A Heartrending Moment: Orthoepy and The OED

This month marks a regrettable turn of events in orthoepic history – the meaning of orthoepy changed in the ongoing online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The two earlier print editions (1933, 1989) defined orthoepy as “correct, accepted, or customary pronunciation.” The “draft revision” of September 2010 shortens that, brutally, to “accepted or customary pronunciation.”

Excising the word correct probably gave the editor who did it a frisson, but it cut the very heart out of this venerable word. The ortho- in orthoepy comes from the Greek orthos, “right, correct,” and “correct pronunciation, or the study of correct pronunciation” has been the core meaning of orthoepy since the earliest English orthoepists compiled their dictionaries of pronunciation in the 18th century. Indeed, the expunging of correct from the online OED’s definition of orthoepy would suggest that there’s nothing, or should be nothing, normative about pronunciation. Yet, curiously, the September 2010 online draft revision does not alter the original definition of orthography: “correct or proper spelling.”

How is it that spelling can be correct or incorrect but pronunciation now cannot? When the OED’s editors get around to revising the entry for cacoepy, currently defined as “bad or erroneous pronunciation; opposed to orthoepy,” will they dilute it to “unaccepted or unusual pronunciation”?

While it’s the proper business of modern descriptive dictionaries to record accepted or customary pronunciations, it’s the proper business of orthoepists to examine what is accepted or customary and opine on what passes muster and what does not. Sometimes what has been accepted by some is objectionable to others: for example, neesh for niche, zoo-ology for zoology, the prissy s instead of the traditional sh in negotiate.

And sometimes what is customary for certain speakers strikes others as slovenly: for example, nucular for nuclear, pronounciation for pronunciation, liberry for library.

Modern dictionaries profess to record pronunciations used by “educated speakers” (if I only had a nickel for every time I’ve heard an “educated” speaker mispronounce a word!) but that’s a deceptively broad category. It comprises anyone who possesses the credentials of an education, from a high school diploma to a Ph.D., and within it there is substantial variation. To the educated person who aspires to be a careful speaker — one whose pronunciation has been arrived at not by imitation, affectation, or conjecture but by careful consideration and prudent choice — a list of pronunciations used by educated speakers is of little help. It conveys only how the word has been spoken, not how it might best be spoken. That is where the orthoepist comes in: as an interpreter and arbiter of correct and cultivated speech.

Standards change over time, of course, but what abides is the natural and admirable human desire to speak in a way that will not attract undue notice or derision. As traditional pronunciations fall into disuse, faddish variants surge to prominence, and the forces of ignorance and pomposity vie for recognition, the orthoepist draws a bold line in the sand and tries, as the English elocutionist John Walker said in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of 1791, “to tempt the lovers of their language to incline to the side of propriety,” and “give such a display of the analogies of the language as may enable every inspector to decide for himself.”

In my next post, I will attempt to give you a capsule history of orthoepy, from Walker and his contemporaries to the present. Meanwhile, as always, I welcome your comments and your suggestions for pronunciations to record.

Happy 80th, OED

In 1857 the “Unregistered Words Committee” of the Philological Society of London published the report On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries, calling for the creation of a new comprehensive English dictionary. Sixty-one years later, on April 19, 1928, the final fascicle of the Oxford English Dictionary was published, covering Wise to the end of W. (Curious about the fate of X, Y, and Z? Me too, but I’m just parroting Wikipedia.)

In celebration of the 80th anniversary of the OED, the Oxford University Press is hosting a series of events around the world. And for the rest of this year, they’re offering the full 20-volume print edition for the low low price of £450 or $850. You can’t afford not to buy it! It’ll probably hold its value better than your stock portfolio, and it’s certainly a lot more fun.

