be a wiki in which anyone (who has a free account) can contribute. However (and this I can’t overemphasize) the Haiku Dictionary would have vastly more curatorial oversight than UrbanDictionary, and it would be visually appealing. The look of the Haiku Dictionary would be much closer to WordNik or SFDictionary.com than to UrbanDictionary.
So this aspect of the website requires people who know about any number of things that I have only interacted with as a user: setting up accounts, security, user interactivity (being able to submit/upvote/downvote haikus), design, and the like.
For the Haiku Dictionary to be sticky at all, it will have to have a lot of content and that will be the biggest initial hurdle to get over, after the technical ones. If a user goes to the site a couple of times and doesn’t find the word they’re looking for, they’re probably not going to come back. So once the website is set up, the greatest need will be to fill it with haikus. This is something anyone can participate in, and DSNA members are surely the best qualified people anywhere to supply such content—an activity that I hope they would enjoy as much as I do.
Like UrbanDictionary, I would like the Haiku Dictionary to allow for the possibility of multiple haikus for the same word. I do not foresee that part-of-speech labels will be helpful: the haiku associated with a word mainly evokes the word, independently of its grammatical or syntactic behavior. For polysemous words, obviously different haikus would evoke different senses of the word. There are certainly possibilities for punning here, where a single haiku might evoke more than one sense of a word.
I don’t have a good idea of what this might cost. I would like to think that I can fund the set-up of it, with some paid and some volunteer labor. The maintenance of the site (web hosting) should not be too onerous. Or so I tell myself now. The goal would be for the website to be economically self-sustaining eventually, perhaps also to carry advertising eventually.
One thought I have is to form a non-profit to own the website, with the DSNA named as the beneficiary of it in the event of dissolution. But I know little about such legal matters and I would welcome advice or alternative scenarios about this aspect of maintaining the site.
I also know little about social media marketing and search engine optimization (SEO), and I would welcome expertise along those lines.
Who Would Visit HaikuDictionary.com?
A lot of internet randos, to be sure, but my hope is that the website can become a gathering place for word-lovers, punsters, and dictionary folk. I think it can also have some pedagogic value for students of English. The language of haikus is simple and direct, owing to constraints on length, and in that sense a haiku is like a definition. But a haiku is free from many of the constraints of a definition because it needn’t be substitutable or descriptive; it just needs to be evocative. So it may be an aid to the English learner who has not made the connection in the conventional way between a word and its meaning or semantic space.
Where to Begin?
First off, I’m happy for input from anyone whose interest is sparked by the foregoing. Even if it’s to say that the idea is just bonkers. My only experience in setting up a website is my personal website, www.orinhargraves.com. It’s low-functionality, and I did it with a lot of help from Google sites. The Haiku Dictionary that I envision is far beyond anything I’ve attempted, technology-wise, so there may be issues involved that I’m not even thinking of. If you think this is the case, please let me know.
The other thing that would be really helpful now is lots of haikus that could populate the site from the get-go, to give users an idea of what’s there and what can be there. My idea is that every haiku on the site will have an author credit, to appear as the author wishes it: that is, either real name or pseudonymous username. So if you are inspired to write any of these, or to share your ideas or to help with the website, please write! email@example.com. Thanks!
Commercially motivated dictionaries and brand communities
Histories of lexicography suffer from assumptions about which dictionaries deserve our attention and how to value them. We tend to write about big dictionaries that supposedly represent national identities (Le Robert, the academy dictionaries, the OED, Webster’s Third). Most of all, since Samuel Johnson or so, we have celebrated professional lexicographers and their professional products. Such dictionaries are well worth our attention, of course, but we focus on them so much that we overlook dictionaries and glossaries of mundane origins and made for less exclusively lexicographical purposes (but see Nagy 2004). The historians (who often are or have been lexicographers) privilege dictionaries good for nothing else but word research (or door-stopping or booster-seating), whereas dictionaries can serve interests beyond words. Authors and audiences of such dictionaries know it, which may explain why there are so many dictionaries we never write about.
One overlooked sub-genre is the bespoke marketing dictionary, compiled to promote interest in a business or brand. As far as I know, we have no bibliography of such dictionaries, which are often thought of as ephemeral and so less serious than the labor of bibliography demands. Dictionaries of this kind are interesting because, by making them, ordinary people become amateur lexicographers—it’s lexicography of the people, by the people, for the people. It also expresses a belief, or at least a hope, that trading on the authority of dictionaries will somehow pay, not directly, of course, but by building a brand and an associated brand community that responds to dictionaries with pleasure. Usually, commercially motivated dictionaries are free, a sort of promotional literature, although what gets promoted is an interesting cultural story. At the very least, should the belief or hope that a glossary of the right terms would sell stuff prove unjustified, these unimposing works of lexicographical art are back-handed compliments to the success of the dictionary brand, as promoted by major publishers, often to embellish their brands and build their own brand communities.
We must resist, for the moment, pressure to decide who is a professional, who is an amateur lexicographer. Certainly, some very prominent lexicographers have offered their services to commercial interests separate from their dictionaries, royalties from which don’t always pay the bills. For instance, already well-credentialed as a slang lexicographer in the 1980s, Jonathon Green accepted an invitation to write The Language of Food: A Short History of Food Slang Compiled for Batchelors Supernoodles (see Figure 1), which probably appeared in the 1990s, when Batchelors marketed their dried noodle snacks, a sort of British ramen, as “lad food,” perfect for young men too busy with life’s pleasures to cook or eat. At that time, Green was a professional writer, some of whose writing was lexicographical, but his dictionaries started out as celebrations of slang as an index to counterculture, Green’s first love, and only gradually did he become a professional amateur lexicographer. Anyway, The Language of Food figures in the history of lexicography, not only as an example of the ephemeral marketing dictionary, but also as an event in an important lexicographer’s career.
Inside The Language of Food, one finds brief essays on “The new food slang,” and subsequently on slang borrowed from food vocabulary, such as “Terms of endearment” (e.g., sweet pea), “terms of abuse” (e.g., meathead), etc., interspersed with entries for fun food words and phrases, like chippy ‘fish and chips place’ and he irks my tater, which Green defines, “he irritates me (tater being one’s head as in the US college my tater’s torn, I’m very drunk or high).” The Britishness is inescapable. Apparently, the items are rare enough or so specialized that Green didn’t include them in Green’s Dictionary of Slang (henceforth GDoS; 2010). The semi-running foot lists words treated on the page: “beans! cool beans! killer beans! – all general exclamations of approval,” somewhat like the bottom-of-page pronunciation keys in some official dictionaries or head word heads in page corners. Green was the content provider not the designer. The RED Consultancy—still very much a going concern in London’s Soho—led the marketing campaign, and Blue Lemon Design Consultancy designed the booklet.
Green is not the only prominent slang lexicographer to compile a branding glossary, nor Supernoodles the only commercial interest to invest in one. Tony Thorne, whose Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (2014a) has, through several editions, been a respected guide, was enlisted by Spitfire Ales to compile The Word on the Street: The Spitfire Guide to Street Slang (2014b; see Figure 2). This this double-column seven-page compendium enters 317 items, obviously with minimal glosses, the longest of which is “… much? expression of ironic emphasis as in ‘desperate much?’ mocking a friend’s romantic failures.” A single sample sentence for one of the subsequent head words attends the large letter marking each alphabetical section. Again, this adds a footnote to Thorne’s biography but also to the history of dictionaries, glossaries, or works in that style put to commercial use. It’s interesting that Spitfire thought a glossary of slang would give it street cred and that street cred would persuade more punters to down pints of premium Kentish ale—that reposes a lot more confidence in glossaries than professional lexicographers probably suppose.
It’s not clear how Batchelors or The RED Consultancy distributed The Language of Food. It all seems a bit distant from consumers of fast noodles. One imagines that other such glossaries or dictionaries served as annual reminders of commercial relationships, a niche most occupied by illustrated wall calendars that page by page mention the vendor who left it behind with the last delivery of the previous year. This certainly describes The Joseph Jacobs Handbook of Familiar Jewish Words and Expressions (ninth printing 1956). Joseph Jacobs was the principal in the Joseph Jacobs Organization, a Madison Avenue public relations and marketing firm, which included Joseph Jacob Publications, of which The Joseph Jacobs Handbook is a product. The outside front cover indicates that the dictionary was a gift “With Compliments of Your Calvert Representative,” that is, the Canadian Calvert Distillers, Co., makers of Canadian whisky and other imbibables.
It might seem an odd choice of lexicon at first, until one remembers that Calvert, Seagram’s, and other distilleries were owned by the Bronfman clan, which escaped Bessarabian pogroms for Canada in the late-nineteenth century. Unknown to many tipplers, Yiddish was part of the Calvert story, and what better way to advertise the fact than with a glossary? Also, the book was practical. It declared in italics beneath the title, “For use by anyone calling on the Jewish trade … for making friends with Jewish merchants.” And it was all about sales, as Tubie Resnick, Executive Vice-President of Calvert wrote on the inside, “Our friend, Joe Jacobs, compiled the Handbook to help sales representatives to win warmer relations with the Jewish merchants they called on”—which makes no sense, because the merchants were the Yiddish speakers—“But I said to Joe, ‘This Handbook can be used by liquor dealers to sell a lot of Calvert to their Jewish customers,’” with whom, apparently, a little bit of Yiddish would go a long way.
The Handbook runs to thirty-four pages, and the glossary includes 220 terms, such as a mechayeh ‘extra delicious,’ as in “That Lord Calvert Whisky is a mechayeh!” which is just what you want your customers to say about your premium product. To serve the goyishe sales reps and merchants, headwords are in English. The Bronfmans and Jacobs of the world knew from experience that their goyishe (not actually in the glossary but see goy s.v. NON-JEW) customers weren’t studying Yiddish on their own—they needed help. What better way to pass the evening than, like a mayvin, to sip some Lord Calvert and peruse the Handbook?
The Handbook promotes the Joseph Jacobs Organization more than Calvert Distilleries, which is probably why Calvert Distilleries tried again, with Familiar Jewish Words & Expressions (see Figure 3), same concept, but brought in-house. A later promotion, “Compliments of Calvert Distillers Co.,” may have gone out to retail consumers as well as wholesale partners. At fifteen pages, it would slip more easily into a shopping bag than its predecessor, and it strains the recipient less, with only 92 entries, plus illustrations, including one for mayvin, of a guy selecting a deli pickle. Aware that non-Yiddish speakers might need to look up a Yiddish word rather than the English equivalent, the new booklet printed an index of the relevant Yiddish words and expressions on the inside back cover. Was Familiar Jewish Words published later than the Handbook? It bears no date, but the slimmer, less copious glossary, the one with illustrations (by Syd Hoff, no less), index, and a focus on Calvert rather than Jacobs, looks like progress in the absence of any evidence to the contrary (although the Handbook went through at least nine printings in 1956). How could Calvert start with the good booklet and then revert to the less good? Stranger things have occurred in the annals of marketing, however— and in the annals of lexicography.
