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.

Wordie Action Alert: Dictionary of American Regional English

The Dictionary of American Regional English is one of the great American scholarly achievements, all four volumes of the planned six volume work having earned endless praise.

I’m looking forward to writing at greater length about DARE one of these days. But poking around on their web site* this evening, I found something that might be of immediate interest, especially to the Americans in the house.

DARE is looking for citations. Anyone from North Carolina know what a “tally-lagger” is? Nantucketers familiar with the term “slatch,” or New Englanders with “sleighty?” The wanted list has a slew of great words on it, all beginning with S or T, all orphans looking for citations. I can’t provide a direct link, sadly, because their site uses frames, but you can find it by going to their main page and clicking on ‘QUERIES’ in the left-hand column.

This reminds me, Jesse Sheidlower still seems to be collecting sci-fi citations, judging from the latest entry on his Science Fiction Citation site, dated January 7, 2008.

If anyone knows of any other dictionaries with open calls for citations, please mention them in the comments.

* They’ve got a lot of interesting content on their site, but it would be wonderful if the dictionary itself was available online. If anyone from the Gates Foundation or the like is listening, this would be a wonderful way to spend some of your filthy lucre.

Punctuational Outburst

A friend in academe sent me a paper on the evolution of language, from this month’s Science. I’m reposting it here, so you can read it for free. Academic journals are a racket.

Even free, I’m not sure you want to bother. “Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts” is boring and largely self-evident*. But mostly just boring: If real language was as dry and devoid of life as most academics make it, I’d give it up. I’d stop reading, stop talking, and just grunt.

The authors lead with an implied claim that American English emerged abruptly as a language when Noah Webster introduced his first dictionary. You could say that publishing a dictionary is a sign that a language has emerged–that dictionaries are symptoms of language. But they insinuate that Webster published his dictionary and, ipso facto, the American Language was created. I can’t imagine the authors actually believe this, but it’s how their forced analogy comes out.

They then present the thesis that, basically, language evolves more rapidly during times of social upheaval. Sure, but how did they discover this? It was “inferred from vocabulary data,” and in a footnote they say their “materials and methods are available on Science Online.” Their methods would have been more interesting to me than their conclusions, and I wish they’d included at least a precis of them in the paper*.

I have no idea of the actual merit of “Punctuational Bursts.” I am, clearly, totally ignorant when it comes to, among other things, linguistics, and in general the academic side of language and words. But wadding through academic writing like this makes me want to cry tears of vomit. Can anyone recommend an intro to or overview of linguistics that’s actually pleasant to read?

* UPDATE: Maybe I was a little gassy or something when I wrote this. I just reread the paper, and yes, it’s rather dry, but I think that’s almost a requirement to get published in a fancy journal like Science. And I wasn’t previously aware of some of the limits imposed by them. See the comments for a response from one of the authors, and yet another lame, arm-flapping mea culpa from yours truly. Note to self: work on impulse control.

When lexicographers strike!

Daniel Cassidy’s “How the Irish Invented Slang” was recently the subject of a flattering (some might say fawning) story in The New York Times.

Grant Barrett, professional lexicographer and the editor of The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English, called bullshit on Cassidy in a post on his blog and here on Wordie. Our own beloved sionnach weighs in as well.

It’s not exactly bareknuckles–this is Wordie, we try to be civilized–but it’s edifying to hear from the pros about what constitutes proper lexicography. I’d like to hear Cassidy’s response (Barrett isn’t the only one to find fault), but as far as I can tell he hasn’t responded to his critics, on Wordie or anywhere else.

The Cupertino Effect

Ben Zimmer* has an interesting and amusing post in today’s OUPblog about the Cupertino Effect: the tendency of spellcheckers, due to outdated dictionaries, bad algorithms, or a combintion thereof, to insert or suggest nonsensical words.

The recent addition of WordNet definitions to Wordie (which I’ll blog at greater length on Monday) was resulting in a version of this before I tweaked the algorithm. As someone famous once said (Barbie, I think), natural language processing is hard.

* update: I incorrectly called Ben “Bill Zimmer” when this was first posted. Not sure where that came from, sorry Ben!

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.

Erin McKean: Redefining the dictionary

LT Tim just sent me a TED talk by Erin McKean, lexicographer to the stars. That’s her on stage, beneath a portrait of Einstein, standing next to what appears to be a giant wooden dodecahedron*. And it looks like there’s some kind of psychedelic light show happening on stage right.

TED’s self-conscious “we’re smart” staging aside, the talk is great, and what she describes toward the end sounds a lot like Wordie, or what I hope Wordie will become. She makes the point that there are lots of good word collecting sites**, but they don’t do enough to show the context of words, to provide sources, citations, and provenance. The comments and citations, the links, jokes, and usage notes on Wordie are my Favorite part of the site, and finding good citations and quotes to add to Wordie has made reading a lot more fun for me, something I hadn’t thought possible. God forbid Wordie ever become too serious an endeavor, but it would be cool if, over time, our collective scavenging helped Wordie evolve into a useful language tool.

* UPDATE: see comments for what it really is
** I disagree. There’s only one 🙂