Fine words to live by: Former OED editor to lead discussions at West Cork Literary Festival

John Simpson, former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, will lead a discussion on the famous lexicon at West Cork Literary Festival, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

John Simpson will discuss words and dictionaries in Bantry as part of the upcoming West Cork Literary Festival.

ONE of the charming aspects about the history of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has been the go-to resource for the stories of words for over a century, is that the public played a handsome part in its original compilation.

To gather together the essential words of the English language was a daunting task. Early editors of the dictionary asked the reading public to note down — and submit — interesting words and usages they encountered in their reading during the 1860s and 1870s.

Many were attracted by ads for words “wanted”. Literary figures, gentlemen members of London’s social clubs taking a break between frames of billiards, spinster ladies of the Victorian age, with long, idle afternoons to while away — all jotted down entries and dispatched them by post to the dictionary’s editor in Oxford.

The dictionary’s first editor — a Scot by the name of James Murray — and publisher were secured in 1879. The first instalment, which catalogued words from A to Ant, was published in 1884. Steady progress was made; reaching the letter R by 1903, until S, a veritable mountain, took the dictionary’s editors into the First World War over a decade later. It wasn’t until 1928 that the final instalment was complete. It has been an extraordinary endeavour.

“The first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary in the 19th century always regarded his job as writing the biography of a word,” says John Simpson, a former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and author of A Life in Words: From Serendipity to Selfie who will attend the West Cork Literary Festival.

“He was trying to find any aspect of the word that was interesting; he would try to uncover and write it up.”

Simpson clarifies that the dictionary is more interested in the history of words than in laying down rules: “In fact, it’s not at all telling people how to speak English, but saying ‘this is how people do speak English and if you want a rule these are the options and you choose which are the ones you want to use’. People talk about old-style lexicography and linguistics being prescriptive — prescribing rules — but modern lexicography and linguistics being descriptive. So we describe rather than prescribe.”

Simpson held his senior editing post at the OED for 20 years until 2013, having joined the prestigious institute in the hot, sticky summer of 1976. He says the arrival of the computer heralded the biggest shift during his career, as it transformed the ability to research words and edit more efficiently online. The digital age has had a profound impact on the English language, too.

“For the last 15 years, people always asked dictionary editors whether text messaging and SMS messaging is going to find its way into the dictionary or is it going to become part of the core language,” says Simpson.

“To some extent, some of those abbreviations like ‘LOL’ (laugh out loud), which is sort of the peak one, are finding their way in.

“It’s making people write more, which is surprising because I would have thought it was going to be difficult to get people to prepare and key-in more non-spoken text, but it’s much more informal. If you were to compare the front page of the Times newspaper in London in 1960 to today, you’d be surprised at how much more informal today’s paper seems. That’s found its way throughout society — a democratisation. Language has been changing a lot because of cultural influence.”

The language that has filtered into our vocabulary from the US, the great purveyor of cultural imperialism, over the last century has been marked. It has populated our spoken and written English with a variety of words, of ‘Americanisms’.

“What happens in language is that people want to use the language that associates most closely with the culture they admire,” says Simpson. “That can be in different contexts. You might use one vocabulary for music and films, if, say, you’re attracted to the glamour of American films and music, which is something that has happened with, for example, jazz music back to the 1920s.

“People have tended to assume vocabulary like ‘cool’, for example, which came originally from black American jazz music slang from the 1920s and 1930s.

“It’s one of the key slang words that has remained popular throughout the last century. Normally slang words come and go and they seem antiquated really quickly. That word seems to have hung on very strongly.”

When Simpson led an overhaul of the OED in 1993, one of the key decisions he made was to rule out focusing on the etymology of English words only from the year 1500 onwards, a cut-off practice popularised by peers in Canada and the US. He was open to debate on the issue, but his colleagues decided against it, adding 10 to 15 years of toil at a stroke. It is a mistake, however, to assume that arguments over words among his colleagues ever got too heated.

“Within the OED, we were far too polite for rows,” says Simpson. “People always assume that the Oxford English Dictionary is a committee-based system — that we all sit around and argue about things. Actually it’s not.

“Individual editors are given the autonomy to prepare and research their own entries, which are reviewed by other people. I don’t remember any arguments. We were sometimes asked by television companies if we would stage an editorial meeting where we were all arguing about things, and we said no because we didn’t really have them.”

Coffee and a chat with John Simpson, Bantry House Tearoom, Monday, July 16, as part of West Cork Literary Festival westcorkliteraryfestival.ie

My three favourite Irish words in the dictionary

Brogue: “My ancestors are shoemakers, as lots of people’s ancestors are. The brogue being the accent, but also originally a style of shoe from the 16th century in English, according to the OED, but associated with Ireland through its origin in old Irish.”

Craic: “The interesting thing about the word is that there we were staring into Irish dictionaries trying to find the word in the Irish spelling and it turns out that it’s an English word with an Irish spelling applied to it and used in an Irish context. It goes back to the English word ‘crack’ and it has been re-spelt as ‘craic’ to give it an Irish flavour, relating to a particular kind of fun and entertainment in Ireland.”

Culchie: “The word a Dubliner uses about a person from the country. I enjoyed working on that. It wasn’t really clear what the origin of the word was. It was an alteration of Kiltimagh, a country town in Mayo. I’d never heard of the word before, and yet we had plenty of evidence of its use from Brendan Behan to Bob Geldof in our files.”


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