You’ll Hear It on the Midway … but What Does It Mean? (McKennon 1993; see Figure 4) looks like it might be destined similarly for commercial partners rather than all consumers, but in fact it was produced for “widespread distribution.” A glossary of carnival terms, it was published by Gold Medal Products, which provides the midway’s machinery: popcorn poppers, cotton candy makers, and the like. It is much more product relevant than the glossaries previously described, but it’s also lexicographically aware, and on that score it’s worth quoting the preface at length:
This book is being brought to you by Gold Medal Products Company in an effort to record […] a colorful “slice of Americana” that might otherwise be lost forever in the years ahead.
Of course, one way of ensuring that it survives is to eat lots of food at the carnival, literally eating a slice from a pizza warmer, and thus supporting Gold Medal Products. As long as there’s a Gold Medal Products Company, there will always be a carnival.
Of course, all of this information is in the “public domain”—and, unlike the author of dictionaries used in the schools and the libraries, this dictionary makes no attempt whatsoever to assign a correct usage to any words or phrases. This is simply the way it is.
Thus, Gold Medal captures a general view of dictionary authority, avoids prescriptivism, and out describes the descriptivists. Dictionaries are word books, of course, but they are also culture books, something too often overlooked by both dictionary makers and dictionary users, but clear as a bell rung by Gold Medal:
Please bear in mind this is a documentary, telling it like it was. If some of this midway history is offensive to you, we apologize on behalf of whoever created each midway slang term,
which is how you know the compiler(s) of You’ll Hear It on the Midway aren’t lexicographers, who never apologize. Optimistically, the preface reports,
For more copies of this “Dictionary” of Amusement Industry Midway Slang, contact Gold Medal Products or your Gold Medal dealer.
The scare quotes are inevitable in a discussion of this text and other commercially motivated word books—it’s a dictionary on the edge of its genre, one reason it’s so interesting.
Like the Calvert Handbook, You’ll Hear It on the Midway exceeds expectations, which may lessen its marketing value. It comprises 731 entries over 63 pages from preface to colophon. Some definitions are synonymic glosses, while others are encyclopedic, paragraph-long explanations rather than the crisp, semantically focused definitions of the professionally made dictionary. Some of the vocabulary it records overlaps with other jargons or slang more generally (e.g., fuzz ‘police’, gandy dancers ‘railroad track workers’, juice ‘electric current’, sawbuck ‘ten-dollar bill’), but most of it represents carnival life specifically (see Figure 5). I, for one, did not know until reading You’ll Hear It on the Midway, that carnival folks call “An off the road trouper’s urge to get back with it on the road” itchy feet, nor did I understand the distinctions among those who call us to one or another exhibit, show, or activity: “TALKER, (NEVER BARKER): The man who makes the ‘outside openings’ and ‘talks’ in front of an attraction. If he talks inside the attraction, he is a ‘lecturer.’” In fact, the entry at BARKER explains that it’s not a carnival or circus word, but a term imposed by the uninformed, “never used on outdoor shows to denote a talker, spieler, grinder or lecturer.” To the dictionary’s credit, it includes entries for grinder, lecturer, and talker, but it’s still an amateur production—it lacks an entry for spieler, which, in the interest of cross-references and defining vocabulary, no professional lexicographer would allow.
You’ll Hear It on the Midway projects a seriousness we don’t find in the promotional Dictionary of Tanbark Talk distributed by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. This little pamphlet includes 151 entries, double column, over just eight pages, and size leads to arbitrary selection of items: here you’ll find the spieler missing from You’ll Hear It on the Midway, but barker, grinder, lecturers, and talkers are all absent from Tanbark Talk. The glosses are spare but informative. For You’ll Hear It on the Midway, joey ‘clown’ comprises the whole entry, but Tanbark Talk ventures an etymology: “derived from Joseph Grimaldi, a famous clown in England of the 18th century,” which GDoS confirms, with an initial quotation c1815. Given the differences in word lists, structure, and entry-level information, the commercial producers of such dictionaries clearly had different audiences and different ideas about how to engage them.
With just these few examples of commercially motivated glossaries or “dictionaries,” one anticipates an inevitable typology of them, a sub-typology of “lay” or “vernacular” dictionaries, which is in turn a typologically complex category of dictionary, connected by dotted lines to dictionaries of facetious tone, topical dictionaries, and other types one finds in schemes proposed by Yakov Malkiel (see Adams, forthcoming) and Landau (2001, 7–42). Just on Malkiel’s terms, one sees significant variation in Range, Perspective, and Presentation among just these few examples. But I resist constructing a typology of marketing dictionaries from such a small if suggestive sample. Simply, there are more such dictionaries of more kinds than history has yet to consider, which means more lexicographers and dictionary users of various kinds than history has accounted for, too. Some additional exhibits here may serve to underscore that point.
Les Blair, owner with Geanie Blair of Ozark-Made Candy Kitchen, compiled Jest Tawk: A Country Dictionary (1986; see Figure 6) as a premium for their customers. At fifty-two pages between brightly colored covers, this book—“spiced with country sayins”—may have been slipped into bags with the Blairs’ compliments or may have sold at the register for $2.00, which is what the copyright page says a copy costs by mail. Most of the entries record local pronunciations of common words, which makes it like many another corner store or roadside dialect dictionary. These lexical reflections on local American culture participate in the social construction of dialects, the process called “enregisterment” (see Agha 2009; or Adams 2018, for a friendlier introduction). Once speech is recognized by others as different, speakers of what then is identified as a dialect eventually own their speech by commodifying it. So, one purpose of Jest Tawk is to project local identity, another is to use local identity to support brand identity and sell candy. If you saw Jest Tawk on a friend’s coffee table, you’d be sure to stop by Ozark-Maid Candy Kitchen the next time you passed through Osage Beach, Missouri.
Among dictionaries that serve a commercial purpose, linking lexis to brand community, are those by publishers fortifying the status and appeal of their publications. The authors of these are usually professional writers rather than candy-makers and small business owners, though not usually professional lexicographers. So, Gareth Branwyn compiled Jargon Watch: A Pocket Dictionary for the Jitterati (1997) for readers of the technology magazine Wired, with mixed results. The entry “Jitterati 1. What the digital generation becomes after tanking up on too much coffee. 2. Fear and anxiety associated with not knowing the latest jargon, acronyms, and buzzwords of the Digital Revolution,” for instance, defies some basic principles of defining, even given latitude for jocular presentation.
Hoping to amplify its relationship with its disreputable readers, Viz, the disreputable but popular British adult comic magazine, provided three editions of Roger’s Profanisaurus (Farquar-Toss 1997) as a disreputable bonus wrapped around some issues in the late 1990s. The level can be gauged from A—“air biscuit n. Fart; botty burp”—to Z— “zuffle v. To wipe one’s cock on the curtains after having sex in a posh bird’s house”—but we must not be distracted from the work’s lexicographical zeal nor its amateurism, for a professional would never leave us unsure of whether the sex had been with the posh bird or with someone perhaps less posh in the posh bird’s house. Let me assure you, if you cringe at what I’ve quoted here, the Profanisaurus offers much worse examples.
Regardless of such quibbles, it’s interesting to see purveyors of words give yet more words to their publications’ consumers in dictionary form. Is it the generic variation, the difference between magazine and dictionary, that adds value, or is it the clarity with which the dictionary form introduces readers to “their” lexis, the lexis that partly forms the group identities of which the magazines are hubs? The Profanisaurus speaks to Viz readers and consolidates that group, as does Jargon Watch for the so-called jitterati—their facetiousness doesn’t speak to the unlike-minded. Such dictionaries thus support intrinsic identity work, whereas the Calvert-sponsored Yiddish dictionaries, You Heard It on the Midway, and Jest Tawk—devoted to projecting group identity to those outside the group—support extrinsic identity work. Lexicographically, this sociolinguistic distinction complicates the typology of commercially motivated dictionaries and glossaries. From a marketing perspective, however, it illustrates that different types of brands require different management strategies.
Perhaps the most likely successful of dictionaries compiled for marketing purposes aren’t credibly dictionaries at all. Every example so far has been a booklet, but eight-panel foldouts better serve the marketer’s purpose: they are easy to handle, easy to slip into a bag, easy to read, cheaper to produce—they maximize the ratio of brand message and consumer attention. Capitol Records, which issued such albums as The Big Sounds of the Drags! and Hot Rod Rally Various, not to mention the Beach Boys’ Little Deuce Coupe, collaborated with Hot Rod Magazine on a foldout of Hot Rod Jargon (Medley 1963), containing 154 items, briskly glossed, with lots of illustrations, and synopses of the Capitol albums. Despite its brevity, it captures consumer attention much more readily than the Calvert Handbook, and it does so, as the font fold announces, “Free!!” That’s exactly the right cost for a promotional item.
A foldout for Noah’s Bagels in San Leandro, California, is a more compelling example of this type of commercial “dictionary,” called, in fact, Noah’s Old New York Yiddish Dictionary (Alper 1996; see Figure 7). Any Bay Area bagelry, a Manhattan maven might argue, suffers from an authenticity problem that only a connection with New York City and Yiddish could solve, and Noah Alper attempted to solve it in his case with another free, easily bagged, visually attractive foldout, but one that exploits the semiotics of dictionaries more effectively than any of the other works discussed here. They have columns, bolded entry words, in one case part-of-speech labels—clearly, the authors of these marketing productions have dictionaries in mind. But Noah’s Bagels has top-of-page guide words and numbered senses, liberally uses “lit.” for “literally” as a label—“bubeleh 1. (lit.) little grandmother”—and, perhaps most impressively, embellishes the text with faux thumb indexing, because, of course, thumb indexing helps one finds one’s way around an unwieldy book and serves no purpose at all in an eight-panel foldout (see Figure 8). Thus, the foldout draws facetiously on the authority of dictionaries to fortify a brand and develop a brand community.
