The hip, swinging world of lexicography

Erin McKean

Erin McKean

Words are alive, says Erin McKean in this TED talk below. She is a lexicographer, shares my geeky infatuation with words and will make equally gratuitous use of the bizarre ones.

Here she deplores the dictionary industry, which has been frozen in time. As a dictionary editor she no longer wants to be a

traffic cop

who “lets in the good words and keeps out the bad words.” Instead, she would rather be a


who casts his net into the ocean of English to find what is there.

In another talk, she points out how worldview affects our relationship to language. Noah Webster–the Webster–apparently thought that all languages derive from Chaldean, since Noah–the Noah–spoke Chaldean and, well, he was the only one who survived the flood, wasn’t he?

(Also in that talk: Why “ass hat” is a great word, but not one that will make it into her dictionary. Defined as: Somebody who behaves as though he were wearing his ass as a hat.)

Herewith, the TED talk:

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Word lovers

An author named Ammon Shea has just written a book about how he read the entire Oxford English Dictionary.

That touched a nerve, because when I was sixteen I tried to read the entire American Heritage Dictionary (I still have the marked-up copy next to me now). Ammon made it through. I got side-tracked at around P, I think.

Why would I do such a thing? My mother tongue was (is) German, but I was living in America and wanted to get on top of this thing, the English language. My model was Joseph Conrad, who didn’t learn English until he was in his twenties, then became one of the greatest writers in the English language ever.

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