Telling the life stories of words
By Debra Kamin
Photo by Flora Rocco
What we’re trying to do is to show as much information as possible about every word, and the quality of information that is shown is actually a proxy toward the acceptability of the word.”
Good writing can come alive, but those who study language closely know that each word has a life of its own.
Getting people excited about the inner lives of words is the distinctive mission for a trio of University alumni who have become ambassadors of lexicography. Harnessing their Chicago educations in linguistics and English, the three “wordinistas” are putting a public face on modern language studies.
A passion for word usage and dictionaries animates all three—Jesse Sheidlower, AB’89, Ben Zimmer, AM’98, and Erin McKean, AB’93, AM’93. All of them are helping to shape perceptions about the importance of language, each with a slightly different bent.
For Zimmer, who writes the “On Language” column for the New York Times Magazine, understanding a word means delving into its biography. He likens his work to that of an investigative reporter, unearthing stories that a broad audience would find engaging.
“Being able to stitch together a narrative is what I really enjoy,” says Zimmer, who also is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and vocabulary.com. “It’s telling the life story of the word … I have to do some detective work to really discover what that narrative is going to be.”
Though all three have worked extensively on dictionaries, Sheidlower wrote an entire historical dictionary about that most earthy of English profanities, titling his well-received book, The F-Word. The volume contains more than four thousand quotations, and his 2009 update has nearly twice the text of the 1995 original.
That exhaustive approach serves Sheidlower well in his current role as editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary. Speaking from his Manhattan office, Sheidlower admitted to being a bit tired—the OED, that bastion of lexicographical authority, is currently in the midst of a major overhaul. A fully revised third edition, dubbed OED3, is in the works, which means Sheidlower and his team are sifting, word by word, through the dictionary’s hundreds of thousands of entries.
Sheidlower, who came to UChicago to major in Classics but then switched to English in his final year, relishes his job, he says, because it allows him to view speech through a historical perspective. And no, he says, English is not in crisis.
The railway shaped how we communicate far more than the information superhighway has, Sheidlower argues. Today’s text-happy teens are not degrading the language—if anything, they are doing more informal writing and reading, which he sees as a good thing.
“Everyone always believes, not only with language but with culture in general, that whatever time you’re talking about is the forefront of any change or advance,” he says. “But I think it’s pretty clear that … the changes that happened in the 19th century in the U.K. are vastly greater than what’s happening now.”
Both the past and the present uses of language hold interesting lessons for a general audience, Zimmer says. “I’ve got to be hip, but I also get to be historical,” he says, recalling that one of his first 900-word columns was about the prefix “un-,” as in the Facebook term, “un-friend.”
Erin McKean says she wanted to become a dictionary editor since she was 8 years old. She chose to attend the University of Chicago, where she earned a joint bachelor and master’s degree in linguistics, because its dictionary projects are among the most active in the world.
“I perverted all of the classes I took at the U. of C. to be about dictionaries in some way,” McKean says. “I took feminist theory with Lauren Berlant, and I wrote my paper about the acceptance of ‘Ms.’”
McKean was the editor in chief of the American Dictionaries program at Oxford University Press and the editor of the 2nd edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary. She left Oxford to found Wordnik.com, an online interactive word database that strives to be “the most comprehensive dictionary in the known universe.”
The site offers in-context information for more than 10 million words, and receives more than 1 million unique visitors every month. For any word, the site displays several different dictionary definitions as well as excerpts of the word in actual, printed usage.
“What we’re trying to do,” says the enthusiastic McKean, “is to show as much information as possible about every word, and the quality of information that is shown is actually a proxy toward the acceptability of the word.”
Wordnik’s newest project, called Smartwords, is an open standard for sharing information about words, including dictionary definitions, examples, pronunciations, and more.
Like Zimmer and Sheidlower, McKean believes language is in a good place. The brief writing formats of social media, she says, are driving communicators to be more creative.
“If you’ve only got 140 characters (as with Twitter) and you want to convey something interesting, you’ve got to really work at it,” she says.