Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon reports on the Dictionary Society of North America Conference.
I spent four days last week sitting in a mildly uncomfortable chair and experiencing the distinct pleasure that comes from listening to people far more knowledgeable than I speak on the subject of dictionaries. It was the biannual meeting of the Dictionary Society of North America, held at Indiana University, in Bloomington, and although I learned an enormous amount, I have to confess that there is one question from my time there that still plagues me – why don’t more people go to conferences?
To be more specific about this query, I mean that I don’t quite understand why more people who are not connected with lexicography, linguistics, or some related field do not attend this meeting. I routinely meet people who say they are enchanted by dictionaries, and have questions about how they work and their history, what better way to indulge one’s interest in a subject than to go where you are surrounded by dozens of experts in a field?
Granted, this is not the typical holiday that comes to mind for most, and I guess that is reasonable. But I did see a few attendees, such as my friend Leonard Frey, whose interest in dictionaries is purely amateur (in the best sense of that word), and who drove up from Memphis with his wife. Their obvious enjoyment was so pure and infectious that it constantly reminded me how lucky I was to attend. Among the highlights:
Kate Wild, of the University of Glasgow, gave a talk on re-assessing Samuel Johnson’s usage labels that forever changed the way I’ll read that dictionary. Grant Barrett demonstrated an impressive and potentially enormously productive use of Amazon Turks in creating a database of user-created definitions. And Sarah Ogilvie showed that scholarship and sustaining audience interest need not be mutually exclusive, in a paper that effectively made the case that, while James Murray was certainly one of the greatest lexicographers in history, he was also prone to inordinate bursts of peevishness and paranoia.
However, the greatest enjoyment came from listening to the editors of the Historical Thesaurus of the OED, especially Christian Kay and Irené Wotherspoon (who between them have close to 80 years experience working on that magnificent project). I’ve mentioned the HTOED before, and feel no compunction to avoid repeating myself. If you have any curiosity about the English language go buy yourself a copy – it is not cheap by any means, but no matter the price it is a bargain. And I can imagine no better advocates for it than Kay and Wotherspoon, who exude intellectual grace and humor like few I’ve ever seen. If they decided to write a book on the history of Popsicle sticks and watch fobs I would run out and buy it.
On a side note, I will be taking a hiatus from this blog for the next three months, while I finish a book. See you all again soon.