October 12-13
Oxford University, Oxford, England
Charlotte Brewer
Ammon Shea
John Simpson
Simon Winchester

October 22
Century Club, New York, NY
Simon Winchester
Ammon Shea
Jesse Shedlower

November 13, 6:00pm, Brattle Theater
Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, MA
Ammon Shea
Jesse Sheidlower
Simon Winchester

November 18, 7:30-9:00pm
Philadelphia Free Library, Philadelphia, PA
Ammon Shea
Jesse Sheidlower
Barbara Wallraff

Requiem for the print OED

My overlord, the Times (actually, Virginia Heffernan, who I’ve never met), has a nice bit in this Sunday’s Magazine about the end of the printed OED, her discomfort over that, and her chagrined realization that most of her dictionary use has been electronic for some time.

As has mine, but it doesn’t make me love my 1934 Webster’s Second any less. But it illustrates the fact that ginormous printed dictionaries are now fetish objects, as often as not. For practical day-to-day use, the Interblag wins.

Heffernan closes with a few suggested lexicographic resources. One too few, as she omits Wordie. Otherwise a great piece.

New Revision Schedule for the OED

The OED has made a major change to the way it issues online updates and revisions.

Historically OED updates have been released in sequential alphabetical blocks. The December 2007 update, for instance, ran from purpress to quit shilling. The March 2008 update operates on a different model. Rather than a alphabetical block, it consists of words with “significant lexical productivity” and words which will “benefit from immediate review within the dictionary.” In other words, it’s based on relevance, rather than alphabetical order.

Future updates, according to the OED, will alternate between the old and the new model, with the June 2008 update continuing the alphabetical revision from quits, and the September 2008 update switching back to relevance.

This strikes me an eminently sensible. It allow the OED to be (somewhat) timely, while also continuing the systematic alphabetical review of the entire dictionary. Way to go, OED.

On OUPblog: Reading the OED, An Interview with Ammon Shea

The good people at OUPblog asked me to pinch hit for Ben Zimmer yesterday. The very thought of living up to a real live lexicographer sent me into a paroxysm of fear, so I punted, to mix bad sports metaphors, and sent them an interview I did recently with author Ammon Shea.

I had planned to run it in Errata, but Ammon’s most recent book is about reading the OED, all 21,730 pages of it, which he did last year. That heroic effort seemed ideally suited to an OUPblog post, so that’s where it went. I got the book itself the other day, and will post specifically about it closer to its August publication date.

This is the first of what I hope will become a regular feature: the Errata “Legends of Lexicography” interview series.

25 Gifts for Wordinistas

For your literate friends and loved ones, a selection of gift ideas. Items are divided into three sections: stuff, books, and good causes.


“Bookinist” chair. For the Wordie who has everything. It has space for 80 or so books, a built-in reading light, a secret compartment in the arms for your bifocals or whatever, and a wheel. €2,127 (US$3,154), presumably not including shipping from Germany.

Typewriter font coasters. For the Wordie who likes to drink. They’re from the Sundance catalog, which is kind of like the J. Peterman Catalog, but not as classy. The about page is unbearable: “In the beginning for us there was no end. Now, it’s hard to remember the beginning.” Robert Redford: not a Wordie. $8.

Typewriter key cuff links. For the well-dressed Wordie. Available in different keys. $38.

This is prolly my awesomest shirt. For the ironic Wordie. I threw this in because I know how many Wordies detest the words “prolly” and “awesome.” I saw some dude wearing this at my gym and wanted to hug him, but restrained myself, ’cause he prolly would have knocked my teeth out. $21.97.

Scrabble jewelry. For the Wordie who really, really likes Scrabble. Charm, $28. Also available: cufflinks, $85; necklace, $39.95.

Crappuccino Mug. For Wordies who support Wordie… and can’t resist a frothy mug of crappuccino. $12.99.

VoxTec Phraselator. For Wordies abroad. Developed for the U.S. military. Translates phrases from English into one of 60 other languages. It can’t translate in the other direction, but that doesn’t matter, since Americans don’t listen to foreigners. $2300.

Magnetic Poetry. For poets, I guess. Very retro ’90s, but still a crowd pleaser. $19.95.

