08/21/2012

It was wonderful, marvelous, magnificent, superb, glorious, sublime, lovely, delightful ...

Maud Newton was kind enough to tweet today about the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus, the first edition of which I worked on, way back when, and I thought it might be fun to blog about how it came to pass that there is a Word Note in that book that is credited jointly to David Foster Wallace ... and me. 

So back in ought-whenever-it-was, the general consensus was that print thesauruses were dead, dead, dead, and that nobody would ever buy them again, but, leaving that aside, Oxford being Oxford and having to publish thesauruses much in the same way that birds gotta fly and fish gotta swim, we had to create a new one anyway. I was the person tasked with doing so. There was much wrangling back and forth about the source material for the book (reference books, like sourdough, are almost always grown from a "starter", rather than created from scratch), and it was finally decided to grow the OAWT from a Canadian thesaurus, rather than a UK one. The bulk of the work in Americanizing can be more properly thought of as "North Americanizing," and our colleagues at the (now shuttered) Canadian Oxford dictionary group had also done the majority of the heavy lifting in slimming down the stately flagship that is the New Oxford Thesaurus of English (usually abbreviated as NOTE). 

But just getting the right "starter" wasn't enough. What was going to bring the punters to the counter and make them plunk down their hard-earned cash for a reference book, one that was (by all accounts) going out of style? 

It was a long time ago, but I'm fairly certain the thought process went like this:

  1. What's a thesaurus? A thesaurus is a tool for writers.
  2. Let's put writers in the thesaurus! And brand it as "for writers by writers!"
  3. Who do we know?

One of the great things about working at OUP was that the list of "Who do we know?" goes back hundreds of years. Once we scrolled down to the "still alive" section of our joint address books, we were really spoiled for choice. So many fantastic writers! Soon we had a short list of names that was very long on talent: we had three Davids: Foster Wallace, Auburn, and the poet Lehman, Jean Strouse, Francine Prose, Zadie Smith ... plus the OED's best friend, Simon Winchester. I lobbied hard to get Stephin Merritt (I made an all-Merritt mix CD for my boss at the time, to convince him), and also Michael Dirda. (Dirda is my favorite book reviewer, not least because he's vocal in his appreciation of Georgette Heyer.) I should also disclose here that I went to college with David Auburn, who, in addition to being a fine playwright, is also in my top-three list of human beings to work at a coffee shop with (and I married #1). 

We sent out the letters, asked the writers to choose the words for their notes, sent out copies of the OED (another thing you learn working at OUP: lots of people don't mind getting a print copy of the OED as part of their compensation), and then the notes came back. And, as was the standard practice, went out to be copy-edited, and (again in accordance with the practice) the copy-edited ms went back to the authors.

For some writers, reading the copy-edits is like going to the dentist. You know you have to, and you'll be happy, long-term, that you did, but the actual process involves a certain amount of drooling discomfort and incoherent mumbling. Other writers think of copy-editing as massage: someone works you over, and then you stumble out feeling good -- kind of dazed, and a bit greasy, but good. 

David Foster Wallace's reaction to the copyedit was more like someone invited him to an all-day grammar seminar (with celebrity photo signings and vendor's expo hall), combined with a debating society picnic, where the topic was "RESOLVED: This Comma Should Be Removed." (You're not surprised, are you?)

So he called me. "I have a question ..." he said. I looked at the first edit about which he had a question, and I realized that well, yes, it could go either way, and maybe I should haul out the Garner's (which I did), and then maybe I should haul out the Fowler's (which I did -- all three editions, so we could be sure if and when anything changed), and then maybe CMOS had something to say about this particular issue? The OED?And would Googling help at all? 

And so the first hour went. 

By the end of the fourth hour, DFW was happy with the notes, and I was newly possessed of strong opinions about all sorts of language niceties I don't remember at all now -- but which seemed perfectly clear at the time -- and just as we were finishing up the last question on "effete", he said something along the lines of "you've put so much work into this particular one, you should put your name on it, too." I demurred, since I felt I was wearing an editor's hat, not an author's hat. And an editor's job, in my opinion, is to get rid of any and all obstacles that exist between the author and the success of the book. (I only wrote notes for the OAWT to bulk up the numbers -- since I was on OUP's payroll anyway, we could add more features without affecting the P&L of the book).

DFW insisted. I demurred again. Then he said something like "Well, if you won't, we'll have to take it out." Well, when he put it that way ... 

So that's the story of how my initials wound up on that note. (I wish I had the original ms, but almost everything was electronic, and I think what wasn't got recycled.) 

The OAWT is one of the projects I'm proudest of having worked on (and would be even without this story). It's a great book and many, many talented and thoughtful folks were involved in bringing it to a bookstore (and operating system) near you. 

And as a bonus for reading this far, here is a list of all the notes in the first edition (some of these may not be in the iOS dictionary widget edition), by author. Enjoy! 

