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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Reading the dictionary

I read The Warden of English: The Life of H.W. Fowler a few weeks ago and was left wanting more information about the process of compiling a usage guide and less biography of the Fowler brothers. Fowler's Modern English Usage is a really cool usage dictionary, but I'd like to know more about how it was compiled and edited. McMorris's book tends to veer into somewhat boring biography every other chapter.

I thought I might find such information in Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, but once again I was disappointed to find more biographical anecdotes than discussion of the compilation process. It's been several years since I wasn't thrilled by Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary for many of the same reasons--overreliance on anecdotes and quirky biographical details, a lot of padding about various odd etymologies, underdeveloped discussion of how the organizational methods developed under different editors. I know where I'm pointing myself: I need to read Defining the Word: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary has gotten great reviews and I'm really interested to see how Hitchings' organizational method: the chapters are each a letter of the alphabet corresponding to Johnson's efforts. Is it gimmicky, productive, or both? I would hope that Hitchings' interest in organizational method might complement a discussion of how Johnson fine-tuned his own editing methods. I share Jenny Davidson's excitement about recent Johnson-related work, so I'm looking forward to this book.

When I edited the Columbia Daily Spectator in college, I tried to fix the copy-editing system to little avail. My intentions for revising the copy guide--make a list of every single possible error a sophomore could make--now look to me a lot like John Wilkins' system of error correction in Essay Towards a Real Character. By the time the revised style guide was done, it was already out of date: it was September 2001 and there was no entry for how to refer to residents of Afghanistan. I don't know if Spec has moved to a Wiki system of organizing the style guide online. I took the errors so personally when I was editor! They consumed me: I remember sitting on the floor of the Plaza hotel ballroom in a very nice dress, circling mistakes in that day's paper with Isolde while everyone else enjoyed the John Jay Awards. I took the errors so personally! After Spec, I figured I should move to a different profession where the errors weren't apparent every single day, to a century when this obsession with print and correction were familiar.

Maud Newton's entry about dictionaries got me hooked on Etymologic, an online multiple-choice quiz about etymologies of words and phrases. Some of the questions are really difficult! I've scored 80%, 70%, 90%, and 30%.