Many will find it difficult to accept foldouts or even the booklets previously described as “dictionaries,” just because dictionaries are supposed to be books. Yet, in the digital age, we know that isn’t true (see, for instance, Nkomo 2020). Does size determine the genre? Of course, it might, as in the differences among short stories, novellas, and novels, though the boundaries between them blur. In 1996, Turner Broadcasting promoted a marathon of gangster movies with a set of flash cards titled Gangster Speak; in 2007, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy promoted Alcatraz prison with a set of giant playing cards titled Alcatraz Inmate Slang—cards with words and definitions, yes, but not books, not dictionaries, most would say. But what if we connected the cards with spiral wire? Would they undergo bibliometamorphoses and become dictionaries then? Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks distributed—free or for a nominal fee, it’s not clear—a clever guide to racing terms (see Figure 9), not many terms, it’s true, and, one might argue, obviously not in dictionary form, less so, in fact, than any other item described here so far. To view the definition of a term, one pulls the card inside the sleeve down or pushes it up so that the bar aligns with a term. The definition appears in the window towards the bottom of the sleeve. It’s not a page-turner, like a dictionary, but what is the difference, conceptually, between turning a page to find a definition and pulling a card down to reveal a definition in a window?
One value of accounting for commercially motivated glossaries, dictionaries, or other word finders lies in this theoretical problem: what counts as a dictionary? The corollary concern is who counts as a lexicographer? Hartmann and James (1998, 41/a) define dictionary as “A type of reference work which presents the vocabulary of a language in alphabetic order, usually with explanations of meanings,” which doesn’t dignify the sort of work described here, not reference work but commercial work, not the vocabulary of a language, but the vocabulary marketers think makes the case for a product or service (Bergenholtz 2012 loosens the definition a bit in ways that align better with dictionaries that support a non-dictionary brand of good or service). A lexicographer “engages in lexicography, either as a compiler or a metalexicographer” (Hartmann and James 1998, 84/b), and lexicography is “The professional activity and academic field concerned with dictionaries and other reference works” (Hartmann and James 1998, 85/b; see also Gouws 2012), which excludes amateur compilers concerned with marketing rather than dictionaries per se.
I believe that lexicographers—the ones defined as such by themselves—should expand the definition to include all amateurs. Who could object to an amateur painter or pianist? Their love of the arts enriches and often even improves their practice. Amateur lexicographers attest to the importance of words and meanings and the examples of professional lexicographers and professionally made dictionaries—amateurism is a compliment. I wish that schoolteachers would ask their students to make dictionaries in the way they ask them to write essays and poetry and paint pictures and make tie racks in shop—I’d like people to see lexicography as a means of world fashioning and cultural interpretation, that is, as an aesthetic practice. If we can entertain t-shirt lexicography (Klosa-Kückelhaus and Stähr 2020) or the appropriation of dictionary style into artists’ books (Russell 2020)—and I think we should—then we can take commercially motivated lexicography seriously, as a further subgenre of the vernacular lexicography subgenre.
If we do, then typology expands the history of lexicography, admitting types of dictionary formerly unnoticed, if not excluded on principle. The history in question isn’t merely that of dictionaries and lexicography, that is, the making of them, but also the history of use and reception of dictionaries or, the examples presented here suggest, innumerable histories of making, use, and reception. Typologies aside, each dictionary has its own histories, as well as contributing to the history of lexicography writ large. Finally, there is no adequate history of lexicography that overlooks dictionaries put to uses other than the canonical ones lexicographers identify. We need to estimate the total range of lexicographical activity, professional or amateur or somewhere in between, and appreciate the roles dictionaries play in all walks of life. Especially, dictionaries and glossaries that support a variety of human activity other than looking up words enact readings of and attitudes about traditional dictionaries and the art and craft of lexicography—we mustn’t overlook that history, either. One surprising feature of reception of these dictionaries is the assumption that they not only inform but entertain, that consumers who become readers of marketers’ dictionaries or dictionary-like works take pleasure in them, which is not an assumption of most professional lexicographers about user engagement with their dictionaries.
What strikes me most in the examples of commercially motivated lexicography I’ve compiled here is the extent to which they involve identity—the identities of business owners, the identities of work-for-hire lexicographers, the identities of consumers. The question of how such dictionaries engage identity deserves much more attention than I can afford it here—it is an open field of importance, not only to metalexicographers, but to marketers. We’re tempted to say that these little dictionaries and foldouts often reflect or express identities of owners, makers, and readers, which is surely true, but only partly, because identity is not static. These dictionaries also help to construct identity, not just brand identity, but the identities of those associated with the brand, at least insofar as consumer identities are shaped partly by participation in brand communities.
For the dictionary makers, identity issues mingle thoroughly with the commercial ones. Paul Gaffey compiled a little dictionary of Australian English, The Wonders of Oz (1990; see Figure 10), for the benefit of tourists who stop at the Hotel Intercontinental in Sydney. His brief foreword (see Figure 11) touches on identity, some of it communal—the dictionary “is meant to serve as an addition to the rich heritage in Australia, that emerges through our unique use of language”—some of it personal—he was an expatriate for a while, and his “status as an author is relatively unknown” in his country of origin. The dictionary would remedy that, he suggests. He thanks Wolfgang Grimm for commissioning the book that would help him recover his Australian-ness and establish him as an Australian author.
For his part, Grimm was delighted to produce The Wonders of Oz. The commercial enterprise afforded him a lexicographical opportunity, just as the lexicographical enterprise afforded him a commercial opportunity. In taking it, he became a dictionary publisher, and an inscription in one copy of the dictionary shows him identifying as one: “To Kevin: From one publisher to the other” (see Figure 12). Some publishers and official lexicographers might disagree with the claim, but it reminds us that the history of lexicography is not only about lexicographical processes and products but about lexicographical people, too, and everyone involved in the works described here belongs in that category to some degree. They bring words, meanings, and the authority of the dictionary to readers who might otherwise not think much of them, by meeting them where they buy and sell, work and live.
Adams, Michael. 2018. Place names and enregistered identity of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Names 66: 186–92.
Adams, Michael, ed. Forthcoming. Problems in Lexicography: A Critical/Historical Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Agha, Asif. 2003. The social life of cultural value. Language and Communication 23 (3–4): 231–73.
Alcatraz Inmate Slang. 2007. San Francisco: Golden Gate National Park Conservancy.
Alper, Noah. 1996. Noah’s Old New York Yiddish Dictionary. San Leandro, CA: Noah’s Bagels.
Bergenholtz, Henning. 2012. What is a dictionary? Lexikos 22: 20–30.
Blair, Les. 1986. Jest Tawk: A Country Dictionary. Osage Beach, MO: Ozark-Maid Candy Kitchen.
Branwen, Gareth. 1997. Jargon Watch: A Pocket Dictionary for the Jitterati. San Francisco: HardWired.
Dictionary of Tanbark Talk. N.d. N.p.: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Familiar Jewish Words and Expressions. N.d. Illus. Syd Hoff. New York: Calvert Distillers Co.
Farquar-Toss, Ribena de. 1997. Roger’s Profanisaurus. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: The House of Viz.
Gaffey, Paul. 1990. The Wonders of Oz. Sydney: Hotel Intercontinental.
Gangster Speak. 1996. Atlanta, GA: Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.
Gouws, Rufus. 2012. Who can really be called a lexicographer? Lexikos 22: 217–25.
Green, Jonathon. N.d. The Language of Food: A Short History of Food Slang Compiled for Batchelors Supernoodles. London: The RED Consultancy.
Green, Jonathon. 2010. Green’s Dictionary of Slang. 3 vols. Edinburgh: Chambers.
Hartmann, R. R. K, and Gregory James. 1998. Dictionary of Lexicography. London and New York: Routledge.
Jacobs, Joseph. 1956. The Joseph Jacobs Handbook of Familiar Jewish Words and Expressions. New York: Joseph Jacobs Organization.
Klosa-Kückelhaus, Annette, and Lotta Stähr. 2020. T-shirt lexicography. Dictionaries 41 (2): 93–113.
Landau, Sidney I. 2001. Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography. New York: Cambridge University Press.
McKennon, Joe. 1993. You’ll Hear It on the Midway … But What Does It Really Mean? Cincinnati, OH: Gold Medal Products Co.
Medley, Tom. 1963. Hot Rod Jargon. Los Angeles: Capitol Records.
Nagy, Andrea. 2004. Life or lexicography: How popular culture imitates dictionaries. Dictionaries 25: 107–21.
Nkomo, Dion. 2020. Vernacular lexicography in African languages: From early days to the digital age. Dictionaries 41 (2): 213–43.
Racing Terms/Betting Terms. 1994. Culver City, CA: Jack Nadel, Inc.
Russell, Lindsay Rose. 2020. Dictionary, shaped: Artists’ books and lexicography. Dictionaries 41 (2): 115–46.
Thorne, Tony. 2014a. Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. Fourth edition. London and New York: Bloomsbury.
Thorne, Tony. 2014b. The Word on the Street: The Spitfire Guide to Street Slang. Faversham: Shepherd Neame.
Pronunciation in General Language Dictionaries
Pronunciation in general language dictionaries is an interesting topic. Today, people looking up words on electronic devices are able to hear a standard pronunciation of a word by clicking on an icon. My guess is that most people on devices that reproduce audio pay little attention to the written representation of pronunciation in dictionaries of English, which may use the International Phonetic Alphabet or some system of respelling. This is a far cry from earlier periods, when printed dictionaries contained extensive guides to pronunciation in the front matter. To cite just one example that everyone can consult freely on Internet Archive, the 1910 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language based on the International dictionary of 1890 and 1900 published by G. & C. Merriam (now Merriam-Webster) has an extensive (and very interesting in my opinion) Guide to Pronunciation that runs 39 pages long, including the 15 pages devoted to the ‘Synopsis of Words Differently Pronounced by Different Orthoëpists.’ In terms of pronunciation, current printed dictionaries of English contain a guide to the symbols used in representing pronunciation, but little more. It would be difficult to imagine a dictionary of English without information on how words are pronounced, however, because of the less-than-transparent relationship between English orthography and pronunciation.
