Deciphering lexicography

    Business Spotlight Audio 11/2021
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    David Ingram: Welcome Melita. You spoke to various lexicographers for your article. What impressed — or surprised — you most about their work?

    Melita Cameron-Wood: I spoke to three different lexicographers, and it was really interesting to hear their different approaches. Before speaking to the lexicographers, I’d never really given a great deal of thought to how dictionaries come into being. I mean, dictionaries are very often things that we have on our shelves, that we use as familiar resourceQuelle; hier: Informationsquelleresources, that we trust when we’re unsure perhaps what something means or how to spell something. And I found it very interesting talking to these lexicographers because some of them, for example Erin McKean, were really focused on integrating as many words as possible into the dictionary. I found that concept quite interesting. I thought it was quite an open, democratic way of looking at the dictionary, if you will. Because very often, you know, even from a young age, if children mispronounce something or make up a word, then their parents or their caregiverBetreuer(in)caregivers tell them “that’s not a word”. And I found it quite interesting that Erin McKean actually encourages this kind of creativity, that, you know, she refers to the English language as a paintbox and says, you know, we should be able to create whatever we want with these paints. 

    One of the other lexicographers I spoke to, Vanessa Fisher, works on an online dictionary for learners — so people whose mother tongue is not English — and that obviously is a different clientele and that comes with other demands. So, simplicity of expression is really important if somebody is using a resource to learn something about a language that they are not that familiar with. And yeah, and I also spoke to a Greek lexicographer Matina Kokolis-Psyhogeos, who had a different approach. And this approach was more focused on etymology — where words come from and their history, and in particular their relationship to the Greek language. So that was a very specific type of dictionary that she wrote and, you know, the focus was more on the past rather than on the present or the future in a way, which was interesting.

    Ingram: Lexicographers often have favourite and less favourite words or phrases. Which would be your favourites — and your least favourite terms?

    Cameron-Wood: OK, yes, big question! I think my favourite word in the English language is quite a sillyblöd, dämlichsilly word, really. It’s a word that you don’t use very often, and that word is “discombobulationVerwirrtheitdiscombobulation” or to “discombobulate”, if you wanna use the verb. And you may have heard it used by Sherlock Holmes. I’m pretty sure it to featurehier: vorkommenfeatures in one of the later Sherlock Holmes movies, actually. But anyway, it basically means “to confuse somebody”, and I think, you know, it sounds quite confusing as a word. And I kind of like it for that reason — sounds confusing and that’s related to its meaning. I also like the word “serendipityglücklicher Zufallserendipity”. I think that’s got a nice ring to it — another one of my favourites — yeah, a happy coincidenceZufallcoincidence, serendipity. 

    And, yeah, when I spoke to the lexicographers, I did ask them a couple of questions about their favourite words and words that they didn’t particularly like. The most interesting response actually came from Matina Kokolis-Psyhogeos, the Greek lexicographer. And Matina is actually trying really hard to get the word “empathy” removed from English dictionaries, or at least to have it redefined because it is currently not in to be in alignment with etw. in Einklang seinalignment with the Greek meaning, which is actually the etymology of the word. And strangely enough, the word “empathy” in Greek has the opposite meaning to what we understand it to mean in English today. So, I think that’s probably the word that she hates the most in the English language. 

    Yeah, and while I was talking to one of the lexicographers, Vanessa Fisher, she actually mentioned neologisms as something that she finds particularly interesting, and she mentioned a couple of words like “selfie” and “bromance”. Now, whether these are her favourite words in the English language, I don’t know. I don’t think they are. But she did say that she found them particularly interesting because of the way that they entered the language. So, “selfie” is basically a word that came from the vernacularUmgangssprachevernacular and was a direct consequence of people owning smartphones and using them to take photos of themselves, and posting online and then probably using the word “selfie” for the first time in a kind of jovialheiter, scherzhaftjovial, funny way. And yeah, the word “bromance” is obviously a combination of “brother” or “brothers” and “romance”. And those two words to mergeverschmelzenmerged to form “bromance”, which is another nice word to describe a very close relationship between two good male friends. So, yeah, those were a couple of things that she mentioned. 

    And I think neologisms are a really exciting part of the language ’cos (informal)because’cos it just goes to show how a language can evolve over time. What people’s children are saying today could well enter the dictionary in the very near future despite the fact that many people tell their children, “What are you talking about? That’s not a word!” Maybe it is — or will be at least.


    Ingram: Very interesting indeed. Thanks a lot, Melita. 

    Cameron-Wood: no worries, my pleasure!Kein Problem, gern geschehen!No worries, my pleasure!

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