Former dictionary editor tells what she cannot tolerate

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I am sure that some babies sit up in their cots thinking, ‘I’m going to be prime minister one day’ but I am equally sure that no baby sits up thinking, ‘I’m going to be a lexicographer and editor of the Macquarie Dictionary’.

From what I have read, most dictionary editors end up in the job by accident, and that it is, without doubt, precisely the fact that they have drifted along until the job chose them that makes them suitable for it. 

A dictionary editor needs to have a broad general knowledge and an interest in a variety of things, all of which will come in handy in writing the perfect definition.

So when I arrived at high school in Melbourne with a weird collection of subjects – maths, chemistry, biology, French, Latin and English – the teacher who gave me my textbooks asked what I thought I wanted to do. I didn’t know, and, still not knowing, went on to add Ancient Greek, linguistics and music to the list. 

After a brief stint in a chocolate factory as quality control on the mint slice machine, a period working behind the uni bar where I was proud of my mastery of the beer gun, and six months as receptionist in the Kings Cross waxworks, I was fully equipped for lexicography!

There were two pieces of good advice from my father that proved very useful. I remember him impressing upon me when I was in high school that you couldn’t half-know something. You either knew it or you didn’t. This came back to me when I found myself stumbling over a definition. On closer self-examination, I found that the problem was that I didn’t really grasp the meaning and so I had to do further research before I returned to the definition which usually then wrote itself. 

The other contribution that my father made was to enthuse over how I needed to involve as many people as possible as contributors to the dictionary. The idea for a newsletter to go with the first edition was his. It proved to be very popular and this kind of outreach of the dictionary has been there in different ways through many editions. Nowadays it is online. I found that the constant conversation with the dictionary users expanded the range of raw material for the dictionary and guided us in how we should present it as well. 

Hearing what others had to say about language usage made me aware that my own view of what was good and bad usage did not, surprisingly, always coincide with the views of others. There was more subtlety in the language than I had suspected and therefore, particularly in the role of editor, I should tread warily. While I was still entitled to an opinion as an individual writer, I should not abuse the role of editor by inflicting my opinions on everyone else. 

Sometimes I thought life might be easier if everyone would just accept me as the ‘Great Arbiter of Language Choices’, but that was not likely to happen, so there were occasions on which I should keep my own view in check. Now, of course, I can express my opinions freely and have done so in Rebel without a Clause.

As an individual I can accept agreeance as a noun, particularly in the phrase to be in agreeance with someone, although as a dictionary editor I would probably feel obliged to point out that there are those who do not consider agreeance to be an accepted noun form and demand agreement. I would also cheekily point out that the form agreeance did exist in English in the 1500s, so it is a not impossible derived form, but one that just happened to die out after that.

While I accept agreeance, I do not tolerate the use of infamous to mean famous, and the transfer of hoi polloi from the meaning ‘the ignorant masses’ to ‘the rich and powerful’.

I can accept irregardless for regardless, while abhorring the misuse of the apostrophe, particularly when it is thrust ridiculously and uselessly in front of the –s of the plural form. I would prefer to do without it entirely rather than have it proliferate in places where it should not be.

I find it startling that instead of handing over the reins of power, we are handing over the reigns of power, and instead of having a long row to hoe, we now have a long road to haul. The first error perhaps stems from our lack of familiarity with horse-drawn vehicles, while the second is a switch from an agricultural image to a truckie’s nightmare.

It is quite fun to be able to speak my mind about these things that I regard as errors, which disturb the flow of communication from writer to reader. Something like a long road to haul brings the reader up short. You cease to take in what the writer is trying to say while your mind comes to grips with the notion of hauling the long road. Errors of this kind are the distraction that kills communication stone dead.

Deciding when certain words or usages are an impediment to communication, and when they are just part of ongoing change, which is proof of the vitality of language, is what counts.

What can you not tolerate when it comes to the written or spoken word?

Susan Butler AO https://www.suebutler.com.au was the editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, Australia’s national dictionary, and was largely responsible for the selection and writing of new words. She retired as editor at the end of 2017. She has written the Dinkum Dictionary, published in its third edition in 2009. In 2014 she wrote The Aitch Factor, a commentary on usage matters in Australian English. Her latest book, Rebel without a Clause, comes out in October.

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Written by Sue Butler



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