Authors often contrast the complex case of English orthography and pronunciation with that of Spanish, which is assumed to be simple. Comments like the following are not difficult to find in the literature (both these quotes are taken from chapters in The Oxford Handbook of Lexicography (OUP, 2016, P. Durkin, ed.): “Polish, Hungarian, or Spanish, for example, have regular, predictable syllable stress and a simple one-to-one relationship between orthography and pronunciation. All that a speaker requires to pronounce every word originating in such languages accurately is knowledge of the relevant phonological rules and alphabet (including accents and diacritics). Guidance would only be needed for unusual items such as loanwords and place names.” (C. Sangster, ‘Pronouncing Dictionaries,’ pg. 292); “For many European languages, for example Czech, Finnish, Hungarian, Slovak, or Spanish, the problem [representing pronunciation in dictionaries intended for general readers] does not present itself in this form, since the vast majority of spellings are immediately pronounceable without any difficulty (although the precise realization may differ in different varieties of the language)” (G. Pointon, ‘The Representation of Pronunciation in General Dictionaries,’ p. 473). I certainly have no quibble with the observation that letters-to-sound mapping is much simpler in Spanish than in English, but I do think that the underlying premise of Spanish pronunciation being so obvious to readers of general dictionaries needs further comment. The Spanish Royal Academy (Real Academia Española) determines what constitutes standard Spanish around the world; words and senses that are included in the Academy’s dictionary (currently entitled Diccionario de la lengua española) are considered standard and eligible for use in edited publications around the Spanish-speaking world. If the Academy included pronunciation in its dictionary, its license of a certain pronunciation would likely exclude some pronunciations from the standard. It is not the case that the Academy is not concerned with orthography and pronunciation: in recent years, it has published books that discuss both at length (Ortografía de la lengua española, Espasa Libros, 2010, 864 pages; Nueva gramática de la lengua española: Fonética y fonología, Espasa Libros, 2011, 608 pages). I would argue that that the Academy believes that what is considered standard pronunciation of Spanish has too many variants to be included in a dictionary, and as a result it deals with those variants in a separate volume. In other words, if speakers of Spanish want to consult the pronunciation of a sequence of letters, then they must look the information up in the corresponding volume of the grammar, not in the dictionary.
A similar situation is true of Catalan. Catalan orthography and pronunciation are more complicated than Spanish orthography and pronunciation: there are grave and acute accents, and there are more sounds and more phonemes than in Spanish. Like English, there are often several letter sequences that have the same pronunciation (for example, the voiced palatal affricate like that in the English word ‘judge’ can be spelled with tj, tg, or dj, depending on the position within the syllable and the etymology; the sound [s] may be spelled with s, ss, c or ç). Catalan dictionaries do not include a representation of pronunciation precisely because both the Catalan language academy (the Institut d’Estudis Catalans) and commercial publishers want all Catalan speakers to feel represented by the information in general dictionaries so that they feel confident to speak the language in public, despite the very notable differences in pronunciation across dialects. For many years now, there has been some political pressure from certain conservative groups to “divide” Catalan speakers and convince speakers from Valencia, Alicante, and Castellón—who call their language valencià—that they speak a language that is different from Catalan (there is no linguistic basis to that argument). If dictionaries, as they strive to describe the language of an entire speech community, provide the most widespread pronunciation of Catalan, which is that of Catalonia (including Barcelona), then speakers of valencià and of other dialects (such as that spoken in Majorca, for example) may be led to believe that they actually do not speak Catalan, which would certainly exacerbate the already precarious social situation of the language, as it is under much pressure from Spanish. Of course, dictionaries could include several pronunciations, but in a context like that of Catalan this may not be feasible because of the resources available to dictionary-making and because a very large percentage of the vocabulary would need several pronunciations. There is a general feeling among Catalan lexicographers that providing only one pronunciation excludes many speakers whose pronunciation is, in fact, considered standard for a particular geographic area, and providing several pronunciations might result in speakers saying the language is simply too complicated (speakers already say that about spelling) and as a result resort to speaking Spanish, in public and in private.
In sum, I think the view expressed by Sangster and Pointon is only part of the story. English exhibits a particularly complex relationship between pronunciation and orthography, and general dictionaries do a good job of providing users with model pronunciations (it would be remiss of me to not mention here that the wonderfully clear pronunciation of our Newsletter’s editor, David Jost, can be heard on the American Heritage Dictionary website). Speakers expect general language dictionaries of English to provide guidance on pronunciation. I think most speakers likely to look up a word in a dictionary know that there are several standard ways to pronounce English and understand that the audio provided is that of standard speech, but there may be other pronunciations from other dialects that would also be considered standard. In other languages, however, the prescriptive nature of information in dictionaries is especially forceful, and as such the inclusion of a particular pronunciation may be problematic. Some lexicographic traditions have chosen to forsake including pronunciation in general dictionaries altogether, and that decision is not only grounded in the relative simplicity of the language’s written representation of sound.
Those Fascinating Exhibits
Part of the bread and butter of a rare books, or a special collection, operation is exhibits to raise interest in holdings, support a particular event, or facilitate ongoing research. Nowadays, these may be actual exhibits or virtual ones. In fact, an individual with access to the Internet may visit various collections online and create in some cases a virtual exhibit of holdings on the fly. A favorite online haunt of mine has been The Internet Archive, where, for instance, I searched recently on Ambrogio Calepino and created a selection of digitized dictionaries held by libraries hither and yon. For most of these works, I was able to view and page through images of the contents. I recommend checking out this resource at http://archive.org for similar searches; it’s fun and may turn up something unexpected.
This is a partial screen capture of a search on “Ambrogio Calepino” on The Internet Archive. Try some other searches to see what you come up with.
Of course, there’s nothing that beats an in-person experience to gain an appreciation of the treasures which are found in museums and libraries. This has certainly been the case at DSNA meetings. Like all of you, I have enjoyed the many exhibits proudly provided for us at various venues associated with our Society’s biennial gatherings. I remember a walk-through library trip in Toronto which made me realize I could have easily added another layer of dictionary collections to the seven Northern American collections I treated in 2011 in an article published in Dictionaries.
One of my favorite DSNA exhibits was the permanent one at the University of Chicago featuring cuneiform tablets and other artifacts which support the Chicago Hittite Dictionary Project of The Oriental Institute. Not only was the exhibit informative, but it was also visually stunning. The recent acquisition by the Lilly Library of the Barnhart Archive was received in the nick of time to be exhibited at the 2019 DSNA at Indiana University. I’m sure many attendees found it rewarding.
Portions of the Cordell Collection of Dictionaries, as it’s commonly known, are on permanent display, although initially it was intended that all of it be on display to the public in glass cases in a specially designated space, the Cordell Room. However, the collection Warren Cordell donated to Indiana State University in 1969 began to grow almost immediately.
The growing collection had to be kept in an extension library in the science building until 1973 when it was transferred to the new main library. Meanwhile, the Cordell Collection had sometimes increased in its holdings by hundreds of volumes at a time, according to purchase records. The Cordell Collection soon outgrew its special room (see below) and spread into a neighboring room which had been intended for another collection. When the collection outgrew both these exhibit spaces, part of the collection was moved into a closed-stack room known as the Vault.
The Cordell Room, ca. 1975. The collection was displayed in glass cases, serving as a permanent exhibit. We would be aghast nowadays to see books propped open permanently with their contents exposed to such harsh and harmful lighting. All Cordell photos provided courtesy of Special Collections, Indiana State University Library.
By the time I arrived in 1986, the Special Collections Department had no available room for any additions to its 13 major collections. Some of the larger books in the Cordell Collection, I was told, were stored on the floor at the end of book stacks and in other nooks and crannies. I can only imagine this, as I have never seen a photo of it—I think this was something no one wanted to advertise.
The completion of in-progress renovation of the department became one of my duties when I assumed my position. This added a storage room which increased the capacity of the department by more than 50%. Various collections were transferred to this space, including certain portions of the Cordell Collection. Other enhancements were made, including replacing direct lighting with indirect lighting. I will note that I endured the herringbone carpet seen in the photo above for several years—it made me dizzy—before it was finally replaced.
As you might imagine, changes have continued since my departure. But in 2021, the Cordell Collection is again running out of space, as it continues its mission of acquiring and making word books available to researchers. Of course, significant portions of the Cordell Collection remain on permanent exhibit.
The Cordell Collection hosted several exhibition events while I was associated with it and others after my retirement in 2012. In 2009, the Cordell Collection, in association with the university administration and the library, hosted a walking tour of the collection along with a festive dinner afterwards for the DSNA meeting hosted by Indiana University. “A Way with Words,” a fundraiser in combination with the Schick Lecture Series sponsored by the Department of English, took place in 2017. A walk-through exhibit was provided to interested persons. In 2019, the Cordell Collection was a destination exhibit for interested attendees at the DSNA meeting hosted by Indiana University. Many of the items pulled from the collection for closer inspection were keyed to papers that DSNA members were giving at the event.
Other examples from the Cordell Collection:
Peter Roget’s 1852 Thesaurus in original binding, housed in a clamshell case.
A selection of various dictionaries, including a seven-language Calepino dictionary. The Cordell Collection is believed to possess the most extensive collection of Calepino dictionaries anywhere. It continues to acquire them.
Not only does the collection contain traditional general dictionaries, but it has many special dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other word books.
This will be my last issue of the DSNA Newsletter. It has truly been an honor and a privilege to follow in the footsteps of my predecessors beginning with Edward Gates. My sincerest gratitude goes to all those who made it possible for me to do this work.
I want to single out a few who did special work for the Newsletter. First and foremost is Peter Chipman who edited all the online issues. Steve Kleinedler gave me his services while Peter worked at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Peter continued his work after he went to MIT.
David Vancil contributed many times with articles on collecting and also recruited others to write on the subject. Lise Winer regularly gave us lists of conferences that were relevant to our field.
Several people have agreed to write regular columns for the Newsletter. In alphabetical order they are Michael Adams, Janet DeCesaris, Connie Eble, Orin Hargraves, and Elizabeth Knowles. Almost all of them have work in the current issue.
I also want to point out that tributes to Ed Gates can be found in both the Spring 2016 and Spring 2017 issues.
Finally, I will share a cartoon in which I appear in my role as judge for the annual spelling bee held by First Literacy of Boston, which supports efforts on behalf of adult literacy.
A number of those in our field have died recently. Thus this Newsletter has a special In Memoriam section. The remembrances are given in alphabetical order.
“Canada’s Word Lady”: Katherine Barber (1959-2021)
By Stefan Dollinger
On 24 April 2021, Katherine Patricia Mary Barber, grand dame of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, passed away in Toronto at the hand of a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. She was 61. Katherine leaves behind a profound legacy of reference works of Canadian English, big and small, and two well-made general-interest books on Canadian English. While her flagship reference work has not been maintained since 2008 [last ed. 2004] – in what I call an industry-wide problem below –, her Twitter account, @thewordlady, as well as her blog, katherinebarber.blogspot.com, act as her public record since then, which will be valuable for historians of Canadian intellectual life.
