Lex in the City: reflections on a year in the North American Editorial Unit

By Madeline McDonnell and Abigail Zitin, Assistant Editors, OED

When I tell acquaintances that I live in New York City, cries of ‘How glamorous!’ unfailingly follow. My new friends seem to expect the life of a young woman living in Manhattan to mirror that of Carrie Bradshaw, the alluring protagonist of the popular TV programme; Sex and the City. I’m expected to follow in the stiletto heels of that (in)famous TV drama’s befurred, cosmo-swilling crew. Alas, I am inevitably a disappointment to these admirers; for I came to New York not to linger over the pistachio- encrusted sea bass of the latest celebrity chef, but rather to ponder North American language and usage as one of three lexicographers working for the OED‘s North American Editorial Unit. And, while I hate to disappoint, there is no way around it: champagne-fizzed evenings will not be followed by breakfasts of white truffles and afternoons at Barneys – not on my lexicographer’s salary. My mornings, afternoons, and evenings will be spent in an office suited for the serious study of lemmas – secluded, snug (not to say cramped), my desk laden with computers and tiny, scrawled-upon citation slips.

While my failure to personify the quintessentially fabulous, young New Yorker troubled me upon my arrival in the city, I was more worried by fears that I was not qualified to perform the work that brought me there. I, a lexicographer for the OED? How would I – clad in denim rather than tweed, accustomed to drinking frappuccinos rather than Earl Grey – be able to contribute to such a profoundly British text? I felt inadequate on all levels – I would be neither an authentic New Yorker, nor a true OED lexicographer.

Having laboured at both tasks for a little over a year, however, I am pleased to say that my feelings of inadequacy have proved largely unfounded. I’ve discovered that I can be a sophisticated New Yorker precisely because I am a lexicographer; likewise, I make a valuable contribution to the OED in part because I live in New York. Surprisingly, my work has enabled me to acquaint myself with the seductive idiosyncrasies of the life of a New York insider, while my exposure to these idiosyncrasies has given me new insight into an as yet uncovered lexicon.

The existence of the OED‘s North American Editorial Unit ensures that American terms are edited by lexicographers familiar with the particularities of American English and its dialects. Such particularities in language often arise from a need to reflect particularities in culture. No culture is more rife with such particularities than New York’s. For example, the quantity of bagels consumed each Manhattan morning defies belief. A plethora of bagels demands an abundance of topping-types. Most Americans are familiar with lox, but, for the New Yorker desiring something similarly salmony, but with a slightly less salty flavour, there is a version of the lightly cured fish called ‘nova’, a term the OED had failed to define until NAEU discovered its omission. Indeed, the foodie capital of the country, if not the world, has proved an ideal place to be a lexicographer. How better to determine that ‘bubble tea’, which I defined last January, does not necessarily contain tea, than by perusing Chinatown menus containing the term, and sampling the beverages described? When working on an entry for Key lime pie in April, consultations with three different 2nd Avenue bakers proved invaluable. One used Key lime juice in his pie, another the juice of Tahiti limes. One topped his pie with meringue, another with whipped cream. All insisted their creations were to be called by no other name than Key lime pie. Free samplings of these decidedly ‘Key lime’ pies helped me determine the proper adjective with which to describe a typical pie’s flavour. (I settled on ‘tangy’.)

In the end, though I still refuse to wear tweed, I am certain that I would not be qualified to define many of the terms I am assigned were I not living in Manhattan. Moreover, when asked for details of my exciting life in New York, I now reply without pause, ‘Ah yes, the “urban jungle” – it is a life of “tasting menus” and “dotcommers”, “hostile takeovers” and “hot tubs”, “white pizzas” in “Little Italy” washed down with “macchiatos”, “power shopping” followed by “buyer’s remorse”, “artsiness” and “garmentos”! After all, I – or one of my colleagues at NAEU – put those terms in the dictionary!

