Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Writing Dictionaries

Erin McKean is the editor of the The New Oxford American Dictionary, the New World cousin of the authoritative, if bulky, Oxford English Dictionary (20 volumes!). She fell in love with words early -- Erin's wanted to be a lexicographer since she was eight years old. She got her wish, working on the Thorndike-Barnhart children's dictionaries for eight years after getting a BA/MA in Linguistics. She's been at Oxford since 2000. We spoke to Erin about writing dictionaries:

VT: Let's start with your experience with children's dictionaries. How are they different from the grown-up variety?

Erin: I like to think of dictionaries as toolboxes for readers and writers. Consider the difference between a kid's toolbox and a grownup's toolbox -- kids don't usually get to use the jigsaw. In the same way, when we work on a children's dictionary we look at what words kids are using. What's interesting is that kids often need to know words that you might not expect. Think about all the historical fiction kids read, all those classic "Little House on the Prairie" books. You wouldn't say off the top of your head that a fifth grader would need to know the word "musket."

VT: How did you determine which words to include?

Erin: When I worked on children's dictionaries I spent a lot of time reading Young Miss, Seventeen, Boy's Life and Skateboarding magazines, trying to catch new words that I thought kids may need to know. We also had a really wonderful children's library we referred to.

VT: What about the Oxford American Dictionary? How does the toolbox metaphor apply?

Erin: Sometimes you need tools to make things and sometimes you need them to take things apart. If you think of making things as writing and taking them apart as reading, you want to be sure you have the right tools for these jobs. We have to cover in our dictionary what most people would find in their regular lives. On the other hand, we don't cover everything in, for example, accounting, because there are specialized accounting dictionaries that do that.

VT: So how do you judge? How do you choose, say, which accounting words to include?

Erin: Just because something is used frequently doesn't mean it's important. Otherwise the word "um" would be the centerpiece of all dictionaries! What we try to do is weigh words a little bit. Frequency in certain sources might give it more weight. So accounting terms that show up in major newspapers and magazines would make more sense to include. For instance, there's a "529 plan," a college savings plan. When it first came out, the 529 plan was pretty arcane. But now magazines like Redbook run sidebars on how to set up a 529 plan for your kids. So it moved into the mainstream dictionary. But of course this isn't an exact science.

VT: Can dictionaries become too important?

Erin: I wish that people would de-privilege the dictionary a bit. A lot of people believe that if a word isn't in the dictionary, it isn't a word. But they'd never think that if somebody's phone number isn't listed in the phone book they don't have a phone. People will often refuse to use a word in writing that they can't find in the dictionary. But how do words get into the dictionary in the first place? We have to see people using them. Much like you don't have to be pedigreed to be a dog, you don't have to be in the dictionary to be a word. There are lots of perfectly good words that dictionary makers don't have the space to include, haven't found yet, or don't think they're useful enough for everybody yet. But that doesn't mean they're not words.

VT: Can you give us an example?

Erin: We're tracking all sorts of words that are just too new. Take, for example, the word "chronotype." Your chronotype is whether you're a morning person or a night person. This word came out of research into sleep patterns. But it's not in dictionaries yet.

VT: Sounds like a real testament to English as a living language.

Erin: Dictionaries are a lot less like a monument than they are like an almanac. Nobody expects that a 1985 almanac will include all the information they need in 2006. But too often we think that a 1985 dictionary will serve us just fine in 2006. People often don't think about how fast language changes.

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