Great Editors: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)

It’s odd to think of a time when words did not have standardized meanings, when such things as dictionaries did not exist.

profIn fact, of course, there was such a time. In his book The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998), Simon Winchester reminds us that Shakespeare had no way to check spelling of words or variances of meaning since standardization did not exist. He could not “look something up.” The concept did not even exist.

While a few men in the early centuries tried to build what would be called early dictionaries (including Samuel Johnson in 1755), these trials would be eclipsed by the proposal in 1857 for a “big dictionary” that was to be an “inventory of the language.” This proposed dictionary would be “the history of the life span of each and every word” that appeared in the English language (104). This dictionary would chart the life of each word, recording its first mention in literature, then subsequent usages, “for every word, a passage quoted from literature that showed where each word was used first” (105). It would then show how the meanings of the word changed across the years — in some cases, across the centuries.

After some fits and starts and times when the very idea of this task seemed impossible (no computers!), Professor James A. H. Murray of the London Public School Mill Hill and member of the London Philological Society was chosen to take on the task of editor and find a way to complete the work. After getting Oxford Publishers on board, the project continued in earnest in 1879.

Murray’s first step was to recruit an army of English-speaking volunteers who would read books and gather words and quotations. The call for volunteers went out in flyers across Great Britain, the British colonies, and America. As people volunteered, Murray mailed them the following, which amounts to a style sheet of guidelines for these researchers:

The quotations, said the editor’s first page, were to be written on half sheets of writing paper. The target word — the “catchword,” as Murray liked to call it — was to be written at the top left. The crucial date of the quotation should be written just below it, then the name of the author and title of the cited book, the page number, and finally, the full text of the sentence being quoted. …

Murray’s rules were clear and unambiguous: Every word was a possible catchword. Volunteers should try to find a quotation for each and every word in a book. They should perhaps concentrate their efforts on words that struck them as rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar, or used in a peculiar way, but they should also look assiduously for ordinary words as well, providing that the sentence that included it said something about the use or meaning of the word. (134-35)

The volunteers began working — sending their slips of paper by the thousands every day. A first editor read to see if the slip was legible and had all the required elements; a second editor sorted the slips into alphabetical order. A third editor then divided the words into parts of speech (the same word being used as a noun, verb, adjective, etc.). A fourth editor began to “subdivide the meanings into the various shades it had enjoyed over its life [and] . . . make a first stab at writing that most crucial feature of most dictionaries — the definition” (151). The plan was to have “at least one sentence from the literature of each century in which the word was used” (152). Murray did the final edits of the definition, chose the best quotations, and determined the word’s pronunciation.

These new dictionaries were published alphabetically in sets. Portions of A – B appeared in 1885; another portion of B in 1887; the book comprising the letter C appeared in 1897 and was dedicated to Queen Victoria in her jubilee year.

The Oxford English Dictionary was officially completed in 1928, taking 70 years, resulting in 12 volumes with 414,825 words defined and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. Sadly, Murray died in 1915 and did not live to see the completion of the work to which he gave so much of his life — practically living in the Scriptorium at Oxford University, placing slips of paper into over a thousand pigeonholes on banks of shelves specially built to sort words. A supplement was published in 1933, and four supplements came out between 1972 and 1986. In 1989, the computer aided in creating a second edition of the OED.

The OED website now boasts “over 600,000 words over a thousand years.” The “big dictionary” is now updated on a quarterly basis, revising existing entries and adding new words and senses of words.

Current principal editor of new words, David Martin, explains that 600 new words have been added in the latest update — new words and phrases such as crowd-surfer, Debbie Downer, facepalm, hashtag (as a verb), and TGIF.

And just who was the madman in the title of Winchester’s book? He was one of the most prolific of Murray’s word-seeking volunteers. You’ll want to read the book for all of those details!

In the meantime, grab the nearest dictionary — you probably don’t own an OED, but you probably have a dictionary of some sort. Revel in the plethora of information therein about every single word.

And be thankful for this great editor James Murray and the thousands of little slips of paper that got the whole thing started.

UPDATE March 27, 2019, see this official trailer for the film version of this book.

Prepping for Life (Part 3)

The last two posts gave Part 1 and Part 2 of our Interterm capstone course for my Professional Writing seniors. The final piece of this three-week puzzle was a writing project (we are a Professional Writing major, after all).