I met Katherine – Canada’s Word Lady, as she was stylized in the media – for the first time in 2007. She was a linguistic celebrity and at the peak of her game, commanding a capacity crowd of nine or ten dozen readers on a nation-wide book tour at Vancouver’s Public Library. The book to be promoted had the enticing title Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs: And Other Fascinating Facts About the English Language. In it she did what she did best: explain complex linguistic scenarios with simple, accessible words, and a sprinkling of fun. I remember her “English squish-and-mush” rule, or the like, a name she used to synthesize the massive French influence on English before Chaucer’s time. Very funny, very effective, very correct. When I hypercritically reviewed her 2008 Only in Canada: You Say: A Treasury of Canadian Language, it was, not just for an academic review, profoundly appreciative as well.
At the VPL, Katherine – exceptionally smart, engaging, gracious, funny, quirky, kind, and full of surprises – was at her summit, but then again, her stellar light must have been already on the decline. After all, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the “CanOx”, as UBCers know it, had been a massive best seller, a cash cow, staying on the bestseller lists for years since publication in 1998. Little more than a year after the Vancouver talk, however, Katherine’s publisher would shut down the entire Canadian reference operation at Don Mills, Toronto: the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, its spin-off and school dictionaries, usage and spelling guides and let Katherine and her six lexicographical staff off. The publisher giveth, the publisher taketh.
After her talk she, the famous lexicographer, would take me, the recent postdoc, on a walk around the 10 km Stanley Park Seawall. Her company paid for the cab to the park and a snack. OUP Canada, I imagined, could afford such treats, as CanOx had been without competition for about a decade, a real monopolist, owed to Katherine’s PR savvy and networking skills, which were highlighted by many of her obituary writers. Katherine’s playful and joyful way to work the Canadian media outlets, defeated – on PR and marketing, not on scholarly standards – not two, but de facto three excellent desk dictionaries of Canadian English in what I once called the Great Canadian Dictionary War: the Gage Canadian (without taboo words), the ITP Nelson (with taboo words) and, even preventing publication at a late stage of a Fitzhenry Whiteside desk dictionary (see David Friend’s obituary of Fraser Sutherland in this issue).
About a decade after – in hindsight – destroying the financial basis of the entire competition in the moderately-sized Canadian English reference market – a market created by W. J. Gage Ltd. since the 1950s –, the CanOx would be shut down by her English publisher. It didn’t make enough money. A business move, no doubt, likely motivated by high costs (e.g. 1991-1998: only costs, including staff, but no dictionary and therefore no sales; as of 2005: a slumping paper dictionary market). Despite assurances, 13 years on and we haven’t seen an update, however minor, of the CanOx “from England”, as claimed in 2008.
The headline of Katherine’s obituary in the New York Times reads that she “defined Canadian English”. What an appropriate appreciation. Right here, however, we have the one trope that can be considered a problem in a private, enterprise-driven Canadian English publishing industry: a tendency, owed less to Katherine’s preference but to unwritten rules of the game, to short-change those on whose work she was able to flourish. There were many: companies – Gage Ltd, Nelson Inc –, scholars, Walter S. Avis (obituary in World Englishes Vol. 1, 1980), C. J. Lovell (Canadian Journal of Linguistics 1960), P. D. Drysdale (Canadian Journal of Linguistics 2021) and Matthew H. Scargill (Globe & Mail, 20 Aug. 1997), and lexicographers, such as T. K. Pratt or Gaelan Dodds de Wolf (all of Gage Ltd/Nelson Inc).
Short changing is usually owed to business pressures and the need for PR, company-loyal PR, that other scholars-turned-lexicographers have critiqued (e.g. T. K. Pratt). When the Globe & Mail, for instance, quotes Katherine as saying that “We had almost no Canadian primary research to rely on,” from a 2005 text, Katherine either had unrealistic expectations of the kind of studies she’d find, or she took for granted the 60 years of research that she built on. That work included then recent and exciting findings by top-notch linguists J. K. Chambers and Charles Boberg on words in Canadian English – the very thing she was studying (see the the 2019 history of lexicography, Creating Canadian English with Cambridge UP).
That something has – structurally – been not quite right with the English-language reference publishing can be surmised by Katherine’s decision to carve an entirely new career for herself after CanOx was mothballed. That she guided international ballet tours with her own company speaks to her passion, conviction, dedication and persuasion skills, offering a new kind of high brow tourism. Perhaps she enjoyed, post-2008, more time with her choirs, which she attended with at least another profound language expert, professor Carol Percy. That passion of hers, choral singing, it is claimed in Creating Canadian English, can be detected in Katherine’s lexicographical work. Katherine, for instance, adapting the Concise Oxford Dictionary’s entry in her work towards CanOx-1 (1998), put hand to take up. Meaning #6 was added and defined as ‘join in (a song, a chorus etc.)’. Coincidence? Hardly.
Meaning #9 of take up, however, was also added, ‘go over the correct answers to (homework, an assignment, a test, etc.)’ in what we now know is an expanding Canadianism. Katherine, lacking a connection to academic research programs of usage in Canada (which were – and are still – rare, underfunded, or student-led initiatives) could not really know that at the time. So, while she – correctly and remarkably – added meaning #9 to the raw text she worked from (the 8th edition of the Concise), she did, in a puzzling move, not label it “Cdn.”; in neither of the two CanOx editions. Since quite a few words were bestowed with the label “Cdn.” in her dictionaries, some that do not deserve that appellation by any stretch of the imagination (also in Creating Canadian English), we have a remarkable situation that can best be explained socially: with almost the entire CanOx team hailing from the “core area” of take up #9 (SW Ontario and NW Manitoba), they used it the expression natively but had no clue it was Canadian. Take up #9, and this is the punchline, is likely representative of a big chunk of Canadian English awaiting discovery. In other words, there is still plenty of work to do.
Katherine’s career – its lexicographic rise and fall – suggests that dictionaries should be considered essential services. Just as we should not sell our infrastructure, roads, harbours and internet nodes to offshore investors, we should not outsource our key dictionaries, not even to “friendly” companies. These companies inevitably have their own goals and will pull the plug on “foreign” products more quickly than their own. Katherine was in the midst of all of this. The ultimate fault, however, cannot be with a foreign publisher – that, after all, trained Katherine before she started on a dictionary that, for seven years, only cost money. So much that even the absolute Canadian bestseller would not turn a lasting profit in a shrinking paper market. OUP was just doing their business job and doing it well.
Fault must be placed, fair and square, with an academic linguistics that has belittled for half a century the needs of speakers, writers, the business world and everyone else for their own hunt of the holy grail: the more abstract, the better, the less practical, the sweeter. In a strange twist of affairs, this linguistics has been letting down both the average mainstream English user and the First Nations in Canada. How so? For the latter, how can another PhD on X-Bar Theory assist the dying language it uses as “data”? The former, for the following fact: when OUP came asking in 1991 there was, in the entire country, as T.K. Pratt confirms, not one linguist who would want or be able to run OUP’s new flagship Canadian dictionary. How is that possible?
Then came Katherine Barber. She had a BA in French from Winnipeg, an MA in French from Ottawa, an experience as a research assistant with The Canadian Bilingual [i.e. English-French] Dictionary and knew the country. Her crucial meeting was on Prince Edward Island, a key place of Canadian Confederation, a key place for Canadian lexicography. Even better, perhaps, that she was born in England. OUP hired Katherine, trained her and put her in the driver’s seat of CanOx in a remarkable story of an originally low-profile David commandeering a Goliath project, from 1991 until it was over in 2008. They had a good run, one could say. In 2005, incidentally, the situation was unchanged, when I became editor of www.dchp.ca/dchp2. Again, after no Canadian faculty in Language or Linguistics, and no PhD student from the academic family compact, would touch it. Many years earlier, Lovell, who started the most profound Canadian lexicographical tradition that made Katherine’s work possible, was American and would, like Katherine, also die quite young. Treat your immigrants well!
Public perception has it that an Oxford dictionary must be so much better than one from Gage, Nelson, or Fitzhenry-Whiteside. That is, of course, nonsense. Katherine knew that but was not allowed to publicly say so. And why bite the hand that feeds you? It was a beautiful symbiosis while it lasted. I imagine, however, what the lexicographic world would have looked like without legal clauses, constraints and business secrecy, a world in which collaboration is built into company philosophy for better dictionaries rather than the one-directional goal of better profits at the expense of everything else. As every Canadian writer, editor, journalist – in short: person of letters – will tell you, who now has to make do without resource #1, a reliable, up-to-date dictionary (in app format or, alternatively, on paper as print-on-demand): that’s a mighty high price to pay for private business successes.
Imagine what a new collaborative Canadian dictionary, in Katherine’s memory, might be able to achieve today. As her nephew tweeted: “She expressed profound satisfaction at having contributed to the cultural life of this country, having literally defined the language we speak.” For about a decade and a half, Katherine was the go-to person. Imagine how excited she would be for an adequately funded national research unit that would produce a born-digital dictionary. Tax dollars can be spent much worse. I think this time around we would stick all our heads together in a country that is too big to be covered by one company alone and is too small for us all not to realize that we are all playing on the same team
During her time at OUP, Katherine developed into a formidable force, though she too, had to operate in this suboptimal model, much like the OED’s early Murray or Burchfield. On Oct. 8, 2020, Katherine retweeted a message by @CanE_Lab in what seems to be her last tweet: “@thewordlady discovered this one. #CdnWrdoWk #87 is a really slangy one: Molson muscle ‘beer belly’. …”. Late academic recognition, however informal, for one of the best Canadian word sleuths: Katherine will be sorely missed – the ballet aficionado, pastry baker (including the internationally unknown Linzer Torte), choir singer, cat lover and lexicographer extraordinaire – as she takes her place, I imagine, in the gallery of spokespeople for English Canada’s linguistic autonomy, next to Lovell (1907-1960), Avis (1919-1979), Scargill (1916-1997), Sutherland (1946-2021) and Drysdale (1929-2020).
Remembering Ronald R. Butters: February 11, 1940 – April 6, 2021
By Edward Finegan
After fighting the disease for several years, Ronald Butters lost his battle to cancer at age 81. Ron was a life member of the Dictionary Society of North America and a regular attendee at its biennial meetings. Among many contributions to the Society, he organized the 2003 biennial meeting at Duke University, where he spent his entire career as a faculty member and administrator. While Ron was also well known in other organizations, including the American Dialect Society and the International Association of Forensic Linguists, both of which he served as president, here I focus on his involvement in DSNA and on his dictionary and lexicographical work, which were intimately tied to his research into American English and to his engagement with forensic linguistics.
