The art of reading for the OED: Chuck Deodene
Here, Chuck Deodene talks us through his process for reading assigned texts and the collections of letters that have proved particularly fascinating:
I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the 1970s, majored in Chemistry at Oberlin College, and currently reside in Bloomington, Indiana. Along with my reading for the OED, another word-based trade I sometimes ply is crossword puzzle construction.
How did you come to work for the Reading Programmes?
I come from a very bookish family; both my parents were librarians by training. For several years my father served as the director of my hometown’s public library, then went on to run his own used bookstore for over forty years. In the 1990s his bookstore was frequented by Jeffery Triggs, who was then the head of the OED’s North American Reading Programme (NARP). Through this connection I was hired as a reader for the dictionary in 1996.
Why do you work on the RP?
I started reading for the OED while recuperating from a back injury (it’s the ideal job for a recumbent worker). My original assignment was to cover a sampling of Midwestern newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and Louisville Courier-Journal. Over the years the work steadily became more involving as it expanded to include texts as varied as the crime novels of Jim Thompson and collections of screenplays by Preston Sturges. By now, along with the enjoyment that comes from reading such engaging works, there’s a certain momentum that spurs me to keep contributing to a project I’ve been working on for so long. I also like monitoring the quarterly online updates made to the dictionary, to see how the editors are using the words I’ve submitted.
What do you think makes a good reader?
It clearly comes down to having the patience to read the material word by word without losing focus. Aside from that attention to detail, if you’ve spent enough time over the years reading for pleasure it’s fairly easy to pinpoint a word that might not be in the dictionary yet.
Take us through your process—what happens after you’re assigned a text to read?
When I was initially hired, my instructions were to highlight any term that appeared new or interesting in my assigned reading. As I’ve observed steady progress being made toward completion of the dictionary’s Third Edition, I’ve tried to apply a more focused approach. When weighing if a word or phrase should be marked for the consideration of the editors, I first make sure I’m not submitting something that’s already in the dictionary. I also have access to a database of citations recorded by other readers, which I use to ensure potential submissions haven’t been noted dozens of times previously. When encountering technical jargon or slang, I often do a quick Google or Urban Dictionary search to verify that I’m highlighting material that is in common use by some given set of people, and not just a term invented by the author.
How do you recognize that a word or meaning is new?
Even after 20-plus years, I’m still surprised when I discover which terms are and aren’t included in the Oxford English Dictionary. Since my judgment often proves unreliable, I’m simply forced to check any word under consideration against what is already in the OED.
How is reading for the reading programme different than for pleasure?
When reading for the dictionary, my reaction to a book is largely determined by how much useful material I’m finding. Somehow an otherwise compelling novel just doesn’t seem very enjoyable if there aren’t plenty of new words and phrases to be noted. It’s a relief, when I’m reading for pleasure, to not have to concentrate so intensely on the author’s vocabulary.
What is your favourite aspect of the work? Are there any aspects of it that you find frustrating?
What has always excited me is reading an older work and discovering a word usage that antedates the OED’s earliest citation. A book of personal letters or a particularly old magazine may yield several such finds. As a quick example, while reading a volume of Ernest Hemingway letters in 2016, I came across the firearms term pump, used as shorthand for pump-action shotgun, in a letter of August 1928. This usage antedated the dictionary’s earliest citation by 22 years.
For me the biggest frustration comes when considering a word for submission only to find it’s been recently added to the dictionary. In September 2018 I was about to highlight the term Antifa (the antifascist protest movement) in a magazine I was reading. When I checked the OED I found that the word had been added just several days prior as part of the latest quarterly update.
Could you pick out a favourite text?
A couple books stand out as favourites. In 2008 I read The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, edited by Otto Penzler, a huge collection of crime fiction originally published in pulp magazines of the 1920s through 1940s. The stories were not only entertaining but, even better for my purposes, loaded with period slang. A typical passage, from the 1933 story ‘Double Check’, describes a gang’s safecracker in the following manner: ‘Jigger’s a peter man–expert on nitro. He’s cracked enough jackboxes to blow us to hell.’
Another hefty book that made a strong impression was Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, published in 2014. Over the years I’ve read many books of letters for the dictionary, from writers such as Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. I found them all interesting, but many of the Mailer letters struck me as downright fascinating. They vividly covered topics both literary (the conception of the characters that were to appear in The Naked and the Dead) and mundane (getting into a fistfight on a New York street). While reading the letters I got the strong sense that Mailer was someone who influenced the way people spoke – and thought – in the place and time that I’m from (the New York metropolitan area in the second half of the 20th Century).
Has there been a new word or meaning of a word you’ve come across that gave you pause for thought, or stuck with you?
I once had an interesting encounter with the term good fellow, meaning ‘mobster’. I’d been aware of the term since the 1990 release of Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas, and I had later submitted a usage example I found in the 1988 book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia. The OED’s earliest mob-related citation for good fellow is dated 1963, but a few years ago I stumbled on an indication that the term may be much, much older. The discovery took place when I read a review of A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York, by Timothy J. Gilfoyle. This 2007 book is based on the previously unpublished autobiography of a career criminal named George Appo (1856 – 1930), who at one point wrote the following: ‘What constitutes a Good Fellow in the eyes and estimation of the underworld is a nervy crook, a money getter and spender.’ To read a daily newspaper’s book review and suddenly find evidence of a much earlier usage for a colourful term is something that keeps a reader’s job from growing stale.
Has working for the RP given you knowledge of subjects you wouldn’t have otherwise encountered, or introduced you to new perspectives?
Through my work for the OED I’ve been exposed to authors far more diverse than those I’d normally encounter. I’m pleased to be part of the dictionary’s effort to document vocabulary from groups such as the immigrant, Native peoples, and LGBT communities.
Every book is an opportunity to learn something new, regardless of its subject. For example, over the course of a couple years I was assigned about three dozen Young Adult novels to read, so I now feel better versed in teen issues than most 56-year-olds. However, you won’t catch me attempting to use any teen slang I’ve gleaned.
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