- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2002

The United States and the United Kingdom may share a common language, but until recently, some feel, our dictionaries have separated us. The Oxford English Dictionary, which originated in Britain in 1857, aims to chart the history of every word ever used. It took 70 years to finish the first volume of 414,825 words, but until two years ago, the OED had no office in America.
The OED's central office in Oxford, England, employs about 60 editors. In contrast, Jesse Sheidlower, the principal editor of the OED's new American office, has a staff of three, including himself. He and his two assistants have just moved into expanded quarters at the Oxford University Press Building in lower Manhattan, where he hopes to build his staff to 10.
Yankee English is the increasingly dominant form of an overwhelmingly dominant global language, says Mr. Sheidlower, who is American. That makes some uncomfortable in the land of fish and chips.
"Many English think that American English has a part in the language declining over there," he says. "You read newspapers, and every month there are articles saying [American] slang is bad for the language."
But is it really? Through a lecture titled "The Tyranny of American English," the topic will be discussed from 6 to 7:30 p.m. today at the Hirschhorn Museum's Ring Auditorium at Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW. Lexicographer Erin McKean, senior editor of The New Oxford American Dictionary, will join Mr. Sheidlower in addressing the subject.
The two linguists will try and refute the concern that "the English language is going to hell in a handbasket," as Ms. McKean describes.
"[Americans] tend to be looser in our speech than the Brits, and that can either be freeing or irreverent," she says. She says the British and Americans alike "are afraid of the direction the American language is going."
There will be little debate between the two. "I think a lot of what we're going to do is reassure people that it's not as bad as they think," she says.
A cheery, eloquent 30-something who wanted to be a lexicographer when she was 8, Ms. McKean remembers reading in her father's Wall Street Journal that the second edition of the OED was 28 years behind schedule. She was immediately hooked.
"I didn't know dictionaries were made," she says. "I thought they were grown on trees or mined. It seemed like a really cool job."
"Lexicon" is the Greek word for "dictionary," while "lexicography" is the process of writing or compiling a dictionary.
"Lexicography" as an occupation has not always been held in high esteem. Samuel Johnson, who produced the landmark Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, defined a lexicographer as: "A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words."
Drudgery or not, dictionaries help define culture, establish the limits of language and fix the meaning of words. Not surprisingly, linguistic debate now is actually fierce and ongoing.
Both Ms. McKean and Mr. Sheidlower, who is also a lexicographer, reject the notion that English is decaying.
"All languages change," Mr. Sheidlower says. "You can't stop that. What makes English a great language is that it has always been welcoming of words from other languages. I think that gives it a vitality that other languages don't have.
"Language is used for communication. If you can't communicate with it, then it's not doing its job."
He discards the idea that slang and other ethnocentric infusions into the English language have a polluting effect.
"New expressions don't arise because people want to speak worse," he says. "People say them because it helps them express themselves better."
Protesters who try to protect "proper English," he adds, are culturally motivated.
"The objections are based on social factors," he says. "Language that is disliked is disliked because it's used by people that one doesn't approve of. It's not because there's anything inherently wrong about the language itself."
Ms. McKean says "protectors of proper English" are simply afraid of change.
"I wouldn't call it racist or racism," she says. "I think it's love. Some people love change and some people love stability. They love it one way and don't think they'd love it any other way."
In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell likewise declined to target intrusive cultural influences as a source of linguistic decay. He did acknowledge a decay, however, and he blamed it on sloppy writers too lazy to be precise, clear and creative.
Some would say, he predicted, "that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light." But Orwell stressed that underneath that attitude lived the erroneous "half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes."
The Queen's English Society tends to agree. It acknowledges that all languages do change, yet insists "there is a formal structure to the language," useful even though "many are completely unaware of the existence of any formal rules."
The society's aim is "to defend the precision, subtlety and marvelous richness of our language against debasement, ambiguity and other forms of misuse which are the result of ignorance and which become established because of indifference."
Ms. McKean says her own focus is certainly different from that of such groups.
"I don't think ambiguity is always bad," she says. "You need to preserve a certain amount of ambiguity in the language. If you try and force language to be logical, you lose a lot of metaphor and poetry that I think we'd like to keep."
For example, the saying "I could care less" is technically imprecise, she points out, but "everyone understands it, and trying to make it logical doesn't help very much.
"Not much is gained except for the triumphant feeling of being right and other people being wrong."


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