How words get into the Oxford English Dictionary

I have seen the word “linguaphile” (meaning word lover or language lover) on and the Free Dictionary, but it’s not there in the Oxford English Dictionary. It no longer tries to be comprehensive. “The language is expanding so fast this may be an impossible mission,” said Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Mark Abley recalls their conversation in his book, The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English, where he also writes about Singlish and other variants of the English language, as I mentioned here.

“The Internet poses problems,” said Weiner. “We tend to avoid citing the Web unless we feel we really have to. What we’ve tended to cite are newsgroups and discussion groups – they guarantee to archive them for a long time. We’ve occasionally taken quotations from websites. But we don’t like doing that.”


Before and since Harry Potter

Book lovers will enjoy this trip down memory lane with Robert McCrum (left), who stepped down as literary editor of the Observer this month after 10 years on the job. McCrum, who has written about the English language (The Story of English) and a biography of PG Wodehouse (PG Wodehouse: A Life), writes about the changes in the publishing world. He joined the Observer in 1996, when publishing was still “a world of ink and paper; of cigarettes, coffee and strong drink”, and he is bowing out after seeing in the Kindle.

McCrum writes about how book blogs are growing in importance as newspapers shrink or altogether eliminate book reviews. And, of course, he notes the changing of the guard on the literary landscape: Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Iris Murdoch, Thom Gunn, Kurt Vonnegut, Ted Hughes were very much alive when he came in; now they are gone, replaced by a generation of writers: Zadie Smith, Hari Kunzru, Monica Ali and Kiran Desai are among the writers he mentions. A host of writers from non-English-speaking countries are among the most acclaimed writers in English today.

Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point

McCrum’s article offers valuable insights into the changes in the market. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, for example, was “almost a flop”, says McCrum, published to mixed reviews in 2000 but “saved by word of mouth”. McCrum writes:

After a dismal launch, and as a desperate last resort, Gladwell persuaded his American publisher to sponsor a US-wide lecture tour. Only then did the book ‘tip’. Eventually, it would become a literary success of its time, turn its author into a pop cultural guru and spend seven years on the New York Times bestseller list. This was one of those pivotal moments that illustrates the story of this decade.

Personally, I was rather disappointed with the book, which no doubt marks me as an old fogey. The book seemed too plain, without any intellectual excitement, to me, brought up on generations of wordsmiths from GK Chesterton (with whom McCrum starts the article) to Tom Wolfe. With advancing age, I now prefer the prose of Naipaul, Vikram Seth and Jhumpa Lahiri, though I still appreciate the stylistic feats of Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie; but Gladwell, even for a New Yorker writer, is too understated for me. But The Tipping Point reflects this dot-com society, I guess, when things catch on suddenly out of the blue.

JK Rowling and Harry Potter

JK Rowling is a case in point. McCrum recalls Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had been published with a tiny first printing of 500 in 1997 to modest but enthusiastic reviews, swiftly followed by Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but such was the word-of-mouth success of the series that when Bloomsbury released Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at 6am on a Saturday morning in July 2000, people queued overnight for a copy of the book. McCrum says: