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Learning about lexicography: A Q&A with Peter Gilliver (Part 1)

Peter Gilliver has been an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary since 1987, and is now one of the Dictionary’s most experienced lexicographers; he has also contributed to several other dictionaries published by Oxford University Press. In addition to his lexicographical work, he has been writing and speaking about the history of the OED for over fifteen years. In this two part Q&A, we learn more about how his passion for lexicography inspired him to write a book on the development of the Oxford English Dictionary.

How did you become interested in lexicography?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in language. Both my parents were language teachers, and the family was always discussing English words and usages. And I remember being fascinated by the first dictionary I ever looked at: it was a dictionary for schoolchildren, but it must have been an unusual one in that it was full of strange and intriguing words that a schoolboy was hardly likely to come across in his reading (chalazion is one that sticks in my mind). Later my interest in words found other outlets, like Scrabble and The Times crossword.

But these things are a long way from lexicography as such; and in fact it was only in 1987, when a friend — knowing that I ‘liked words’— drew my attention to an ad for a job on the OED, that I seriously thought about it as an occupation. And that was when I realized that I couldn’t think of a more interesting job. I still can’t, 29 years later.

What was the first word you worked on at Oxford?

Perhaps surprisingly, it was fish. Of course there was already an entry in the OED for the word, as both noun and verb; but it had come to Oxford’s attention that people working in the oil drilling industry had begun to use the noun to refer to the bits of stuff — broken bits of drill and the like — that accumulate at the bottom of an oil well, and have to be ‘fished out.’ This was the first word in the first bundle of new words and meanings that I was given to work on when I started.

Blue Tang fish underwater by kjschroeder. Public domain via Pixabay.

What does a day look like for a typical Oxford lexicographer?

Well…there’s really no such thing as a typical Oxford lexicographer! First of all, it depends on which dictionary you’re working on. Even if we’re just talking about dictionaries of English, there are Oxford dictionaries designed specifically for people learning the language, general-purpose dictionaries of current English, and historical dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary is what I’ve always worked on, and it’s a historical dictionary — in other words, it tells you not just what words mean today, but how they have changed over the course of time. And each word, and each meaning of each word, is illustrated with quotations showing its history, from the first known occurrence down to the most recent.

I work as part of a team of lexicographers engaged in revising the Dictionary’s existing entries: which means looking at each definition, seeing whether it needs updating, whether the meaning of the word has shifted, and also looking at the illustrative quotations, seeing whether we can now find earlier evidence of the word — or a particular subsense of it — being used, and finding more recent examples to bring the illustrative examples up to date. Some words are pretty straightforward — you can get through several of these in a morning — but sometimes you find yourself working for days, or even weeks, on a word with a long and elaborate history. Generally we work our way in order through an alphabetical sequence of words; just at the moment I’m working on a range of words beginning with au-. I’ve had a string of fairly straightforward ones, like aumoniere (a kind of purse — and possibly also a kind of dumpling!) and au naturel (a French expression which now has a long history of being used in English, meaning various things like ‘plainly cooked’ and ‘naked’)… but I know I’ve got aunt coming up, and that will be a longer piece of work. Quite a lot of variety, as you can see. In some ways alphabetical order is a great randomizer!

For other members of the OED team a day will look quite different. Some people work specifically on the etymologies of words, investigating their origins in various other languages; others deal with pronunciation; others work entirely on new words. And all of these different activities, and many others, need to be carefully coordinated so that we can keep on producing the updates to OED text that get published online every three months.

What is your favourite word, and why?

Now, in my experience that’s not a question that lexicographers are much good at answering. Maybe it’s because one of the characteristics of a good lexicographer is the ability to find something of interest in whatever word they happen to be working on. But…well, it’s a question that I’ve often been asked, and rather than give the rather uninteresting answer ‘I don’t have one’, I now tend to mention a word for which I do in fact have a particularly soft spot: twiffler. It’s a word I learned in the course of my job, and I like it for two reasons: firstly, it has a great etymology; secondly, it’s one of the very few words I’ve learned in the course of my job that really filled a gap in my own vocabulary. (Working on the OED I encounter words I’ve never seen before all the time, but generally I find that — having managed to get by without them for so long — I have no need to start using them.) A twiffler is a plate that’s intermediate in size between a side-plate and a dinner plate. We have a pile of these plates in our sideboard at home, but I never knew that they had a specific name until I learned twiffler. And now I regularly ask my partner things like ‘Shall we serve the first course on twifflers?’ Then there’s the etymology. Like a lot of terms to do with pottery, the word is a borrowing from Dutch, where the equivalent word— twijfelaar — has much the same meaning; and it derives from the verb twijfelen, which means ‘to be unsure’ or ‘to vacillate.’ This is a plate that can’t make up its mind. Which I think is rather charming.

Featured image credit: Oxford English Dictionary by mrpolyonymous. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Robin Hamilton

    “I’m working on a range of words beginning with au- …”

    This inspired me to look at how the OED currently deals with AUTEM.

    1. No mention of the precursor (?) term, ALTHAM in Awdley’s earlier _Fraternity of Vagabonds_.

    2. “autem cackler” appears, with no citation

    3. “autem jet” is cited from _Bacchus and Venus_ (1737). This is, of course, a facsimile reprint of the earlier _New Canting Dictionary_ (1725), where “autem cackler” and several other “autem” combinations first appear.

    That’s leaving aside whether or not the term “autem” for a church ever existed as such, and isn’t simply an inference, on the part of Thomas Harman (not the most reliable of witnesses), working back from “autem mort” (final item in the current entry, currently without a citation).

    While “autem — a church” appears in Harman’s glossary, I’d be hard put to think of any other occasion, not derived from Harman and in the dictionary tradition, where this is the case.

    Good luck!

    Robin Hamilton

  2. Brian

    I currently own the 20 volume set plus additional supplement of “A new English dictionary on historical principals,” edited by Murray, in the 1933 first edition. I have been trying to gain information regarding the original production numbers, and released formats for this set. I contacted OUP regarding this information, but they keep asking me for an ISBN number, and tell me they cannot help me without it. When I explain that ISBN numbers weren’t incorporated until 1970, and this book was printed in 1933, they don’t seem to get it, and ask me for the ISBN number again. There is very little information on this dictionary set, other than finding that their value ranges from 3000 to 35000 dollars, when you find a complete set for sell, in various conditions; and there are very few available to buy as a complete set. Is there a way to contact Peter Gilliver by email directly? I would appreciate it greatly if I could communicate with someone at OUP directly, that appreciates the importance of this work, and understands that antique books don’t contain ISBN numbers.

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