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They're looking up 'Yankspeak' for the Oxford English Dictionary

The Hartford Courant
July 5, 2000
Web posted at: 11:12 AM EDT (1512 GMT)

In this story:

"Coca-Colanization of the world"

Sources of new words

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

OLD SAYBROOK, Connecticut (The Hartford Courant) -- Once there was a time, says Alan Metcalf of the American Dialect Society, when British lexicographers were slightly cavalier about the state of the King's English in the States.

Sure, they took note of prominent Americanisms - but from the comfort of their overseas offices.

But something happened: A couple of world wars, some major medical and technological advances, the landing on the moon - all seemed to put the States solidly in the status of serious contender, politically and culturally.

Suddenly, ``Friends'' is huge on the BBC. So are Buffy and all her vampire-slaying, contemporary-American-slang-spouting cohorts.

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``Chaps, let's see what those scatty Yanks are up to.''

So say the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary. Or something like that.

For the first time since the dictionary's 1879 inception, the OED has established an office in the United States, one designed specifically to root out uniquely American usages.

Jesse Sheidlower, a former editor at Random House, is heading up the project. He works out of the same building that houses the U.S. Oxford Dictionaries on Main Street in this shoreline community.

Since starting in March, Sheidlower has already tracked down a few possible entries to the revered tome, which in its last unabridged version took the form of 20 volumes and weighed in at 137 pounds:

{sqbull}``McMansion,'' an ostentatiously large house, hastily constructed, with minimal attention to building quality and architectural detail.

{sqbull}``Juneteenth,'' the anniversary of the day Texas slaves were informed of their freedom.

Before Oxford hired him, Sheidlower worked for eight years on the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. He's also editor of 1995's well-reviewed ``The F-Word,'' a comprehensive volume on the many, many uses of the famous vulgarity.

American lexicographers say the OED has always done a thorough job of documenting Yankspeak, even from afar. But there's always room for improvement.

"Coca-Colanization of the world"

As an American, Sheidlower says he's more in tune to the subtleties of how we speak. For instance, he remembers being in the OED's Oxford headquarters when he noticed a citation for ``master of the universe,'' the term Tom Wolfe coined in his 1987 book ``Bonfire of the Vanities.'' Though noted, the British editors didn't think it warranted inclusion. Sheidlower thought otherwise.

``I knew that it was incredibly widespread and that it deserved to go in,'' he says.

As the OED's chief editor, John Simpson, points out, Sheidlower will be in the thick of the language as it forms.

He also has at his disposal the North American Reading Program, a network of people throughout the United States who read various texts and alert the editors of possible usages that have so far gone undetected.

It also made sense to open the U.S. office at the same time the OED launched its online version, Simpson says. The first 1,000 entries, all revised, went up on the Internet in March. (

Some say the latest foray into the States may be a sign of the OED's acknowledgement of just how prevalent American culture is in the rest of the world - what the scholar and writer Henry Louis Gates Jr. called the ``Coca-Colanization of the world.''

``It's relatively recent that the British have realized that they better pay attention to what's happening in America, instead of just letting them do what they want,'' says Alan Metcalf, executive secretary for the American Dialect Society. The organization has tracked Americanisms since the 19th century.

Sources of new words

Indeed, the brute force of the U.S. political, economic and cultural presence has helped force our linguistic inventions into the collective consciousness of other nations, the OED's Simpson says. Though it's seldom used in his country, Simpson says much of the U.S. vernacular is familiar to the British.

Much more so than we are to theirs, Metcalf says. Mind you, we like other countries' ideas just fine. After all, he points out, the television hits ``Who Wants to be a Millionaire?'' and ``Survivor'' were borrowed from England and Sweden, respectively.

But while we have no problem co-opting ideas, we don't care much to figure out terms like ``brolly'' (umbrella) and ``sleeping policeman'' (speed bump).

The North American Reading Program has about a dozen core readers, and dozens more who take part occasionally in the program. Although a few are paid, most do it for the love of words and a sense of satisfaction in helping shape the language.

Often, Sheidlower assigns texts to his readers that appear to be rich in new usages.

The New Yorker is good for this, he says. Technical journals and edgier magazines, such as Thrasher and Vibe offer more new terms, but The New Yorker has a broader range of writing. When a usage appears in it, there's a good chance it's established well enough for inclusion.

Sheidlower lists books by John Updike, David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker as other good places to look for new Americanisms.

One member of the program, Saul Rosen, a retired doctor, says it's hard to read anything without noting something that may be of use to the OED.

From his monthly reading, which includes mysteries and science and opera magazines , Rosen's offerings for June so far include ``stickie,'' ``throw rug,'' ``e-tailer,'' ``giving someone the business,'' ``dead tree'' (referring to one who publishes a lot), and ``zone out.''

Not all, if any, will graduate from clever word play to actual word. A common rule of thumb among lexicographers is that a word should be spotted in at least five different sources over a period of five years.

When one of his citations does reach dictionary status, Rosen says, it's kind of exciting.

``I must say that I get a certain satisfaction out of that,'' he says.

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