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

Thursday 29 October 2009

Scottish Unenlightenment

By now there’s been a fair bit of comment in the press, north of the border at least, on the Chambers Harrap closure in Edinburgh. It all runs along the lines of “how sad to see such a historic firm fall victim to the internet, shows how times are changing, shouldn’t be allowed”. Some writers even claim a certain quintessentially Scottish quality for Chambers dictionaries (sometimes appearing to forget that Collins is just as Scottish), recruit the heroes of the Scottish Enlightenment to their cause, or cite Edinburgh’s status as UNESCO City of Literature. While I’m not sure I quite follow that, I can’t disagree with the general drift.

But I’m still naive enough to be disappointed by the lack of any actual analysis of what’s facing reference publishing, indeed any comment from anyone who actually knows anything about it. The press have treated this as mainly a matter of sentimental pride in Scotland’s publishing history, plus the little local matter of the loss of a couple of dozen jobs, but while these are relevant, there are surely other far-reaching implications. The future of reference publishing in our information-driven society could hardly be a more relevant subject for discussion in what passes for the serious press in this country, but all we get is waffle, hand-wringing and silly puns.

Pauline McLean, blogging on The South Bank — of the Clyde that is, “every bit as lively in cultural terms as its namesake” we are told — drops in the following intriguingly casual remark, as if it were so obvious as to be hardly worth wasting keystrokes on. “Of course, reference publishing has been in trouble for decades, and not just because of the decline in sales or the increasing appeal of online editions.” Perhaps I’m being dense or pedantic, perhaps she’s writing in a hurry, but I wonder what this other malaise is, the one that has nothing to do with sales. I don’t even know how far back the current life-threatening decline in sales goes, but I would be surprised if it’s literally decades. Dictionaries were still doing OK even a decade ago, as far as I could see; two decades ago they were taking on staff. There was serious money being invested in exciting new techniques and technology for researching, editing and typesetting their products.

“Decades” ago, a computer was a huge, mysterious machine in an air-conditioned room that got your utility bills comically wrong, or maybe a little educational toy for geeky schoolboys to plug into the family telly when no-one else wanted to watch one of the three available channels. And this was before it became fashionable to describe oneself self-deprecatingly as “geeky”, in fact before we in Britain had even heard of that American word. Portable electronic gadgets of the sort we all carry now were pretty much non-existent and there was simply no alternative to paper dictionaries.

So what exactly has been happening to reference publishing over the last few years, or decades if you like? I don’t expect detailed breakdowns of sales figures, but I would like to know just how serious and recent this phenomenon is, and what will actually happen to dictionaries over the next few years. What about the all-important schools market, is it in free-fall? No commentator on the Chambers affair has mentioned this, and they show no interest in the plight of Chambers’s bilingual stablemate, Harrap. What about tourists, surely we’re not yet at the point where all of them are looking up vocab on their iPhones or even those feeble little pocket translator gadgets you used to see in the Innovations catalogue? I’d go for a cheap phrasebook or pocket dictionary any time, you can scribble in it, smear sunblock on it and swat flies with it; it won’t run out of battery and it’s not a disaster if it gets lost or stolen.

The “content” for all those electronic gadgets has to come from somewhere: have dictionary firms underpriced the goods or is there some other way in which electronic sales have failed to bring home the bacon? Those currently offering their vague valedictions don’t know (nor do I), and those who know aren’t telling.

PS: It’s not too late to sign the “Keep Chambers in Edinburgh” petition at

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Dentists? Tooth burglars, I call ’em

Remember everyone: lock your jaws.

Sunday 25 October 2009

“The hegemony of the south”

At last, the chattering classes of South Britain have woken up to the incipient Scottish tragedy looming over Chambers Dictionaries in Edinburgh. Good on Robert McCrum of the Observer for breaking the silence with a blazing indictment of “cultural vandalism” that, as he notes, “has not troubled the cultural conscience of the south”.

However, it seems “the south” is still a little hazy about what comes from where. Those of us who have spent years writing dictionaries in Scotland for the old Glasgow firm of Collins, which became part of HarperCollins in 1990 or so, might be a little miffed to see it lumped together with the likes of OUP and Penguin as part of the “hegemony of the south”. William Collins, a Glasgow mill-worker-turned-schoolmaster, founded the company in 1819 (the very year Chambers brothers published their first title, The Songs of Robert Burns), and like Chambers, Collins was a family firm until quite recently. HarperCollins’s British HQ may be in London, just as the parent company of Chambers is based in Paris, but their dictionaries are still Clyde-built, by the way.

Putting on the style

Those of us who have worked with style guides may enjoy the Twitter parody FakeAPStylebook. An enquirer asks “is it preferable to refer to the country as "Burma" or as "Myanmar"?” Back comes the answer:

If accuracy / Is what you crave / Then you should call it / Myanmar Shave.


Friday 23 October 2009

The feelgood factor

Hostage to fortune, these bullish statements on corporate websites.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

“The gold standard for dictionaries”

glimmer n. some small gleam or flicker, as in hope or intelligence
[Campbell, in the style of The Chambers Dictionary]

Fingers are still crossed for Chambers Harrap, the embattled dictionary firm in Edinburgh. An emergency works committee has been held at the level of the parent company Lagardère and the consultation period extended. A online petition to keep Chambers in Edinburgh is available to sign at Tell your friends.

David Crystal
considers the proposed closure “especially ironic, in the case of Chambers, when we think that Edinburgh has been made the first UNESCO City of Literature.” Robert McCrum, blogging in the Guardian, considers that “Chambers sets the gold standard for dictionaries” (see the response of McDrudge in the comments) but it’s revealing that when he wrote those words neither he nor Crystal had yet heard of the closure announced two weeks earlier — and not surprising given the disgraceful lack of interest in the story shown by the “national” press south of the border. My friend Caroline of the Publishing Cupboard points out that what we need is to get the King of Twitter, Stephen Fry, on board. An article in one of the English broadsheets from one of these luminaries would surely do no harm at all.