I built this as a hybrid course where we met every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for 3-1/2 hours, and the Tuesday, Thursday days were set aside for them to do research and write their capstone papers. During the course of those days, Blackboard discussion questions kept the students on track and on task.

Here was the assignment:

You will write a paper of 2000 to 2500 words. You will choose the topic—something to study or learn that you want to know for the future. You have a couple of different directions you can go.

Craft—Perhaps you want to study an aspect of the craft of the type of writing you do: world-building, foreshadowing, creating twists in a plot, building a memoir, putting together a book of poetry, etc. The sky is the limit (pending my approval of your topic). The paper will include research from books on craft, from favorite books and writers who are doing it well, magazine articles, websites and blogs with information, even personal interviews if applicable. You will write the paper and source it with endnotes using CMS style and a bibliography of all sources consulted, also in CMS style.

Occupation—Perhaps you want to study a particular job such as editing (content editing, copyediting, proofreading, acquisitions; book, magazine, newspaper), agenting, publicity and social media, etc. The sky is the limit (pending my approval of your topic). The paper will include research from books on the topic, magazine articles, websites and blogs with information, even personal interviews if applicable. You will write the paper and source it with endnotes using CMS style and a bibliography of all sources consulted, also in CMS style.

The last two days were for final oral presentations, which called for them to

  1. Introduce themselves.
  2. Explain the project they chose to research, why they chose it, and how they felt it is important information that they want to carry into their post-Taylor life.
  3. Describe how the project fit into their “red thread” (as noted in Part 1) and how it provides a “cap” to the work they’ve done during their tenure at Taylor University.
  4. Give an overview of the entire paper in condensed form (like an “abstract”).
  5. Choose a section of about 600–750 words to read, something that will give those of us listening an idea of what was learned.
Jan 2019 grads
Seven of my seniors were January grads, finishing at the end of capstone. Talk about tearful goodbyes!

Want to know the topics covered? Here you go.

  • How to run a freelance writing business
  • A comparison of tragic and comic plays
  • How to write the middle of your novel so it doesn’t sag but keeps the plot moving
  • How American journalism has changed during the 20th century
  • Why businesses (and authors) need digital marketing and how to begin
  • What it takes to be a screenwriter
  • Inbound marketing–how it works and why it’s the best way to reach customers
  • The essential elements of suspense and how to use them in a novel
  • Content editing–the four relationships that interplay for the editor
  • Writing characters that live beyond the book
  • How to implement theme in fictional stories
  • Why poetry matters to individuals and to society
  • Archetypes in fiction
  • The beginner freelancer’s guide to money
  • The elements of a strong memoir
  • The art of the tragic character
  • The ethics of horror

amazing

The students were happy that they had the opportunity to research something they really wanted to know about (the woman who wrote about suspense said that her research gave her that “aha” moment she needed to understand what had been missing in her writing).

They were all so excited about one another’s papers that we had to find a way to make sure everyone had access to all of them and could download them for later reading.

One change I will make next year is to allow the paper to be longer — most of them felt they could barely scratch the surface of their topics. I wanted to take into account the limited amount of time they had to research and write (3 weeks), but these writers felt like they could do much more even in that limited time.

All in all, I think we had a successful time together.

Then, it was time to head into spring semester!

Prepping for Life (Part 2)

“Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction lived out as a response to his summons and service.”

–Os Guinness, The Call

In a previous post, I told you about how our Professional Writing capstone class was kicking off with my 17 seniors. That was Part 1.

For Part 2, my students worked on the Flower Diagram from What Color Is Your Parachute? (I used the 2017 version). If you don’t know, the Flower Diagram is a self-inventory that helps individuals work through their own personal preferences in working style, environment, coworkers, location, and even stretching to what each person wants to accomplish in life. The students overwhelmingly found this exercise (which took us two class days, so seven hours) to be helpful in capturing in one spot a lot of scattered information about themselves. (We even built a preliminary budget on Excel docs!)

For another class, we talked about how to network — which basically means learning how to be a good listener. I then had each student write a 30-second elevator pitch to answer the question, “So tell me about yourself” (much as an interviewer might). They then did a “speed dating” exercise where they moved from one person to the next, spending three minutes sharing their pitch, listening to the other person’s pitch, and then conversing before the bell rang and they moved on to the next person and did it again.

Having to say the pitch and hone it over eight times helped them be ready for . . .

