Words and enthusiasm


Members of the University of Chicago Library Society who attended the group’s annual meeting last Wednesday evening not only received a guided tour of the Special Collections Research Center exhibition The Meaning of Dic’tion·ar’ies, but they also heard a talk by the woman National Public Radio has dubbed “America’s lexicographical sweetheart,” Erin McKean, AB'93, AM'93.

McKean, editor in chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary, took up where the last display case in the exhibition—which looked at English dictionaries from pre-Samuel Johnson through the U of C Press’s Dictionary of American English—left off, with the rise of the nonprint dictionary.

“Paper is the enemy of words,” McKean told the hard-core readers who made up her audience, admitting that such a thought is “very disturbing to someone who loves books.” But with so many words and so (relatively) few pages, dictionary makers are forced to make decisions about which words to put in and which to leave out. That kind of decision-making doesn't sit well with McKean, who resists people “who see the dictionary as a Social Register of Words, the Westminster Kennel Club of Words, and think I am the bouncer at the nightclub of words.”

No traffic cop, McKean put herself firmly in the descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) lexicographical camp. Transferring dictionaries from paper to electronic form, a move that is already well under way, she said, is a natural match: “The Internet is made of words and enthusiasms—which also happens to be what a dictionary is made of.”


Photo: Before there was Samuel Johnson, there was Thomas Blount, whose Glossographia, or, a Dictionary, Interpreting All Such Hard Words, was printed in London in 1656; the edition is part of the Rare Books Collection at the Regenstein’s Special Collections Research Center.

April 16, 2007