Proofreading Tips - Oxford English Dictionary Editor Interview

This month Proofreading Tips brings you an interesting follow up to New Year New Words with an interview with Fiona McPherson, Senior Editor (New Words) at the Oxford English Dictionary.  

What's the most interesting thing about being involved in dictionary editing? 

The sheer variety of the work that we do means that even although the processes are similar, no two days are ever the same. In fact, no two words are ever the same. The most satisfying part for me is the creating of something from a blank space. By adding a new word to the dictionary, I’m leaving my mark on the language in a very small way. That makes me proud. 

What did you think of the emoji Word of the Year? 

It was a controversial choice, and I can sympathise with those who were annoyed by it, given that it wasn’t actually a word. As a lexicographer, it is words that really interest me professionally, and emojis aren’t words, but it did open up a discussion about how the way we communicate is changing, or is being enhanced and that can’t be a bad thing. 

Does anything in current English usage annoy you? I'm still correcting disinterested/uninterested, have reluctantly given up the battle for legendary, but am happy with hopefully and spate with their new meanings. 

I think we all have things that annoy us, and I am no different. One thing that definitely grates is the widespread habit of saying myself or yourself when the simple me (or you) would be perfectly adequate. I can’t quite work out whether it is hypercorrection or whether the speaker thinks it is somehow more formal. It does make me wince and it’s something I’ve noticed increasingly in recent years – it seems like a modern phenomenon. 

I also admit to cringing a little when I see “should of” and “could of”. And I’m not keen on jargon. There is a fine line between jargon and a new term which is adding something to the language. Too often, jargon adds nothing except making the user sound more important and leaving others baffled and bemused. 

What you learn in this job is that many of the things that annoy people about current English usage aren’t all that current. Take the hyperbolic use of literally (as in I literally died laughing when I heard that joke). That use has been around since the 1700s, and used by writers like Mark Twain. Admittedly I probably don’t use it much, but I am quite relaxed about it. People don’t seem to get so upset at sentences like “I died laughing when I heard that joke”, and that could be said to be just as ridiculous. Of course, it’s the element of truth that the literally brings that makes it beyond the pale for some, but really it’s just emphasis and hyperbole. 

What would you change about the English language if you could? 

That’s an interesting question. I’ve been learning German recently, and the things that I find difficult have made me wonder what someone learning English finds difficult. I’d make German grammar easier, but because English is my native language, I don’t find the grammar especially difficult. That’s because I know what the past perfect tense is and when to use it, even when I don’t realise that I know it or that it is called that. 

Do you have your own regular spelling error? 

Oh yes, definitely, which is embarrassing for someone doing the job I do. Occurred is one – I can never remember to double the r. Intrigue and intriguing are others. I’ve taught myself to say “in trig u”, in an attempt to get it right. Mnemonics (another!) are the way to go. I remember watching a panel show about language, and one of the rounds involved guests having to come up with a mnemonic for a difficult to spell word. Liaise was given “Leave it alone, Iain, said Elizabeth”. I have never spelled that word wrongly since. 

Do you foresee any new spellings becoming established (eg pronounciation, restauranteur)? 

Language is difficult to second guess, but there seems no reason for new spellings not to be established. You only need to look at the variation in spelling for words over the centuries to see that. It is difficult to see new spellings in that light when you are living at the time when there is flux, which is probably seen as erroneous. 

Do you have a favourite word? A favourite new word?

Mondegreen is my favourite word. It is “a misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing, esp. of the lyrics to a song”. I like that there is a word for the phenomenon, but I like even more that the word itself is a mondegreen. It comes from a mishearing (by the coiner) of the ballad The Bonny Earl of Murray, with the line “laid him on the green” being misinterpreted as “Lady Mondegreen”. 

Do you have a 'least favourite' word? A 'least favourite' new word? 

Aside from jargon, it’s hard, really, to think of words in this way. Any words I dislike would tend to be any which I am working on and which are proving difficult to define elegantly, or to get to grips with. 

What do you think of pedants and their prescriptive take on the English language (Gwynne, Heffer, etc)? 

Well, I’m aware that I can be as pedantic as the next person when it comes to certain things. It really depends on what form the pedantry takes. One person’s pedantry is another person’s being correct, I suppose. I get amused when people get het up about language change, and how words have changed their meaning and what this means for the state of the language and how all these new words are stupid. Doing this job, you realise that all words and meanings were new at one point, and you can’t help but wonder if people in the 1920s got angry about terrific suddenly meaning something a little different from its original “full of terror” meaning. It’s back to that living through changes idea. Language is about communication, after all, and you aren’t obliged to use a word just because it is in a dictionary. 

In addition to your dictionary, can you recommend a book you think writers would find useful? 

It’s not a new book, but The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. Its “principles of clear statement”, taken together, may be a counsel of perfection, but there is plenty of value there, and the examples of bad practice from celebrated authors are strangely consoling. 

Do you have a favourite quote about words or writing? 

I’m rather fond of the following by Samuel Johnson, as I think it gets to the heart of what we are trying to do as lexicographers, and why no definition is ever just the work of one person: 

“To explain, requires the use of terms less abstruse than that which is to be explained, and such terms cannot always be found”. 

With many thanks to Fiona McPherson for her thought-provoking answers, and to Nick Cross for his assistance. 

Catriona Tippin has been a member of SCBWI since 2006 and helps organise venues for SCBWI North East. Details of her writing and illustrating here. She proofreads study guides, house magazines and publicity material for national educational organisations, in addition to working on a variety of proofreads and copyedits for the growing self-published world. Her monthly column is intended to give you food for thought, remembering “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling or typographical error” (McKean’s Law, named after its inventor Erin McKean, editor of the Oxford American Dictionary).

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  1. Thanks for a great interview and introducing me to the word mondegreen which may become one of my favourites too! Good luck with the German (oder veil Glück!) thanks again

  2. More on the'emoji' Word of the Year Here’s an exchange between Ian Hislop(long-established satirist) and Cariad Lloyd (young comedian) from the TV quiz ‘Have I Got News For You’ last year:
    Question: Fastest growing language in the UK?
    IH: Emoji... in which I’m fluent...
    CL: Laughing face, laughing face, crying face, poo?
    IH: It’s not a language is it?
    CL: People using symbols to create communication. Yeah, that's not a language...

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