. . . mock interviews.

I gave the students a list of the most-asked questions, and a link to a website that would help them understand what employers are looking for when they ask these questions. I required the students to use their journals to write answers to each question, or at least to take notes as to what they would need to do to prepare for those questions.

Six professionals gave of their time to interview six students each. The students went in groups of three; each was interviewed while one of the other two kept time and both observers wrote assessments. After each interview, they all had five minutes to talk together about the good and the areas that need improvement, and then the groups moved to another interviewer to try again and improve.

Sort of helped with the jitters and to make the interviewing process a tiny bit less intimidating.

I really wanted this to be a practical class so that they are ready — resume polished, LinkedIn profile and portfolios ready, answers to interview questions prepped, all with a feeling of certainty that they understand themselves and their goals just a bit better.

But lest you think it was all fun and forms, stay tuned for Part 3.

 

 

Prepping for Life (Part 1)

“Calling transforms life so that even the commonplace and menial are invested with the splendor of the ordinary.” (Os Guinness, The Call)

My seventeen Professional Writing seniors are closing in on the end of their careers at Taylor. I’m privileged to be teaching what our program calls the “capstone” class — three credit hours together to “cap” their time at Taylor U and their time in our major.

It’s a daunting class — and this was the first time I’ve taught it.

From the start, I knew the class needed to have a writing element, it needed some self-inventory, it needed some interview and job hunt practice and information, and it needed some “adulting” conversations. Three solid weeks, 3-1/2 hours per day. And I wanted all of it to feel practical and meaningful and purposeful.

And that’s what I’ve tried to do.

One day, we talked about our “callings,” considering the definition in Os Guinness’s classic book. How calling can be to many types of work, not just “Christian” work per se. How calling can be simply to finding splendor in the ordinary. How calling can change the world in small ways. How calling, with the acknowledgement of a Caller, gives meaning to life. That was the initial part of our self-inventory.

Then we did what one of my colleagues calls “the red thread.” Each student went through all of the classes taken at Taylor, noting what they liked and didn’t about each — trying to understand how they like to learn, how they learn best regarding type of class, type of instruction, type of content, etc. This traces a “thread” that serves to remind them of the many types of information and skills they’ve gained across these four years.

A highlight was a bus trip to Grand Rapids to visit Zondervan Publishing House, RBC (Our Daily Bread and Discovery House Publishers), and lunch with author Travis Thrasher. The students were encouraged that many of the folks in jobs they hope to have got there in convoluted ways while learning much about themselves along the way.

 

The Zondervan folks were incredibly welcoming, even offering us a panel discussion. They shared with my students about their pathways to their “dream job.”

taylor students

In the lobby at Zondervan. The mission statement applies to my students as well.

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Travis Thrasher has gone from being an employee at a publisher to being a full-time writer. We enjoyed hearing about his fiction writing and ghostwriting.

 

img_20190109_142127780-2624x1476img_20190109_152705558-2624x1476

At RBC (Our Daily Bread and Discovery House), we learned about their incredible worldwide ministry, got to see their printing presses in action, and heard from two editors who told about their pathways to where they are today.

The takeaway? Be patient. Try on a lot of jobs. Learn what you can wherever you are. Network with people and let them know the kind of work you’re looking for.

And this was pretty much just week one. I’m excited to watch my students get excited about their possibilities for the future. They are well prepared to become publishing professionals.

Stay tuned for more adventures in Professional Writing capstone!

 

That Elusive Perfect Word

Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.

C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Finding that perfect word that says the thing I mean, what I really mean, is a struggle for the writer — and I know all writers experience it constantly.

But it’s not just a writing problem; it’s also an editing problem

As an editor, my job (especially at the copyediting phase) is to make a manuscript sing. If I read your story or essay or article or devotional, I’m looking closely at the sentences and the words — and I’m asking if the words I see are the best words. Sometimes something I read makes me stumble. I have to go back and understand the sentence, or visualize the scene, or simply try to comprehend what the author means to say. I stumble because something isn’t working.

And if it isn’t working for me — the editor — then it isn’t going to work for the readers either.

