Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

What’s an expert?

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon wonders what makes an expert?

From time to time someone will find my email address and decide that they want to ask me a question. Usually this question is about obscure words or dictionaries, with an occasional query in some other almost inexplicable direction (I say ‘almost’ because my web site does say ‘email me with questions about obscure English words, or anything else that tickles your fancy’).

I don’t at all mind answering these questions, and usually find them interesting. “Where can I find a facsimile reprint of Johnson’s first dictionary?” “What’s the word for the smell of rain?” “What is a good prefix to read in the dictionary?” But I am confused when people write me questions because they think I am an expert in some other matter.

The other day a radio broadcaster wrote me, as he had recently done a story on the word ‘handicapped’ and the advocacy group that believed this word was offensive (as they thought it came from ‘cap-in-hand’, referring to a begging cripple), and wanted to have this word removed from parking signs. He had gotten some small aspect wrong in the story of the etymology of handicap, and now he wanted an expert he could speak to about this.

I explained to him that I was not an expert, but I could probably find him one. He apparently thought that a real expert was unnecessary, and so a few minutes later I was speaking with him on the phone, and trying to explain how the advocacy group had fallen victim to a false etymology.

Except that I wasn’t really explaining anything – I was just sitting there reading copies of the OED and of Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate, and telling him what I saw. Which was that the word handicap was first cited in the OED in the middle of the 17th century (I think I got the date a few years wrong), referring to a kind of sport; and that handicapped was not used to refer to physically or mentally impaired people until more than two hundred years later (1891, according to Merriam-Webster). And that there was no evidence to suggest that the origins of the term had anything to do with begging, cap in hand.

I also said something about how it wasn’t necessary for the advocacy group to be correct – they could have got the etymology completely wrong and still be offended. I mentioned some racial epithets that were commonly thought to be of an origin that turned out to be a folk etymology, and they still managed to offend plenty of people quite effectively. The entire episode took perhaps ten minutes, and I doubt that it will have very much of an effect on anyone’s life.

But what exactly is an expert? Is it someone like me, hemming and hawing over an open book, juggling attempts to not spill the morning coffee and find a word or phrase that sounds authoritative? Or am I an anomaly, and are most experts in fact buttressed by decades of learning and scholarship; careful people who would never answer a question by flipping open the nearest book and giving a mumbled recitation of what they see there. Or are experts some mix between these two? If that is the case then I suppose we need further experts to tell them apart.

Recent Comments

  1. Book Calendar

    In my opinion expert is someone who can provide you with reliable sources of information or services. They can be either credentialed or recognized. Not all experts are credentialed. Having read your book, I would say you are a recognized expert on dictionaries, even if you never received a degree. Popular recognition counts.

  2. Scott Belyea

    In my more skittish moments, I think that an expert is someone whose opinions reinforce my own …

Comments are closed.