The Professor and the Madman: Review

I heard myself mention to a friend one day, “I’m reading this great book about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” This comment was followed by a pause as I thought to myself, that feels like a weird thing to have just said, and as she (probably) thought to herself, this girl is getting geekier by the day.

The book truly is about how the OED came to be, but reads more like a novel. Simon Winchester gives his readers an appreciation for the magnum opus that is the dictionary. In a world without the Internet or other good dictionaries to use as precedents, the people working on this project had to read extensively, documenting and defining every new word they came about. The OED goes beyond this, though, because it includes examples of the word in context – examples that really make its meaning clear. And the dictionary makers were careful to include examples from different time periods, in order to show the changes in usage that a single word has undergone during its life. All of this had to be coordinated among a changing team of numerous contributors distributed across many locations (did I mention yet that there was no Internet? This feat alone blows my mind).

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In addition to imparting an appreciation for the complexity of the project, Simon Winchester shares much about two of the most influential men involved (the professor [James Murray] and the madman [William Minor]). Readers get a sense of these mens’ lives – for example, that William Minor was a doctor during the Civil War, forced to brand a deserter’s face with a hot iron – and how their pasts shaped the men they were as they worked on the project. There was hardly an antagonist (though there were characters that posed trouble at times). Instead, I was rooting for everyone all along – for Murray, Minor, and for the dictionary itself.

This book rekindled my appreciation of stories, quirky genius characters, words, and massive, seemingly intractable projects. It simultaneously inspired me, and made my own work feel like a picture book in comparison.

New words

In all aspects of life, we’re often forced to accept that things change, and language is no exception. The only reason the English language even exists today is because languages change. 

Thanks to language changes and splits, Modern English exists as a distinct language. Image:
Thanks to language changes and splits, Modern English exists as a distinct language.

Last week, The Oxford Dictionaries Online announced the newest additions to their database: some words include “buzzworthy” (likely to arouse the interest and attention of the public), “food baby” (a protruding stomach caused by eating a large quantity of food and supposedly resembling that of a woman in the early stages of pregnancy), and “selfie” (a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.

In fact, language evolution is so natural that we don’t even realize how many things we say are products of recent changes. The American Heritage Dictionary surveys about 200 writers each year about what is acceptable in the English language. In the 1960s, 53% answered “no” to the question: “The construction sick at one’s stomach is defined by most dictionaries. and usage manuals. Can ‘at’ be replaced by ‘to’?” Even more recently, in the 1990s, 80% of writers deemed this sentence to be an inappropriate use of the word “grow”: “One of our strategies is to grow our business by increasing the number of clients.” Srsly?!?

One major way that a language changes is by coming in contact with other languages, such as when people learn a second language, but native speakers are behind many of the changes causing the current drama. The digital age has brought about a vast number of new concepts and therefore a vast number of new names to describe them, but technology also serves as a platform for the proliferation of new linguistic trends. This article, “We the Tweeple,” highlights Twitter in particular as a “fusion muse,” the inspiration for words like Twitterati, Twittersphere, and twirting. One linguist, Ben Zimmer, suggests that the distinctiveness and playfulness of the prefix “tw-” may be a main reason that Twitter is venue for so many portmanteau words. Twitter is also the ideal forum for coining new words because communicative space is limited and new words can catch on and spread thanks to the practice of hashtagging. 

The cronut, one of the most popular portmanteu words of the summer. Image:
The cronut, one of the most popular portmanteu words of the summer.

As with pretty much any other signs of change in society, there are always dissidents. In the debate over language change, those people are the prescriptive linguists, who try to report what proper language should be, and people often referred to as “Grammar Nazis,” who are enraged by signs like this one. The use of the word “irregardless” is a common Grammar Nazi gripe, but in keeping with language change and a practice of descriptive linguistics, Merriam-Webster assures us that it is, in fact, a word.

However, plenty of people embrace the evolution that language continually undergoes. I especially love this Atlantic article by Derek Thompson in which he cleverly incorporates all 44 words that were recently added to the Oxford Dictionary Online. Courtrooms seem to be another place in which language change is not only accepted, but even embraced. The New York Times reports that because conventional dictionaries exclude slang by design, courtrooms have begun looking to other sources for these definitions, namely, Urban Dictionary, a site with an extensive crowdsourced slang database. 

Undeniably (and maybe fortunately), many new words are fads. This Atlantic article looks back on some of the new words of the ‘90s. While some, like geek and LOL, stuck, many others, like cowabunga and infobahn (information highway) either never really caught on or have disappeared almost entirely. 

My thoughts on the new additions to the dictionary: many may sound silly, but the fact of the matter is that they’ve disseminated at least to some extent and are being used by English speakers. Maybe twerk will disappear from our lexicons before the end of the year, or maybe in a few generations, children won’t be able to believe there ever was an English-speaking world without the word twerk. Either way, today it’s a word, so I guess it belongs in our dictionaries… for now.