Maybe I need to replace a blah verb with a stronger verb — or better yet, an adverb and verb with a strong verb. “He slowly walked across the street.” Ugh. Adverb. Not helpful. Many strong verbs can picture a slow walker, but the verb needs to be the best verb for the scene. Does he amble? trudge? shuffle? Amble sounds like he’s carefree . . . trudge sounds like he’s sad . . . shuffle sounds like he’s elderly or injured perhaps . . . I have to study the scene and suggest a strong verb, the right strong verb.

Or maybe the descriptor isn’t quite there. A “shiny” item might better be described as shimmering or glittering or glistening or gleaming or glossy (wow, lots of “g” words there).

At times, I look for a word that will add some alliteration — if it works with the tone of the piece.

It takes a writer, a reader, a word lover to be a good copy editor, to massage the message, to tame the tome (see what I did there?).

the best

Some sentences just make me stop in wonder. Some words string together like the notes of a beautiful melody. They take my breath away. (I gave a few examples in this post called “Word Power.”)

It’s hard work, this writing, editing, and trying to say what we want to say or trying to help authors say what they want to say.

But when a sentence sings, when we “say the very thing [we] really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what [we] really mean” as C. S. Lewis writes, it’s all worth it.

We live for those moments.

Ever have one of those times when it all came together?

 

Hands (Flash Nonfiction)

I’m experimenting with another kind of writing not common to me called flash nonfiction. Flash is typically under 1000 words, and this particular piece is topping out at 250. I like to write about commonplace things, seeking the splendor in the ordinary. This one is called “Hands” and was inspired by some moments with one of my granddaughters.

Hands

“Grandma, what’s wrong with your hands?” My five-year-old granddaughter’s voice betrays concern mixed with a bit of awe.

I look down at the hand in question. My left hand is placed on the “treasure box” (an old jewelry box) that she and I are exploring. We have plopped together on the queen-sized bed and into the soft comforter. The morning sun filters through the lace curtains, bright and harsh on this clear and cool April Saturday and puts the blue veins of my hand into sharp relief, like a topical map of mountains and valleys. I too am a bit stunned at how odd my hand looks.

hand mine

“Those are my veins,” I explain.

Ari splays her little fingers and feels the back of her own hand. “Mine is smooth,” she announces and turns back to the jewelry.

I look at my hand again, moving it back and forth in the sunlight. I haven’t ever noticed these veins so pronounced before. Blue lines, mixed with brown age spots, travel around the back of my hand creating an impressionist pattern of muted colors. I’m in my sixtieth year, a grandmother, hands no longer smooth and strong, clearly betraying the age that I so desperately try to camouflage on every other part of my body from my graying hair to my slowly bulging middle.

These are old hands, these hands with the convex veins.

Nothing wrong with them, dear Ari. Just evidence of a life being lived.

 

Just a Smell

It is just a smell.

Something in the air as I walk across campus. It strikes with subtle but unmistakable force. It makes me stop, sniff.

It isn’t Chick-Fil-A or the lunch aroma from the college dining commons.

In fact, I can’t pinpoint or describe the smell; it is simply in the air. Closing my eyes, the smell has transported me. I am at Houghton College, walking the sidewalk that encompassed the quad, a new freshman, terrified, lonely, missing my family, worried about being a failure, that I can’t cut this whole college thing.

Now, as I stand on the sidewalk surrounded by the buildings of Taylor University where I teach, I am not here — I am traveling in time. I am not a publishing professional and faculty member. I am an eighteen year old with no fashion sense and big glasses and low self-esteem. A girl who doesn’t know what she wants to major in or why she’s at college or who will be her new friends or if she’ll have friends at all.

Standing here in these passing moments, I open my eyes and see a a lone student slouching toward me, eyes downcast, heavy backpack, sad face. My heart goes out to him. I know, in that moment exactly how the young man is feeling. Exactly. I am right there with him. Overwhelmed with distress from four decades ago.

backpack

I want to grab him, to hug him, to tell him it’s all going to be okay. He’ll figure it out as each day goes by. Tell him that God will be faithful. Tell him to just take it a day at a time, a step at a time.

But of course, I don’t. I can’t. The young man walks by. I sniff again and return to the present. But I vow that any moment I can, I will tell these dear students with their wide eyes and their fears and worries that it will indeed be okay.

I can testify to it.

It is just a smell. But how powerful the memories it evokes. It gives me a mission, for it reminds me that four decades ago I, too, was slouching along a sidewalk, overwhelmed, deeply distressed, trying to figure out life. God walked with me each step of the way.

All it took was a smell.