After completing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa, Ron started as an assistant professor at Duke University in 1967 and retired from Duke in 2007 as Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Cultural Anthropology. Over the course of four decades he chaired Duke’s English Department and Duke’s Linguistics Program for several terms each. He also co-chaired the North Carolina State University-Duke University Doctoral Program in English Sociolinguistics for eight years. At various times, he taught as a visitor at the University of Bamberg, Cadi Ayyad University, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, and the International Summer School in Forensic Linguistics. In editorial capacities he served as editor of American Speech from 1996 to 2007 and as co-editor of The International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law from 2007 to 2010.
Ron was an active DSNA member and most recently presented a paper on “Fire Cider” at the Bloomington biennial in 2019; and on “Killer Tomato” at the Barbados biennial in 2017. But he also presented a paper on “Down on the pharm: ‘Convenience’ abbreviations in authoritative dictionaries” in Athens in 2013; on “‘Chocolate chip’ and the silent subreption of the lexicon: A forensic linguist at work” in Montreal in 2011; on “A harmless drudge at work: The thoroughly tedious etymology of crack ‘smokable cocaine’” in Bloomington in 2009; on “‘Legal evidence and lexicographical methodology: Life’s Good” in Chicago in 2007; and on “The dictionary treatment of similatives” in Boston in 2005 (with Sarah Hilliard). He gave papers as well at the DSNA meetings in Cleveland in 1995 and Madison in 1997. With Margaret Wolfram, Ron co-organized the 2003 biennial at Duke, and at the meeting Jennifer Westerhaus (now Jennifer Adams) and Ron jointly presented a paper on “Trademark, metaphor, and synecdoche in dictionary labeling.” Ron also published prolifically, including several major contributions to Dictionaries – in 1998, “Cary Grant and the emergence of gay ‘homosexual’; in 2001, “We didn’t realize that lite beer was supposed to suck!”: The putative vulgarity of ‘X sucks’ in American English”; and in 2015, “Using lexicographical methodology in trademark litigation: Analyzing similatives.” He also attended other DSNA meetings, including the Vancouver biennial in 2015, but I haven’t been able to document his giving a paper there.
Ron’s connection to dictionaries wasn’t only as a scholar. Starting in 1999 he served as an Editorial Advisory Board member for the New Oxford American Dictionary and as NOAD’s expert advisor on vulgar terms and terms relating to homosexuality. According to a declaration he filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office in support of registering DYKES ON BIKES as a trademark, Ron reported that he “personally read, revised as necessary, and passed final judgment on the definitions given for such terms, including the entry for dyke.” That experience, that credential, gave him notable street cred, and the USPTO, after previously rejecting the application, changed its mind and issued a registration for DYKES ON BIKES.
Over the decades that encompassed our colleagueship and friendship, Ron was totally at home in his own skin. To illustrate the point, I cite but one amusing story (aspects of which I can confirm personally). When the American Name Society met alongside the American Dialect Society and the Linguistic Society of America in Oakland, California in 2005, Ron chaired an ANS session called “Queer Names of Stage, Screen and Fiction,” and he presented the session’s first paper – on “Names in queer novels before Stonewall” (Mr. Right and Deli Pickup, among them). Following his talk, North Carolina State University grad student Phillip Carter spoke on “The social meaning of drag queen names.” For an awkward moment once chairperson Ron opened the Q&A following Carter’s talk, the room fell silent. Breaking the silence himself, Ron puckishly asked Carter for his drag name! Carter blushed, I’m told (my memory fails me on that detail), but when Ron followed up by announcing “for the record” that his was Cocoa Butters, he conveyed a striking easiness with the humanity of his gesture and made possible a lively discussion following an awkward inquiry. (See Harmanci 2005.) The incident highlights something at the heart of Ron’s gift to be himself and simultaneously challenging, on the one hand, and put people at ease, on the other.
While Ron was generous and deeply, personally caring, he could also be quite critical, sometimes seemingly without realizing how his criticism might sting. When Cambridge University Press published Language in the USA: Themes for the Twenty-first Century, a collection of some 26 chapters edited by John Rickford and me, it wouldn’t have been straightforward for journal editors to identify knowledgeable reviewers who hadn’t contributed a chapter. In inviting contributors, Rickford and I had various constraints to honor and balances to strike, and while we sought Ron’s valued advice on some matters, we did not invite him to contribute a chapter. Thus free to assess the volume, his published review in Language pulled no punches, especially in discussing the chapters that he saw as insufficiently thought-through on politically and socially sensitive issues like language preservation (Butters 2007). Similarly, as president of the International Association of Forensic Linguists, his 2011 presidential address took aim at the work of some forensic linguists, two in particular whom he named, thus prompting the editors of the proceedings, which included a revised and modulated version of the address, to invite a notably fair-minded scholar (and former IAFL president himself) to contribute a concluding chapter to the volume, a paper that had not been presented at the meeting and seems intended in part to salve feelings. In one of those academic workarounds that a collegial atmosphere dictates and that makes one envious for its subtlety, the editors wrote this about the concluding chapter they had invited to balance Ron’s address: “To commemorate Butters’ term as the President of the IAFL, Larry Solan kindly accepted an invitation to write a response to the plenary address, which we include in these pages as a way to stimulate discussion in an area close to Ron’s heart.” (See Tomblin et al., eds. 2012: 8.)
Also close to Ron’s heart was the matter of ethics in scholarly and professional publishing and in the practice of forensic linguistics, and he was centrally influential in moving several organizations to adopt codes of practice. (See, e.g., Butters 2009.)
Bigger than life he was, and Ron will be missed. Besides his colleagues at Duke, in the American Dialect Society, the International Association of Forensic Linguists, DSNA, and other organizations, Ron is survived by his two daughters, Rachel Willis and Catherine Blum, and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He also leaves behind Stewart Campbell Aycock, his husband and, for many years before they were able legally to marry, his beloved partner.
Butters, Ronald R. 2007. Review of Language in the USA: Themes for the Twenty-first Century. Ed. by Edward Finegan and John R. Rickford. Language 83 (3): 883-886.
Butters, Ronald R. 2009. The forensic linguist’s professional credentials. International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law 16 (2): 237-252.
Harmanci, Reyhan. 2005. Name games/The semantics of sexuality. SFGATE. Available at www.sfgate.com/living/article/NAME-GAMES-The-semantics-of-sexuality-2703404.php [accessed Aug. 6, 2021].
Tomblin, Samuel, Nicci MacLeod, Rui Sousa-Silva, and Malcolm Coulthard, eds. 2012. Editors’ introduction. Proceedings of the International Association of Forensic Linguists’ Tenth Biennial Conference. Birmingham, UK: Centre for Forensic Linguistics, Aston University.
By Victoria Neufeldt and Stefan Dollinger
Patrick Docker Drysdale, a charter member of the DSNA, died December 9, 2020 in hospital in Oxford, England, after a brief illness. He was 91 years old. From the beginnings of our Society, Paddy, as he was known, was a strong supporter of the idea of a formal organization representing the still little-known field of lexicography. When the original 24 members (the Founding Members) sent out news of the new society after the founding meeting in 1975 and invited people to join, he signed up right away and invited his dictionary editors to join as well. He attended the first official meeting of DSNA in 1977 and was a regular participant in meetings until he and his wife, Olwen, returned to England in 1982.
Paddy was born in the county of Shropshire, England on July 9th, 1929. His family roots were in the village of Radley, in Oxfordshire, where he returned when he went back to England. There he continued his involvement with the DSNA and with lexicography on a part-time basis for some years, often serving as a consultant on Canadian English, but he also returned to earlier preoccupations, theatre and history, and with Olwen was able to indulge a lifelong love of travel. He became an expert on the history of the Radley district, writing two well-regarded books on the area.
He maintained his strong interest in theatre from his early youth, that found its expression in stage managing and later in writing plays. He was particularly fascinated by the mediaeval period and the legends of King Arthur.
His contribution to Canadian lexicography is seminal. By good luck, he came in at the start of the first major Canadian lexicographic venture in English. He had come to Canada from his native England in 1955, working in St. John’s, Newfoundland as the stage manager of an English theatre company. He left that work the following year and took a position in academe, as an assistant professor of English at Memorial University. This put him in position, in 1958, to catch the eye of the leadership of the educational publisher W.J. Gage Inc. in Toronto, who had just committed the company to publishing a series of three graded dictionaries of Canadian English for schools and also to creating and producing a dictionary of Canadianisms on historical principles from scratch. This was a huge commitment for a relatively small commercial publisher in Canada and Paddy was offered the job of overseeing these projects. He took it on in 1959 and made history. The three school dictionaries in the Dictionary of Canadian English series plus the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP) collectively “succeeded in bringing Canadian English into print, and, more importantly, into our consiousness” (J.K. Chambers, 2019). Paddy had accepted the job “almost on a whim”, he said [footnote: personal conversation with Prof. Stefan Dollinger, 2017], relocating with Olwen to Toronto, trading both the theatre and academe for what became an equally strong, long-term professional investment in lexicography.
The three school dictionaries were based on the Scott-Foresman school dictionaries, by agreement with that publisher. Academic Canadian linguists were engaged to thoroughly revise the dictionaries for use by their intended Canadian audience. This involved research into actual Canadian usage like it had not happened before, including pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary, and social and cultural preferences. The new dictionaries were completed and published in succession, in 1962 (The Beginning Dictionary), 1964 (The Intermediate Dictionary), and 1967 (The Senior Dictionary). Work on the DCHP was going on at the same time, involving some of the same scholars, particularly Walter S. Avis. So for the period 1959 to 1967, Paddy was always juggling at least two projects at the same time and also overseeing the gathering of citations (examples of actual usage in context). It is astonishing that so much was accomplished with basically one in-house person holding it all together.
DSNA was pivotal in involving Paddy in the last production stages of DCHP-2, in 2017, as one DSNA member knew where Paddy was located and got in touch with him for the new editorial team. Graciously, Paddy wrote a nice foreword, linking the 1967 edition to the 2017 edition. The following year, when preparations were being made for a history of lexicography in English Canada (appeared with Cambridge University Press in 2019 as Creating Canadian English: the Professor, the Mountaineer, and a National Variety of English), Paddy invited the chief editor of DCHP-2, Stefan Dollinger, for an afternoon at his estate in Radley. He and Olwen were reliable witnesses of that first generation of lexicographers of the 1950s and 1960s that is now, with Paddy’s passing, no longer with us.
An appropriate descriptor for Paddy in his contribution to the publication of the original four Gage dictionaries would be ‘linchpin’. He was the one who coordinated everything that came in and went out in the course of the creation of these dictionaries; he was the in-house coordinating editor, a crucial position in a complicated endeavour such as this, involving academic researchers, writers, editors, and in-house production people. All this was in the era of paper, paste-ups, typewriters, mountains of handwritten notes, and hot metal. Paddy was the ideal person for this work, not just because of his love for and understanding of Canadian English and the “art and craft of lexicography”, to quote Sidney Landau, as well as the whole production process involved in publishing books, but also for the kind of person he was: unfailingly, quietly courteous, friendly, and unassuming. He was also completely unflappable — a precious quality in the milieu in which he worked.
