Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Greetings from the Fringes of English

Grant Barrett, the author of The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English, is living a word lover's dream: By day he's a lexicographer and project editor at the Oxford University Press's "Historical Dictionary of American Slang," and by night he runs the Double-Tongued Word Wrester's Dictionary, his acclaimed website dedicated to hunting "under-documented words from the fringes of English." After getting hooked on his Double-Tongued discoveries -- from bark mitzvah to whoadie to blow a hoolie -- we had to talk to him. Here's our conversation:

VT: How do you find your Double-Tongued words?

Grant: A few years ago I made the realization that when journalists encounter new words in the course of reporting they tend to flag them with other -- often predictable -- words. They'll say things like "known in common parlance as" or "referred to in cop speak as." Over last three years I've created a list of more than 800 of these possible collocations, as they're known in academia. I set Google News to email me an alert whenever it finds one of them.

VT: How does this compare to your work at the Oxford University Press?

Grant: The average is pretty good and it's certainly much better than the traditional method practiced by the OED. There they have people reading works cover to cover, like assigning someone to read all of Dickens or to read everything about aviation. That method is all inclusive but what's a lone lexicographer to do? To create something like my Double-Tongued dictionary, I had to find a way to cut down the workload. Actually, the 800 collocations eventually got too overwhelming, so I trimmed them down to the 200 most productive. But I still get 350 email alerts a day. About one to two percent of them actually produce results.

VT: How do you select which words to include in Double-Tongued?

Grant: There's a little bit of pandering to my audience when I choose words. Personally, I'm most interested when a word of long standing like "heave" develops a new meaning, either in slang, jargon or even normal colloquial English. But the public isn't -- they're not as wonky as I am. They want a little more sparkle. A term like dinosaur wine clearly has that shine. So does turkey peek. These terms aren't immediately transparent; there's something about them that draws the eye and mind both.

The only things that get defined in full entries are those that can be properly substantiated. If there's not enough evidence to prove that they mean what people say they mean, they don't make it. This differentiates Doubled-Tongued entries from words that people make up and try to spread, sniglets and things like that. These are real terms that people actually use.

VT: How do these real terms become real English?

Grant: They already are. We don't have a Royal Academy that officially canonizes words into an "official" dictionary. English really is made up of those words that people use. That's it. It's not more complicated than that. But this defies people's logic. They want there to be an order, they want an authority to turn to. But even the Oxford English Dictionary can't be considered perfectly authoritative. Its editorial cycle is too slow for one thing. It takes decades for a new edition to come out and by then words will have been born, lived and died. All we have to do is use words and they automatically become English.

VT: What makes one word endure and another one die?

Grant: This has been analyzed by some of my colleagues. I'll say the two most important things for a word's longevity are its utility and whether it occupies a niche either as an idea or a thing is not otherwise well cared for in the English language. "Blogger" is a great example. You can say "guy who updates his website in reverse chronological format" but that doesn't work. "Blogger" really summarizes in shorthand the big idea. And it has utility: We have a use for this word no matter how many people think it's repulsive and not going to last. The truth is the word is seven years old and continues to grow.

On the other hand, most words die. Millions of words are coined every year. Most of them fail horribly, as they should.


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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 22nd 2006, 3:55 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for the great interview! I'm a huge fan of Grant Barrett's work (even though I once misspelled his name in a blog post and have never forgiven myself).
Saturday July 4th 2009, 4:55 PM
Comment by: Rodrigo B.
Some time ago, can't recall if it was 2006 or 2007, VT had a web-link to a radio program that focused on proper grammar and word usage. I visited the site (podcast?)and I found it to be very useful. However, many months past since I first entered that site (I was deployed for 18 months -- Baghdad), and I have not been able to find it again. Does anyone know of this podcast and can you please help me find it?

Thank you,

R. H. Blas
Sunday July 5th 2009, 6:14 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Rodrigo: Could it be Grammar Girl or one of the other podcasts listed here?

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