Wrap a laptop with words. A little more DIY than the others, which is part of the appeal. Use a word list in cloud view as source material, or any other text. Around €25 (~US$37), including shipping.

Fischer Space Pen. For Wordies in Space. Also works well in New Jersey. Note that this image is not to scale: the Space Pen is not actually the same size as an astronaut. $50.

Flowbee. For the well-coiffed Wordie. This has nothing to do with words, other than having an awesome name, and just being… awesome. $59.95.

Sesquipedalian Onesie. Another fine Wordie product. All babies are aspiring Wordies. $10.99.


The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two, by Anu Garag. $10.40.
Anu is the impressario behind WordSmith.org, and has been since 1994. I love that the title includes one of my favorite words ever.

That’s Amore!: The Language of Love for Lovers of Language, by Erin McKean. $8.07.
From Erin McKean, lexicographer to the stars and editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary. I’ve heard her other books are great too.

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester. The classic true story of murder, insanity, and dictionaries. $11.16.

The F-Word, noted lexicographer and OED editor-at-large Jesse Sheidlower’s illustrated lexicon of the word “fuck.” $11.40.

On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt. Which totally sounds like a fake name–c’mon, Harry Wiener? He’s for real, though. He’s a licensed philosopher, at Princeton. This is perhaps more about meaning than language, though the two are intertwined, one would hope. In any case, it makes a fine companion volume to “The F-Word”. $9.95.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Whether you’re a Canadian, or just wish you were, you now have a first-rate dictionary from which to learn the origins of cougar, poutine, shit disturber, and other exotic gifts from the north. $32.59.

Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log, by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K. Pullum. $22.00.
From the folks behind the language log blog.

Mo’ Urban Dictionary: Ridonkulous Street Slang Defined, compiled by Aaron Peckham.

Urban Dictionary is like Wordie’s bad older brother, who taught it to smoke and swear. That doesn’t stop me from thinking it wasn’t a great idea to put “ridonkulous” in the title.

The Oxford English Dictionary, edited by John Simpson and Edmund Weiner. Twenty volumes, 22,000 pages, 500,000 words, 2.5 million quotations. You know you want it. $6,295.00 for the blue leather edition, or $995.00 for the regular binding, plus $60.25 shipping. Or get the CD-ROM version (yes, they still make those) for only $235.00. Or a one year subscription to the online version for $295.00.

Would someone who works at a library please put the CD-ROMs on bittorrent? Please?

Good Causes

826 Valencia
“826 Valencia is dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their writing skills, and to helping teachers get their students excited about the literary arts.”

Founded by meta-memoirist Dave Eggers. And they have a pirate shop!


First Book
“First Book is a nonprofit organization with a single mission: to give children from low-income families the opportunity to read and own their first new books.”


Book Aid International
“Book Aid International promotes literacy in developing countries by creating reading and learning opportunities for disadvantaged people, in order to help them realise their potential and eradicate poverty.”

Founded by “Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly,” who you might think is an 11 year old Harry Potter fan who rules an imaginary kingdom. You’d be wrong, though.

Reading is Fundamental
“Reading is Fundamental prepares and motivates children to read by delivering free books and literacy resources to those children and families who need them most.” Founded by Margaret McNamara, wife of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. I’d make a crack about RIF being some kind of black-ops front organization, except that they do such good work, and I’ve watched so frickin’ many of their PSAs, that I really can’t. I mean shouldn’t.

Citing Sci-Fi

This weekend I stumbled across the Science Fiction Citations project for the OED, run by noted lexicographer and F Word author Jesse Sheidlower. It’s an effort to enlist public help in finding antecedents for words commonly used in science fiction. Citations are added at a slightly slower rate than on Wordie (there’s been one addition to SF Citations so far this year, and four in all of 2006), and the process is, relatively speaking, somewhat rigorous, as you might expect of the OED. But if you’re a serious fan of either science fiction or the OED, it could be a lot of fun. And c’mon–getting a citation in the OED would give you mad, mad Wordie cred.