John Simpson spent 20 years as Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Now retired, he joined Miriam O’Callaghan on the line from London ahead of his appearance at the West Cork Literary Festival to talk about a lifetime of choosing his words carefully.
Working with words was not his childhood dream, John says. He thinks he would have been more enamoured with the idea of becoming a professional cricket player.
“I didn’t plan to be a Lexicographer or a dictionary-writer when I was a young kid in school. I think I would have probably thought it was a bit dreary.”
He fell into dictionary-writing, he told Miriam, as did most of the people on his team. But they shared one thing in common. A curiosity about where things come from and how they are classified. Was the Oxford English Dictionary’s reputation ever a daunting prospect? After all, out of 75 editors, he had the final say.
“You can’t allow yourself to feel it. I think everybody felt they were working on a project that was of international importance, which was good…It was like you were sending people to the moon or something like that. You were collecting information on the whole of the English language in Britain and America, Ireland and Australia or whatever throughout time. And it was an important international project.”
Not everybody was able to play it so cool, though. John recalled a time he was speaking at a University in America when one of the staff librarians found out what he did for a living.
“The librarian was being introduced to me and she actually curtsied, as if I was sort of British royalty or something, which was quite nice but never happened again. I don’t discourage people from doing that.”
The process of choosing which words will become new dictionary entries is long and often aided by readers of the dictionary who send in suggestions. Words are analysed by an editor to gauge suitability and if a word meets a certain level, its history, pronunciation and definition will be worked up over a period of about a month.
John has a particular interest in the history of Joycean language, which until recently, was thought to be solely the invention of Joyce himself.
“Joyce is often cited in the Oxford English Dictionary as being the first user of a particular term or expression. When you start looking – nowadays there are so many historical newspapers available online, for example from Ireland – you can look in The Freeman’s Journal in 1860 and find a term that Joyce used being used there. So, it turns out…about half of the terms that the dictionary used to think were Joyce’s creations were actually around in the sort of sub-culture of Dublin or Ireland before his time and he just absorbed them.”
In a quirk of fate, John’s daughter Ellie is unable to communicate using words. He told Miriam that she has broadened his understanding of how communication is defined.
“She has no communication on a verbal level…Trying to communicate with her and failing largely, verbally, pushes you to other areas like gesture and context and other sort of touchy-feely rather than sort of linguistic, scholarly areas...It broadens your own capacity for what communication is.”
Does John find people’s misuse of the English language distressing or annoying when he witnesses it? He admits that when he was younger, “various fuses” would go. But he feels more relaxed about things now. He gave the example of the words “disinterested” and “uninterested”, which some people use interchangeably. He explained that “disinterested” suggests that you are not interested in a subject, while “uninterested” is a more neutral term, suggesting you have no particular opinion.
“Etymology is an uncertain science. You work as best you can through the written records, following a word back and working out where it comes from. But there’s always a point where there are no records beforehand and you don’t necessarily know. Sometimes there are 2 or 3 options for a given word.”
Listen back to the whole discussion on Today with Miriam here.
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