And in an unorthodox but thought-provoking move, MEP David Martin has even launched a campaign to give the Chambers brand protected geographical status, like Scotch whisky or Stilton cheese. Can it be true that a product’s unique qualities are sometimes due not just to the soil or water or climate of its place of origin but to the accumulated intellectual expertise of its makers, who can only be found in that place? It might seem a stretch in this case, given the relative geographical mobility of such workers and the publishing industry’s dependence on “outsourcing” to freelances all over Europe, but it’s certainly an interesting idea. Terroir intellectuel?

Monday 19 October 2009

Days I’ll remember all my life

In the light of the regrettable tradition that seems to be establishing itself on this blog whereby “Days” are acknowledged only after they have passed, I would like the following to be taken into consideration.
26 September: European Day of Languages
13 October: English Language Day
16 October: National Dictionary Day, also known as Noah Webster’s Birthday — how about a British equivalent to celebrate James Murray? Sam Johnson has had enough commemorating recently.Another American institution, National Grammar Day, is not till 4 March. It is the creation of the rather scary-sounding “SPOGG” or Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. If this blog is still going I may take a quick look to see how the American SPOGGers compare with our own dear British nutters.

Sunday 18 October 2009

Fail! (round two)

It seems that the Portuguese translators of The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency are not the only ones to take liberties with Prof McCall Smith’s title. In French it comes out as L’Agence No 1 des Dames Détectives, though this is not used as the title of the book, which is the distinctly lame Mma Ramotswe Détective.

It’s perfectly in order to reject a slavishly literal translation, but why are the free translations of book titles often so banal? In this case, given that French is widely spoken in Africa, surely it would have been possible to find something with the same charmingly quaint flavour?

Things are even worse in Spanish, where La 1a Agencia de Mujeres Detectives (“The First Agency of Women Detectives”) surely destroys the very point of the title. Not only is there an endearing swagger about the “Number One” bit, there’s also the gentle humour characteristic of McCall Smith. Mma Ramotswe’s is not just the first or best, but the only ladies’ detective agency in Botswana, so there’s no denying it’s Number One.

Some years ago, in the line of duty, I had reason to read several popular works of light fiction line by line against their translated French-language editions, and it was an eye-opener. You would think a bestselling title might deserve a decent translator, who is probably not much more expensive than a semi-competent one, but no. It was usually as much as the poor sap could do to puzzle out the literal meaning more or less intact, without any attempt to convey the humour or tone of the original. Many a time you could picture hands thrown up in despair at something the poor translator couldn’t make head or tail of — mais c’est vrai ce qu’on dit, les Anglais sont fous ! — and see the whole mess being swept under the carpet. Just make something up, no-one will notice and we’ve all got bills to pay (which is true enough).

One book, much in the Bridget Jones genre of the carefree 1990s, was set among idle rich types who host American-style “pool parties” in the summer, the kind of people who think it amusing to refer to champagne as shampoo, or “poo” for short. The translator, perhaps picturing the country house parties of a century ago, took this to refer to endless games of billiards — more Brideshead than Beverly Hills. How horrified those trendy socialites would be by the confusion with the low-down white-trash game of American pool!

“More ’poo, anyone?” brays one of the toffs. The translator is stumped at first. She knows English food is de la merde, obviously, but surely this person cannot be literally offering his guests helpings of excrement. Then suddenly light dawns: it’s a misprint! Ah, ces Anglais — the irresistible urge to knock coloured balls around a green baize table-top is still not sated. “Anyone for another game of pool?”

Thursday 15 October 2009

Mama loshn

And talking of radio, David Schneider presents “My Yiddisher Mother Tongue”, an interesting programme on Radio 4 about his experience of the Yiddish language. It’s actually not his mother tongue but he did study it for a doctorate at Oxford in the 1980s under Dovid Katz, in the then Oxford Programme in Yiddish, now relocated to the University of Vilnius (or should I say Vilna). The programme is available to listen “again” for another few days, and I recommend it if only for a wholly unexpected revelation about General Colin Powell.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

“Global perspectives for an American audience”

Here at the Campbell Word Factory we pride ourselves on our rapid response service. Almost within the hour, we can get a highly-skilled word-wrangler onto your talk radio programme, spouting away like nobody’s business about the subject of your choosing — obsolete placenames a speciality, of course. And thus it was that today, precisely ninety minutes after getting a call on my mobile (in the library!) from the thoroughly charming people at Public Radio International/BBC America, I found myself talking down the line to Marco Werman, presenter of PRI’s The World in Boston. Producer David Leveille (right) had spotted that the theme of my little anecdotes and musings was right up the street of his daily Geo Quiz, and a fuller version of that 15-minute interview will soon be appearing in Patrick Cox’s excellent podcast The World in Words.

I’ve often commented on the quality of such Public Radio programmes in America, which sometimes make dear old Radio 4 look a bit feeble, and now that — thanks to the internet — tuning in to them is no harder than switching on the Archers, I warmly recommend taking a look at these links.

Thursday 8 October 2009

The curse of the 140-character limit

If it’s true that the appalling Berlusconi has immunity from prose, then the political role of the poet has surely never been more important.

Happy National Poetry Day.

Friday 2 October 2009

Fail! (as the young people say)

I’m intrigued to see that the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, meaning a detective agency aimed at lady customers, seems to have become an agency of women detectives in the Brazilian edition. I wonder what Mma Ramotswe, sole proprietor and operative, indeed the “first and only lady detective in the whole of Botswana”, would make of that?