Saturday, 31 October 2009

Mad professors and lollipop ladies

One of the most interesting things about dictionaries is how they, and their creators, are perceived by the general public. I’m grateful¹ to The Times for the information that
The classic lexicographers of yore, meanwhile, those whitehaired, cardiganed index-carded old duffers in Edinburgh, are types we’re taught to trust, as homely and familiar as lollipop ladies. They’re boffinish, pedantic and obsessed; for them the words disinterested and uninterested are as distinct as lions and tigers.
Where do they get this stuff? Seriously, that’s not (just) an expression of exasperation² but a genuine enquiry. Where do we get our images of lexicographers, when very few people can ever have met one? We might well imagine they would be pedantic and obsessive, certainly, since after all that’s part of the job. You wouldn’t want an air traffic controller to tell your plane to “descend to, I dunno, a bit lower than you are, and land sort of over there somewhere whenever you get the chance”, and you don’t consult a dictionary to be told that a tiger is “kind of a bit like a lion but with stripes, I think it lives in India though.”

But what’s all the nonsense about “whitehaired, cardiganed … old duffers” (and did he mean “old buffers”)? Is it a sort of amalgam of the absent-minded professor cliché with the prim, fussy, dowdy librarian stereotype — “boffins”³ with a vast knowledge of arcane trivia and a pedantic obsession with ordering it? And apparently these people are as “familiar as lollipop ladies”?

It’s interesting that one of Simon Winchester’s books on the history of the OED, The Surgeon of Crowthorne, was re-titled The Professor and the Madman for the American market, where they presumably like their stereotypes nice and bold. One of the characters in the story (W. C. Minor) was indeed a paranoid schizophrenic, or a “madman” if you want to be brutal and sensationalist about it, but the editor of the dictionary, J. A. H. Murray, never came closer to being a professor than the years he spent teaching at Mill Hill School. But hey, he had a long white beard and a donnish appearance, that’s good enough. Who knows what a lexicographer looks like? How many people assume that the front cover of the book (above) shows the “professor”, when in fact it’s the “madman”?

¹ No, not really
² I don’t actually set to out to be bitchy about the people who churn out the acres of ignorant, trivial and frequently infantile rubbish that bloat our broadsheet newspapers, but you have to wonder how anyone can come up with stuff like this, glance back through what they’ve written and not think “I can’t send that in, it’s embarrassing!”
³ A rather childish word that should probably be banned from the newspapers for a few years

1 comment:

  1. They forgot the pocket watches - I was told (before I became a lexicographer in my jeans and t-shirt) that all lexicographers used pocket watches - personally I just check my smart phone (am I allowed to be that trendy?)