Paddy stayed on after 1967, of course, through major revisions of all three school dictionaries in the 1970s and early 1980s, including a significant expansion of the “Senior” volume into the Gage Canadian Dictionary, for use as a general desk dictionary. The GCD was published in 1983, a year after Paddy left Gage, but he was the initiator of that project too. His legacy circle is complete.
–Victoria Neufeldt is an “alumna” of Gage Publishing. She was hired by Paddy Drysdale in September 1973 to work on proposed major revisions of the school dictionaries. She remained on staff after Paddy left in 1982, continuing her work with the Dictionary of Canadian English series, till the end of 1983.
–Stefan Dollinger is Professor of English Linguistics at UBC Vancouver, chief editor of DCHP-2, www.dchp.ca/dchp2. Stefan is also a consultant for the Österreichisches Wörterbuch, 44th ed., 2022 (Austrian German Dictionary) and researches standard language varieties from a pluricentric angle.
Fraser Sutherland (1946-2021)
By David Friend
Fraser Sutherland was a man of letters. That expression is used less frequently now than in the past – more about that later – but it’s a good shorthand for describing the range of his achievements. Fraser was first of all a poet, but he made notable contributions to Canada’s literary culture in many ways for several decades. At different times he was a journalist, an editor, a critic, a writer, a teacher and mentor…and a lexicographer. There are several remembrances of Fraser to be found online, written by people who knew him well and admired him. They are worth seeking out.
The purpose of this particular memoriam is to recognize and appreciate Fraser as a lexicographer. He did the bulk of his lexicographical work in the 1990s, a heyday of dictionary making in Canada. During this time, simultaneously, several publishers decided to create “authoritative” dictionaries that would catalogue, encode, celebrate, and profit from Canadian English. Fraser was the lead on one of those projects – he was the editor of a Fitzhenry & Whiteside general-purpose dictionary, meant to be an expanded and more fully “Canadian” version of their Funk & Wagnalls Canadian College Dictionary. Unfortunately, Oxford’s well-publicized entry into the field killed the new Fitzhenry & Whiteside venture before publication, even though by then Fraser had done a substantial amount of research and definition writing.
Abruptly untethered from that project, Fraser brought his expertise to Nelson, which was also undertaking a major Canadian dictionary. He worked specifically on new Canadian terms and senses, providing both research and completed definitions. Very likely he had done most of that work already and was simply shifting it to this new context. I was one of those Nelson editors who refined Fraser’s work, bringing it in line with our Nelson conventions. It was immediately obvious to all of us that Fraser knew what he was doing. His definitions were deft, economical, clever. They did justice to the citations that accompanied them. We trusted his touch.
Others who worked with Fraser had a similar impression of him. Jan Harkness, who managed Nelson’s dictionary, remembers him this way: “Fraser was an indispensable contributor to the development of the Nelson Canadian Dictionary. Not only a deep repository of Canadian words and phrases, which he defined so aptly with grace and ease, Fraser had an extensive knowledge of the usage, history, and development of the English language in Canada. Fraser was an authoritative voice, a true scholar, and a good-humoured man.”
In the early 1990s, Fraser drafted new entries and definitions for the Gage Canadian Intermediate Dictionary. According to Gage’s Lexicographer, Debbie Sawczak, “Fraser worked freelance, drafting new entries and definitions, and I edited them—thinking to myself, This guy is a more experienced lexicographer than I am, and I’m editing him?! He may not have been much more experienced than I, but his work seemed quite polished to me. I remember him being easy to work with, although I don’t think we actually met face to face over the project. I first met him in person in 1998, after both the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and the Nelson Canadian Dictionary had come out; there was a panel discussion featuring Katherine Barber of Oxford, Fraser, who had worked on the Nelson dictionary, and myself. The three Canadian dictionaries were fierce competitors, of course, but because Fraser and I had already worked together and were familiar with each other’s skill, there was camaraderie and a sense of alliance rather than oneupmanship. I found him to be a friendly, intelligent, and humble guy.”
As late as 2015 Fraser still had connections with Canadian lexicography. Students who chatted with him then, at the DSNA-20 & SHEL-9 Conference in Vancouver, found him hilarious and remarkable…with a flair for cursing. But according to Stefan Dollinger, those same students noted that some of Fraser’s views – not about lexicography, but about the world – were not in sync with the times. This detail is worth including because it is an apt segue to this observation from Fraser himself, found in his 1998 review of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary: “Lexicographers like to believe they are dispassionate scientific recorders of current pronunciation, spelling, meaning and usage. But they underestimate the amount of prejudice, taste and judgment that is always involved.” The shifting over time of prejudices, tastes, and judgments is one of the reasons why dictionaries continuously need to be checked and renewed. Fraser’s observation is a lesson that points in many directions, to all those who curate words and try to represent their meanings, old hands and students alike.
Now, back around to “man of letters.” Google Books Ngram Viewer says that the expression has been steadily in decline from a peak around 1900. It’s an old-school word, for obvious reasons. When Fraser worked on dictionaries and other reference books, Google Ngram Viewer didn’t exist. The online universe was smaller, slower to move around in. Most of us doing lexicography in Canada had no access to corpora. It was a different time. Old school. Fraser came to lexicography in that era. Although I had many amiable conversations with Fraser about words, definitions, and Canadian English, I never asked him how he started with lexicography and how he became so skilled. Did someone teach him? What resources did he have at his side? How did he evolve his methods? All unknown. I regret that I never asked him those questions.
After the Nelson project, Fraser was involved with many other reference works. Because he was reliable and worked quickly, he was a go-to freelancer. Very, very few lexicographers gain anything like a public profile, and there’s not much of a record of the contribution Fraser made to the documentation and definition of Canadian English. Probably he had a bigger impact than we know.
Lexicographers, no matter what discipline they come from, love language. That was certainly true in Fraser’s case. Definition writing is a blend of analysis, precision, intuition, and art. Fraser was very good at it. So I’d like to give the last word to Fraser himself, in which he defines (or at least describes) himself as a poet. Here is the sound of his voice, as preserved in the virtual pages of Encyclopedia.com: “Whether I have written them or not, the poems I would like to write would have the beauty, autonomy, and otherness of a bird, beast, or tree. When I review what I have done, however, it is like reading the work of an eccentric, half-familiar stranger.”
By Joseph Pickett
It is with deep sadness that I report the passing of Hanna Schonthal, fine lexicographer and esteemed colleague. She was 62.
A native New Yorker, Hanna began her career in publishing working as a copyeditor, and then quickly established herself as a lexicographer, working on the International Dictionary of Medicine and Biology (New York: John Wiley, 1986) under the leadership of Sidney Landau.
Hanna then moved to Boston and entered into a long relationship with Houghton Mifflin (later Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) making significant contributions to the Third (1992), Fourth (2000), and Fifth (iterations after 2011) Editions of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, and to many other books. Hanna primarily edited medical and life science entries, but her cosmopolitan background and her familiarity with multiple cultures (she was adept in several languages besides English) enabled her to enrich general vocabulary entries and language notes.
Over the years she served as an editor on many other dictionaries published by Houghton Mifflin, such as various college editions, science dictionaries, dictionaries for children and students. She had the lead role as project editor of the first edition of The American Heritage Children’s Science Dictionary (2003).
Highly intelligent and widely read, Hanna was an adept definer and had superb editorial judgment. She helped shape the character of all the books she worked on, and her wittiness and wry sense of humor leavened the spirits of everyone she collaborated with.
Lexicography was only one of her multiple careers. A determinedly independent and private person, she commanded several different professions, sometimes working full-time at one or another job and sometimes working multiple part-time jobs simultaneously. She worked for many years as a physical therapist and enjoyed seeing the immediate benefit that her skills gave to her clients (a feeling quite removed from her work as a dictionary maker). She also worked as a science writer, primarily for pharmaceutical companies (where the pay far exceeded that of her dictionary work). Somewhere in this mix, she hired on as a curriculum editor for WGBH. And as if all of this were not enough, later in her life she earned a certificate in teaching English as a second language and enlisted her love of language in the service of her students.
She was, in short, a remarkable woman, and I, like many other people, am proud to have known her.
P. K. Saha
The Society has learned that former member P. K. Saha passed away on August 10, 2021. PK’s article on “Dictionary Definitions of Linguistic Terms” appeared in the 1994 issue of Dictionaries. An obituary may be found at
A Life in Lexicography
A colleague of mine, when we were about to advertise a dictionary post, opined that we should regard with some reserve any applicant who declared that they had always wanted to be a lexicographer, since this was not a natural thing to want to be. While I think this might be rather a severe judgement, it does in my experience hold one grain of truth: many people I have known (and I am among them) have come into lexicography sideways. We did not set out with that intention—but, having discovered it, it turned out to be something, at least in my case, that felt a perfect fit with what I wanted to do.
Looking back now I can see that, almost accidentally, I made choices which brought me into the world of dictionaries. I chose to read English at the University of Exeter, which at the time was offering a very traditional curriculum. Everyone had a year of Old English and History of the Language, after which you could opt to specialize with a course that included not just continued Old English and extra Middle English, but also Old Norse. It meant that you missed out on the formal study of later literature, but I felt that I had the rest of my life to read Dickens, while I was highly unlikely otherwise to engage with the sagas in their original tongue. It seemed to me that one of the points of going to university was to encounter just such fields of study – and it remains a great satisfaction to know that I did once read Beowulf and the Laxdoela Saga in the original, while acknowledging freely that I couldn’t do it now. I also became more and more interested in the English language itself—to the degree that when I turned twenty-one (in those distant days, the age of majority) I asked my parents for a set of the Oxford English Dictionary as my twenty-firster. Given that the twelve volumes plus supplement (that is, the First Supplement of 1933) cost £71, the twelve-volume set was a physically and financially substantial gift. Those volumes, later extended by the addition of the modern Supplements, are now rarely touched, since if I want to consult OED I do so online, but they retain an honoured if slightly dusty place on my shelves.
