Harmless drudgery: getting started at the OED

By Alex Steer, Assistant Editor, OED

I joined the OED as an Assistant Editor in January 2006. This is how I got here, and what I’ve been doing since.

I probably always knew, deep down, that there had to be jobs for people who are interested in words, and that lexicography was one of those jobs. Maybe that was what prompted me to read English at university, but then again I think it was the interest itself that drove that decision, rather than the employment prospects. Well, perhaps a combination of interest and the glossy (and of course perfectly written) brochures in which English departments advertise their degree courses, which no doubt this year, as every year, will promise a fresh batch of prospective undergraduates an education that will equip them with a greater sensitivity to language, and a clearer understanding of what words really mean. And maybe in three years time as they flick with slightly greater urgency through other brochures—the ones full of good-looking people in designer suits staring into the distance who somehow represent the world of professional tax auditing—and glance at the section on employment statistics for arts graduates, they’ll have a deeper feeling for what words and phrases like ‘competitive’, ‘tight’, ‘downsizing’ and ‘law conversion courses available’ really mean, too. Or recall Milton’s Paradise Lost, and wonder whether the average newly unemployed English graduate doesn’t feel too oddly like the newly fallen Satan, clearly also beguiled by glossy brochures, as ‘he views The dismal situation waste and wilde..where peace And rest can never dwell, hope never comes That comes to all; but torture without end’. (No wonder one of the top routes for people who study English is into studying more English, which is how I came to spend an extra year haunting Cambridge’s libraries, completing an M.Phil. on that most employable of subjects, Middle English popular religious writing.)

There are many jobs that use words, of course, just as one might console an out-of-work physicist by pointing out that most jobs do, in fact, make good use of the laws of gravity and motion. I think I assumed, though, that recruitment to something as big and old as the OED would be like recruitment to the CIA: a tap on the shoulder by a very old man with a long beard who asks you cryptic questions about phrasal verbs. (Okay, not exactly like the CIA, then.) So imagine my surprise when I saw an advert in the Guardian. I applied (and fast, because I’d noticed the advert just days before the deadline) and was sent a test to complete at home, examining competence in the Dictionary’s mind-bending range of disciplines, from drafting definitions for new words to re-drafting old ones, through analysing the structure of an entry, assigning quotations to senses, to a brief grapple with the phonetic alphabet. Having sent that back, I was called for interview, which was both like and unlike an interview for any other job: like, in that I was asked about my abilities, experience and expectations; unlike, in that I was asked about neologisms in twelfth-century English. (I’d brought it up: I’d hate to think they asked that to non-medievalists.) While there I had the basics of the OED revision project explained to me, and was given a tour round the office and the ‘quotes room’ with its millions of paper slips, and I realised what a great job (in both senses of great, both ‘wonderful’ and ‘immense’) it would be.

I received a phone call a few days later offering me a position in the Revision group. The contracts barely hit my doormat before they were returned, signed and accepted, in the post. And so for anyone wondering how people become lexicographers, that’s it. No tap on the shoulder, no Victorian beards, no secret handshakes or phrasal verbs (well, maybe a few). The positions are advertised, and people apply. The application process can be taken at face value—there’s no Da Vinci Code-style codebreaking involved. The words themselves are what require the passion, the fascination, the scrutiny and the decipherment, and the people are the ones who are interested enough to invest that effort. Samuel Johnson called lexicographers ‘harmless drudges’, but it’s only drudgery when you don’t care.

It’s still hard work, mind, and over the last three months I’ve been scrambling my way up the Dictionary’s very steep learning curve, with the expert guidance and friendly advice of everybody on the project. One of the best aspects of the training has been its focus on getting a feel for doing things right, which means learning all the core tasks, not just the one that will occupy most of one’s time, so I’ve written out slips for the reading programme, sorted through stacks of paper (some of it covered in well-nigh indecipherable handwriting), searched databases, checked dialect dictionaries, drafted new entries, revised old ones, and even had the chance to put my M.Phil. to good use by checking the accuracy of some of our Middle English quotations. The work is a combination of old-fashioned pen-and-paper sleuthing and up-to-the-minute computing procedures, and I divide my time between hunting down quotations from medieval manuscripts and early printed books, and learning the detailed entry-tagging structure that holds that information on the OED‘s database. The project, too, is in an exciting phase, with the revision programme for the third edition under way, a new computer system, and an increased public profile thanks to the BBC’s wordhunt series ‘Balderdash and Piffle’ (which has drawn wider attention to what we do, and maybe dispelled some of that beards-and-cryptography image).

As for me, I’m only just getting started, still finding my feet, and still loving the challenge. As I write this, I’m working on the entry for ‘prosy, adj.’, meaning bland, matter-of-fact, ordinary – the very word, in fact, for harmless drudgery. And the last word I’d use to describe my job.