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Who is Erin McKean?

9780195312126 NPRs Neil Conan calls her "America’s Lexicographical Sweetheart."

MSNBC.com calls her "the queen and rock star among lexicographers."

Her name is Erin McKean, and she’s the Editor in Chief of Oxford’s American Dictionaries. She’s also the editor of Verbatim: the Language Quarterly and is probably the world’s leading expert on weird and wonderful words. This passion for the oddest and least-accessible corners of the English language has resulted in her new book Totally Weird and Wonderful Words.

We asked her to explain exactly what makes a word weird and/or wonderful, and here’s what she told us:


It would be convenient to say that it’s as ineffable as what makes art Art, but that’s not quite true. Words are weird because they have odd sounds, or an abundance of syllables, or a completely gratuitous k, j, q, z, or x. Words are weird because they mean something weird.

There are plenty of words that are weird without being the least bit wonderful—nectocalyx is orthographically weird, but meaning as it does ‘the swimming-bell that forms the natatory organ in many hydrozoans’ it is sadly lacking on the wonder scale.

Every day Erin offers her legion of fans—and yes, they are legion—her Weird and Wonderful Word of the Day. You can subscribe here and get words like this delivered to your in-box fresh each morning:

myomancy [mye-uh-man-see]: divination by the movements of mice. Modern scientists probably study the movements of mice as much or more than the ancient myomancers did, and for ends that are not dissimilar

snollygoster [snah-lee-gahs-ter]: a dishonest politician

spanghew [spang-hyoo]; to cause a frog or toad to fly into the air.

chamade [shuh-mahd]: a signal inviting someone to a parley (usually a drumbeat or a trumpet sounding). Now perhaps useful to those who carry beepers. "Sorry, have to go, it’s a chamade."

Vofuhreffekt [vor-fyur-ef-ket]: a German word, literally ‘presentation effect’ which describes a problem, usually with a computer, that doesn’t happen when other people try to replicate it (such as, say, the Help Desk guy you called for).

Recent Comments

  1. John

    I would expect someone from the junior university not to know German – it’s Vorführeffekt. The third letter is an r and there is an umlaut on the u. Sehen, zum Beispiel, http://kristi.blogsport.de/2006/03/04/vorfuhreffekt/?jal_no_js=true&poll_id=7

  2. Pat

    I’d never heard of Erin before and wondered why since back in the Dark Ages of th 1980s I used to give an hour presentation on dictionaries for students in my freshman (I know, unPC) English composition class. Then I realized she was only 10-15 years old when I was giving these talks!

    Now I’m one of her fans and am spreading URLs of her TED and other talks to my family, friends, and classmates. (I’ve decided to become a librarian when I grow up (after 20+ years of teaching English composition).

    Thank you, Erin, for making me smile, making me laugh out loud (LOL), and making my family and friends think I’m really crazy–but there are actually people like me out there.


  3. barbara

    I saw you in Psychology today and would love your roller skates!!!! (of course, I love you, too).
    Please tell me where you purchased them or how I would make them. I am older and need something to use with my dog.

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