Saturday 21 November 2009

Tripe-hounds and ink-slingers

The other week I was at the launch party of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, finally published after some 44 years in the making at Glasgow University’s Department of English Language. It is easily the world’s largest thesaurus, covering some 800,000 meanings in 236,000 categories and subcategories, and the first historical thesaurus of any language. It weighs a ton and costs £250.

It sold out in a matter of days and is now reprinting in time for Christmas.

The story of such an extraordinary book proved irresistible to the press, and its editor was inundated with requests for interviews from around the world. The editor in question is Honorary Professorial Research Fellow Christian Kay, who despite the, er, Christian name, is female. She writes very entertainingly on the OUP blog this week about the sort of questions she was asked, and needless to say, they were often not exactly the most intelligent of questions. I think her piece contributes some nice evidence to my own musings on the strange ideas journalists seem to have about dictionaries and the people that make them (see “Mad professors and lollipop ladies”, etc).

We all know how much the meejah love their heavy-handed clichés, but what also emerges here is a distinctly unappealing kind of ageism. Professor Kay is an unmarried woman around retirement age, a soft-spoken individual of kindly appearance and big owlish specs — if not quite one of the “cardiganed duffers” beloved of The Times, then perhaps the chintzy librarian stereotype might answer. As she points out, it does seem incredible that in 2009 journalists consider it all right to refer to a “lingo-loving spinster” who “coyly confessed” to celebrating with a glass of champagne, and ask whether she is looking foward to getting back to her garden or perhaps a “big piece of knitting”. If she’d been, say, a sexy twenty-nine-year-old in a miniskirt, I do think they would hesitate to suggest she was looking forward to getting her hair done, painting her toenails and putting in some time on the sunbed, and I feel pretty sure that if the thesaurus had been edited by a West Indian with a taste for colourful shirts they would not have asked whether he was planning to celebrate by chillin’ to some jungle beats with a bottle of rum and maybe a large hand-rolled cigarette. But to revert to the most moronic and patronising stereotypes is still OK where a woman over a certain age is concerned.

In time, HTOED will be available on the Web in conjunction with the online OED, but for now it takes the form of two handsome blue slipcased volumes, and this brings us back to another recent subject of this blog. In Prof Kay’s position, I for one would have been tempted to make a practical demonstration to the gentlemen of the press one of the advantages of the printed reference book over the electronic version. I speak of course of the weighty purposes the holy Koran was put to in that Bangladeshi restaurant

¹ Well, perhaps not if they were filming me for the telly.

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