My next significant choice was that I would pursue the study of Old Norse, and consequently I went to Oxford as a graduate student to work on skaldic verse. However, fascinating as I found the study, it was all too clearly unlikely to lead to any sort of gainful employment. A second resource was needed, and it seemed natural to turn to librarianship. Armed in due course with some practical experience in Somerville library, and a library diploma, I looked round for appropriate employment. And at that point, fate very definitely intervened. The Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary advertised for a library researcher. The qualifications they required included knowledge of the language (including Old and Middle English) and experience of librarianship. I applied for the post—and, without wholly realizing it, set the course for the rest of my professional, and to some degree my personal, life. (Any thought that I might in time complete my thesis quite soon faded as I was engulfed by the world of dictionaries; much as I had loved Old Norse, and the intricacies especially of skaldic verse and ‘kennings’, I have to admit that it went largely unregretted.)
Library research for the OED Supplement was specialized, and deserves some explaining. (For an excellent and detailed account, I can’t do better than recommend to everyone Yvonne Warburton’s “Finding the Right Words”, published in Dictionaries in 1986, and readily accessible through Project Muse.) To put it briefly, what Yvonne and I had to do was to check all the details of references for illustrative quotations that Supplement editors wanted to use and—perhaps the real meat of the work—antedate where possible the existing evidence for words which deserved consideration for inclusion, but for which the evidence to date was all too recent. It is extraordinary in 2021, when I can sit at my desk at home in Witney and consult the Bodleian’s online catalogue, or do an online search for a word or phrase across a number of digitized texts, to remember what that kind of research entailed in a pre-online world. Not only were the Bodleian catalogues (two runs of huge volumes of pasted-in slips) in physical and distinctly heavy form, but to order any book you had to fill out a green slip and wait perhaps two days for the book to materialize. Because we would in any case have been ordering an impossible number of books for the unfortunate library staff to transport, we had the privilege of stack access to the Bodleian. You typically spent an hour in the catalogue room compiling a list of books to check on-shelf, and ordering a number for which you knew the only way was to read the whole text, and then (perhaps fortified by coffee) you descended to the depths in the New Bodleian. From the lowest floor (L Floor) you could walk under Bodley Quad to the stacks below the Radcliffe Camera – where, in those days, fiction was shelved. Since on most days you went ‘underground’ by mid-morning, and with a brief respite for a lunch break didn’t emerge until around 4, it was something of a troglodyte existence. But it was fascinating—and, when you succeeded in running a word to earth, enormously satisfying. The value of library training quickly became apparent when searching for a particular item of vocabulary—the trick was to identify a subject field in which it might have been used, and then go to the shelves on which the relevant books were held. (In those days, Bodley classified its holdings rather than, as now, shelving them according only to accession number.) Librarians learn to classify books according to a system; this effectively was classification in reverse. You started with a word, and asked yourself whether there might be a subject area in which it might be in use.
These days, the Bodleian has undergone a considerable makeover—H floor now houses the excellent coffee shop of the Weston Library, as well as its main entrance hall and exhibition space. The area beneath the Radcliffe Camera, and the part of the passageway leading to the Old Bodleian, is open to readers as the Gladstone Link and has undergone a transformation—not just in what books are shelved there, but in the easy chairs, workstations, and good lighting which now make it such a welcoming space—but when I am down there I occasionally think back to the days when I settled resignedly on the somewhat dusty floor to leaf through a detective novel, trying to work out which element of the reference might have been garbled by the reader who had originally noted down the quotation. While I regard the changes with great approval, I am rather glad to have had the chance of knowing the Bodleian in its earlier incarnation.
One of the things I am most grateful for, when I reflect on my life with OUP, was that it regularly offered me the chance to change an established pattern—I found that the point always came when “more of the same” was not going to be enough, whatever the intrinsic interest of the work. Having spent several years looking for the raw material of Supplement entries, I emerged from below ground, and soon found myself engaged with what I still regard as one of the most satisfying parts of my lexicographical life: working on a completely new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in a team led by Lesley Brown, still the best natural lexicographer I have ever known. The original Shorter Oxford, published in 1933, had been a strict abridgement of the parent volume, but the New Shorter incorporated historical evidence not only from the modern OED Supplements, but also from major research dictionaries such as the Middle English Dictionary and the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue. New chronological evidence often made a significant difference to sense order. We were also able to look more critically at OED entries untouched since their original publication and, where appropriate, make different judgements about semantic differentiation. The great satisfaction of working on New Shorter, at the time and in retrospect, was the sense that you were able to clear away the inessentials and look at the mainstream of the language. At the same time the challenge was to make the definitions as clear as possible—since the entries, unlike those in OED, were not supported by blocks of illustrative quotations to give colour and life.
At the same time (this was in the 1980s) technology was of course moving apace. The great project to digitize the OED, later so triumphantly realized, was under way. Colleagues on the Concise Oxford were capturing their own text. And the New Shorter moved from handwritten slips, first to editing hard copy of skeleton entries generated from the OED database, and in the final stages of revision to searching and correcting online. By the time the two volumes of the New Shorter appeared in 1994, it was clear that writing out entries by hand was a thing of the past—and being able to search across your whole text (as distinct from trying desperately to remember where and whether a similar question might have arisen before) was now the natural way. It was an extraordinary change, effectively an industrial revolution, although I am not sure I fully realized at the time how fortunate we were at Oxford in the level of resource that was available to us. Looking back now, I can see it and be thankful.
Completion of any project is also, necessarily a time of change. I had spent ten years on the New Shorter, and covered most of the alphabet, as well as fixing my affections on historical lexicography: I have to confess that neologisms as such are less interesting to me than charting the course of a word through decades and centuries. At the same time, I wanted a new challenge: something that would offer new fields to explore without losing touch with what I valued most about my dictionary experience. Once again, it turned out that I had the great good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. I was offered quotation dictionaries, with the brief to expand the list as well as, in due course, editing the next edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. A further inestimable benefit was the presence as a colleague of Susan Ratcliffe, who had already contributed significantly to the most recent edition. The importance of her further contribution to quotation dictionaries of skill, dedication, and meticulous editing cannot be overstated, and I am lastingly grateful for it.
I am also grateful, looking back, that I was once more in the situation in which I had an enormous amount to learn. Not just about quotations (and I shall return to that in a moment) but also about reference publishing. When I first joined Oxford Dictionaries they had just settled in to their offices at 37a St Giles—physically distant from the main press at Walton Street, and I can see now distant in other ways. We knew a great deal about the refinements of writing dictionaries, but much less about the business of publishing. Fully engaged with a concept of what work is required to achieve an excellent text, it can be possible to see the pressure of deadlines as an invitation to cut corners or compromise quality. While I would never say that that can’t happen, I would suggest that regarded in the right way such pressures can be creative. Working on a complex dictionary entry, like pursuing an item of research, can be immensely satisfying, but it brings its own dangers. One of these is that you will continue working on a single item not because you are really likely to improve the outcome, but because it is a process you yourself enjoy. Deadlines, that essential part of ensuring that the work you produce fulfils its function of putting a dictionary into the hands of a user, help you to the necessary pragmatism. Now too I had to engage with the processes of publishing: not just producing text myself but planning titles, supporting specialist editors, discussing what elements of design would be most attractive and helpful to our readers.
I had also, of course, to engage with the world of quotations itself, and especially, how best to ensure that Oxford dictionaries of quotations were evidence-based, in line with all we were doing in the area of lexical dictionaries. Gradually we built up a systematic ‘Incomings’ reading programme, by which what was being quoted could be captured, filed, and in due course researched. At the same time we began to think hard about how our readers were likely to approach our texts, putting in more navigational aids between related quotes and individual entries. What kind of contextual background was helpful, and how much space could you allow for it? And, of course, what were the key questions they wanted answered—was it Who Said That? What’s Been Said About This? We developed some subject-organized titles which were aimed at the second group. Most of all, however, over my years working with quotations, I became more and more interested in how they are used, and especially in what are termed ‘misquotations’—much more than mistakes, and far more interesting. As I looked at what had become familiar much-quoted versions of an original, it appeared to me that quotations could be as subject to language change as any lexical item. And the change itself, often bringing with it a shift in meaning or emphasis, signified that the quotation had taken on an independent life of its own irrespective of the original wording and context. At the same time I began to research the origins of ODQ itself, and to look at how dictionaries of quotations themselves develop in response to changes in culture and society. Quotations, in short, brought me a new and rich area to explore, but one in which I could deploy the techniques of historical lexicography to some advantage.
I loved the world of publishing, and the chance to build a list—and the decade between the early 1990s and the mid noughties was an expansionist time for dictionaries. But all good things come to an end, and once a list is made it is not generally infinitely extensible. I realized too that, while I had enormously enjoyed my time at OUP, I didn’t necessarily want to hang on desperately until forcibly dislodged—since I thought then, and think from experience now, that “retirement” needs to be much more than stopping. It should be the point at which you still have the energy to begin something new. Once more, the nature of lexicography came to my aid. It is not so easy to retire and remain a publisher; you can however retire as a publisher but convert yourself to an author—especially when online resources make it possible for you to access a database to edit from home. Since I retired from OUP in 2007, I have edited two editions (published respectively in 2009 and 2014) of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and have been able as well to research and write various articles and books. DSNA gave me another learning experience by asking me to edit Dictionaries for some years, as well more recently as paying me the great honour of allowing me to serve as Vice-President/President-Elect and then President. In my free time I can enjoy such diverse activities as “church crawling”, looking for wild orchids, and acting as a school governor—while pursuing further archival research into the background of quotations, and of ODQ.
In 2021, unbelievably 14 years since I retired, I can also watch with fascination how the developments of technology continue to offer a new area to the world of lexicography. (Judy Pearsall’s chapter in the recently-published Cambridge Companion to English Dictionaries has some fascinating insights here.) In 1941, when the first Oxford Dictionary of Quotations was published, the volume served as a useful intermediary between a reader and a whole range of printed texts. Today, many readers can easily make their own direct searches—so, what is the primary function of a dictionary of quotations? We might say authority—but to what degree is that valued by the person who wants a telling, pithy quote by a recognized ‘name’ for their presentation or article? Especially if authority’s response is to say dampeningly that the quotation is apocryphal, or was spoken or written in a different form. The changing role of known dictionary texts is one that needs to be explored for each title. For myself, I can simply enjoy choosing to research quotations and dictionaries, while watching with fascination and gratitude to see another era of change ensue. At the end of 40 years of lexicography I can, in fact, see exactly why one might want to be a lexicographer; I think though that I was very lucky to be able to regard myself as a publisher too.
And there is one final point to make. Despite the myth of the single scholar labouring for years to write a dictionary, all dictionaries are to some extent a team effort: there is no single ‘onlie begetter’. The concomitant to that is that a life in lexicography brings a lifetime too of friendships with valued colleagues—and that, perhaps, is the greatest luck of all.