Word Wranglers: Behind the Scenes of Australia’s Premier Dictionary

word wranglers

On a recent Monday, in a corner of Pan Macmillan Australia’s offices in Sydney, the Macquarie Dictionary editorial team was mulling over a new word: schapelle –verb (i). to carry out in a hurried or thoughtless way so that detection is unavoidable.

It was a timely eponym; the previous day, Schapelle Corby had made her return to Australia. The Macquarie team has observed a number of delectable eponymic coinages over the years: do a Bradbury, named for the Australian ice skater Steven Bradbury, who won Olympic gold after his competitors crashed; jeffed, for fired or sacked, named for former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett. There’s another one that Susan Butler, the dictionary’s editor since its inception in 1970, thinks ought to have taken off by now. “I don’t understand why if you say that you’ve been ‘Lathamed’ that doesn’t mean you’ve been abused,” she says. “It’s so obvious. Yet that one hasn’t happened.”

Most Monday mornings, the Macquarie’s editors exchange notes (usually from their phones, having mostly graduated from scrawled-on scraps of paper) about the weekend’s discoveries. They are in a perpetual state of vocabularic vigilance, looking not only for exotic new words but also for transmutations of existing ones.

“We are those people at a dinner party who will hear a word and politely look it up in the dictionary to see if it needs to be investigated,” says publisher Melissa Kemble.

It can be tricky, at said party, to explain the job of a lexicographer. “I don’t use the word lexicographer, for a start,” says executive editor Alison Moore.

“It’s a bit like being a butterfly collector,” says Butler. “You spot one, and you catch it.”

Moore suggests another, less romantic analogy: they are the housekeepers of the language, tirelessly attending to a never-ending mess.

Read the full story at The Monthly.

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