David Auburn

aghast

bleary

desultory

druthers (at preference)

elegant

feckless

fervent

fixing to (at about)

galoot (at klutz)

hacker

lurid

murderous

phlegmatic

pulchritude (at beauty)

quirky

remarkable

saucy

stunning

swift

torpid

traipse (at walk)

whipper

woo

 

Michael Dirda

boring

brave

class

crapulous (at drunk)

dawn

depressed

Faulknerian

feisty

female (at woman)

I

like

limn (at describe)

literate

naturally

patriotic

politically correct (at unprejudiced)

postmodern

said (at say)

sexy

stippled (at spotted)

style

subtext

very

whilst (at although)

 

David Lehman

avant-garde

blue-collar

“Commencement” (at senior)

credo

dead cat bounce

“The Difference Between Brutality and Cruelty” (at cruelty)

edgy, hip

ekphrastic

existentialism

foundation garments

freaky

haiku

jeans

“Made in the USA” (at United States)

“One Day at a Time” (at cliché)

poetry

postmodernism

romantic

rose

“Sooner or Later” (at sooner)

special

swell

synergy

unconscious

 

Erin McKean

bathos

classy

clothes horse

cordial

fortnight

grandiose

grumpy

ham-fisted (at ham-handed)

inordinate

kempt (at unkempt)

lackadaisical

lagniappe (at extra)

lone

mollycoddle

novel

obdurate

old-time

paralipsis, proslepsis

saturnine

shiny

slack

smush (at crush)

sordid

stilted

triage (at prioritize)

unconscionable

 

Stephin Merritt

album

dance

drum

echo

experimental

fatigue

genre

love

lover

music

opera

rhyme

romance

sing

suburb

synthesizer

tacky

tan

tinnitus

verse

warm

world

xylophone

 

Francine Prose

adult

artiste (at performer)

bovine

comprise

crippled

Darwinian (at competitive)

decency

ectoplasm (at spirit)

edifying

elitist (at snobbish)

hapless

jealousy

jingoism

longueur (at tedium)

prescience

rumpus

schadenfreude

scud

share

spinster (at maiden)

storied (at mythical)

taqueria

tired

tolerance

 

Zadie Smith

auricular (at ear)

bourgeois

cernuous (at droopy)

ensorcell (at enchant)

exilient (at exultant)

fornent (at facing2)

fulvous (at red)

mentalist (at maniac)

motley

nullipara (at barren)

orbs

plash (at splash)

pleonexia (at greed)

prochronism (at date)

pulvinate (at plump)

pyrotechnical (at showy)

salto (at gamble)

sciurine (at squirrel)

setaceous (at bristly)

sexercise (at exercise)

stillicide (at drop)

tabagie (at smoke)

thole (at endure)

vagitus (at cry)

yump

 

Jean Strouse

achingly (at ache)

aren’t

batty (at mad)

bloviate (at orate)

cheeky

chimera

clueless (at oblivious)

deft

filch (at steal)

flummox

hook up (at pair)

hornswoggler (at cheat)

issues

jeremiad (at complaint)

lugubrious

orchidaceous (at exotic)

parameter

problematize

quite

sanction

shirty (at irritable)

so

whinge (at whine)

whup (at thrash)

 

David Foster Wallace

all of

beg

bland

critique

dialogue

dysphesia

effete

feckless

fervent

focus

hairy

if

individual

loan

mucous

myriad

noma (at canker)

privilege

puchritude (at beauty)

that

toward

unique

utilize

 

Simon Winchester

adumbrate (at foreshadow)

baroque (at rococo)

disinterested

enfeoff (at bargain)

fulsome

haruspex (at soothsayer)

indiction (at tax)

Jew

Levant

mallemaroking (at carouse)

négligé

niggardly

periphrastic

portmanteau (at suitcase)

putonghua

raspberry (at catcall)

Rechabite (at teetotal)

rococo

set

uber (at ultra)

ur (at ultra)

Yggdrasil

 (The other feature of OAWT that I really liked was the "word spectrum" -- you can see one here.)

03/24/2012

Thinking Digital talk from last May ...

Erin McKean of @Wordnik @ThinkingDigital 2011 from Codeworks Ltd on Vimeo.

I had a great time at this conference -- really inspiring! Here's more about it: 


"If you've not heard of The Thinking Digital Conference, it's an annual gathering of creatives, innovators, businesspeople, entrepreneurs and techies. Each May, nearly 700 Thinkers gather over 3 days to explore and celebrate the ideas and innovations that are changing our world."

For the latest info on the Thinking Digital Conference please sign up here: http://www.thinkingdigital.co.uk

 

Thanks Herb!

09/03/2011

New column in the Boston Globe



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New column in the Boston Globe



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Best Use of Dictionary Definitions in a Music Video

 

I'm nearly certain that the dictionary definitions here come from the OS X version of the New Oxford American Dictionary. (The bad spacings in the cross-references give it away.)

And Charlie? He's so cool like!

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7 More 'Super Dictionary' Entries That Should Be In DC Continuity

03/19/2011

ACPT-wear

via www.icueyewear.com

I'm not at the ACPT this year (sadly) but if you're there, let me know if you see any of these readers in action!