Madeline McDonnell, Assistant Editor, Oxford English Dictionary (North American Editorial Unit)


‘So how long have you wanted to be a lexicographer?’ asked Jesse Sheidlower, the Principal Editor of the North American Editorial Unit, while interviewing me for the position I now hold. Knowing myself to be a lousy liar, I told the shallow truth: I had wanted to be a lexicographer since I’d read the want ad he placed in the New York Times. Remarkably, my opportunism didn’t seem to count against me: I have learned in the year that I’ve worked here that a good lexicographer is a kind of opportunist, in the sense that she must be able to touch down on a subject she may know nothing about, swiftly avail herself of whatever resources are available, and emerge with a sleek and authoritative definition. While I have learned most of the skills of my job from lexicographers so experienced they often speak in what sounds like definition text, there’s a sense in which the best tutors are the words themselves. Each word or phrase under scrutiny instructs by means of its idiosyncrasies, its challenges to standard defining style, its ambiguous or metaphorical uses in citations. We at NAEU encounter an unusual amount of variety in our work since we draft entries for so-called ‘high-profile new words’ across the alphabet: not for us the strictures of being moored in a large entry such as move or much for weeks or even months at a time.

I began working as a lexicographer in an anxious time, so perhaps it’s not strange that one of the first words assigned to me during my training was the then-ubiquitous weaponize. I knew I was out of my depth when I found my first quotation for the participial adjective weaponized while searching an online database of academic journals: it appeared in a declassified U.S. Military Intelligence document drafted in 1956. My task involved deploying my own (blissful) ignorance of nuclear weapons and germ warfare in order to tease out the lexical features that delimit different uses of the word, noticing, for example, that governments weaponize intransitively by adding nuclear devices to their arsenal. If something is (transitively) weaponized, however, it’s likely to be a technical rather than a political feat: the mounting of a warhead on a missile, say, or the engineering of a virus to ensure its infection of a population.

Did I mention emotional detachment as an important job qualification for the lexicographer? Happily, ‘high-profile’ does not often mean ‘the lead story on the evening news’. Such was the case when I found myself defining the comparatively untopical phrase peaceable kingdom under the tutelage of Associate Editor Peter Gilliver during his visit to New York last spring. When I plugged the phrase into our standard online library search engines, I discovered its repeated appearance as a chapter heading in ninteenth-century American editions of the Bible, but it never appeared in the text itself. It wasn’t until Peter and I ventured into OUP’s in-house library in search of reference books on American religious traditions that we found our Rosetta Stone, in a monograph on seventeenth-century Quaker pacifism: a document called the Rhode Island Testimony, dated 1675, declared ‘the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is come near in us…and in this his peaceable Kingdom we live’. For the Rhode Island Quakers (or, in official dictionary parlance, the Religious Society of Friends) the peaceable kingdom was the realization of scriptural prophecy, particularly (as they imagined it) in an idealized view of life in the ‘New World’ – all the more so, perhaps, given that 1675 saw the outbreak of the bloody conflict between Indians and colonists known as King Philip’s War. (Subsequently, we found a slightly earlier citation in a translation of the writings of Hendrik Niclaes, founder of a radical Protestant sect called the Family of Love, which seems to have had ties to the Quaker movement.) The Testimony’s utopian declaration would find its visual counterpart in the early nineteenth century, in a series of more than a hundred allegorical paintings by the American Quaker artist Edward Hicks. In the paintings, as in the Biblical verse, animals both savage and domestic – ‘the calf and the young lion and the fatling together’ – sit contentedly against a pastoral backdrop of virgin forest; in the background, William Penn negotiates a treaty with a cohort of Native Americans. In the later part of the twentieth century, some Canadians adopted the phrase as a moniker, perhaps recognizing that their neighbors to the south had long ago forsaken any claim on providential pacifism. In this year of ‘daisy cutters’ and prospective ‘regime changes’ (both phrases I have also defined for the OED in recent months), a few days’ respite in the peaceable kingdom was certainly welcome. Opportunism? Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

Abigail Zitin, Assistant Editor, Oxford English Dictionary (North American Editorial Unit)