Language-usage commentator Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor and the back-page Word Court and Word Fugitives columnist for The Atlantic. She has worked for the magazine since 1983. In addition to her work for The Atlantic, she is a weekly syndicated columnist for King Features. She is also the author of the bestseller Word Court: Wherein Verbal Virtue is Rewarded, Crimes Against the Language are Punished, and Poetic Justice is Done, and her second book, Your Own Words, has recently been published. She is also the editor-in-chief of the newsletter Copy Editor: Language News for the Publishing Profession. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, the American Copy Editors Society, the American Dialect Society, and the Modern Language Association. Among the more unusual tidbits from her rich career: National Public Radio’s Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the United States Constitution.* Barbara Wallraff lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with her husband and cats.
Your Own Words is a language-reference book unlike any other. Barbara Wallraff, based on the varied commentary hats she dons, sees herself as a kind of Ann Landers of language usage—explaining to readers how they themselves might answer the vexing and perplexing questions they encounter. She discusses the references that experts use—the various strengths and weaknesses of dictionaries, stylebooks, usage manuals, etymological resources, thesauruses, and writing guides. And most importantly, she presents a useful way of looking at the disagreement of so-called authoritative resources. To quote one of the many writers Barbara Wallraff has edited, PJ O’Rourke, "I write for a living, but my spelling, my grammar, and my sense of whether there should be a comma before the conjunction at the end of this series is sketchy. Thus, Barbara Wallraff is invaluable. She also knows why invaluable means ‘priceless’ when if I were writing dictionaries, both words would mean ‘free.’ Plus, she understands the subjunctive mood."
* Wallraff explains: "When the Constitution had its bicentennial (I think we’re talking 1989–the bicentennial of its ratification), NPR was covering it from every angle the producers could think of. They wanted someone to discuss the language of the Constitution, so they invited me to look it over from a copy editor’s point of view and do a commentary on Morning Edition. The result was tongue in cheek. For instance, a good copy editor would point out that all the material in the main body of the Constitution that has been superseded by amendments ought to be deleted and replaced by the text of the relevant amendment. People who didn’t understand that I was joking were outraged–but most people did get the joke, thank goodness."
Robert Birnbaum: Does being an editor at The Atlantic normally entail copyediting?
Barbara Wallraff: All the senior editors are different. And for me, at this point, it doesn’t entail copyediting. When my second book contract came up and I also began doing a weekly syndicated newspaper column, I went in to the managing editor and said [in a mock meek voice] "Could I just write my language column for the magazine for a while?" So I am thrilled to pieces to be affiliated with The Atlantic and to continue to have that affiliation, but for the time being—
RB: You are cutting back.
BW: Yeah. And I am also the editor-in-chief of a newsletter for copy editors, and giving workshops for that.
RB: And you participate in usage panels, whatever those are…
BW: This language persona of mine has taken over my life. And I am really enjoying it.
RB: You are enjoying it?
BW: Oh, yeah.
RB: Good—you are almost preempting my asking if this ever gets boring.
BW: Well, it certainly can. When I am on radio programs, I try to say to the host ahead of time, "Don’t ask people for their language pet peeves."
BW: I know what they are going to be.
BW: Even if I don’t know what they are going to be, an awful lot of time the people will be wrong. Now, I am as much a stickler as anyone else, but I am reduced on these radio programs to saying, "Well, don’t be that way. You are being too…" I sound as if I am being too loosey-goosey—that anything goes. I don’t think that, but I do think an awful lot of people have seized hold of some little thing they were taught in 7th grade and have just held on to and held on to it, despite an astonishing amount of evidence to the contrary.
RB: It strikes me that this area of—what do we call this, lexicography?
BW: That would be dictionary-making. This is usage commentary.
RB: Isn’t there a Greek word we can assign to it?
BW: You know, I’d rather not fancy it up.
RB: If in trying to resolve word issues you have to go to seven dictionaries and four usage manuals and various style books, and then at the end you go, "Well—"
BW: I don’t want people to think that my point of view is that you need to have seven dictionaries in order to really know what a word means. But there are seven contemporary dictionaries that have some claim to be taken seriously these days. And I thought it would be interesting to look up the same thing in all seven of them, and I did that hundreds of times and found a very surprising degree of difference between these dictionaries.
RB: Is the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] considered an American dictionary?
BW: I don’t include it in that list. It’s the best there is for word history. But for contemporary American meaning that is not what they are doing. They have the New American Oxford Dictionary for that purpose.
RB: I want to get to the dichotomy of not wanting to be a fanatical stickler and on the other hand not wanting to be loosey-goosey. How big is that middle ground?
BW: Oh, no, it’s called ‘stickling’.
RB: Moderate stickling?
BW: Educated stickling—knowing what you are talking about. I have been in touch with people with language questions for 10 years—since the first Word Court column, which was very early content on America Online and then pretty soon became a column in The Atlantic. People just keep having questions about language, and I began to feel at least half the time, "No, no, you can answer these questions yourself." And maybe you don’t care about the level of language that’s appropriate to the Atlantic Monthly. Maybe you are working at a different level of language. When I started working for Copy Editor newsletter, when I became editor of that, I had to, for copy editors’ purposes, forget about Atlantic style because the subscribers to that publish everything from Your Sunday Visitor and The Bible Advocate to Playboy.
RB: What is the prevailing style for Copy Editor newsletter?
BW: [thoughtful pause] It’s what’s in my head. [Both laugh.] It’s kind of based on a book called Words Into Type, which is similar to the Chicago Manual, but if there are things that don’t seem right we change them because we are a little outfit and because it’s easy to do.
RB: I am also struck that there is a constant purr of interest in word and grammatical issues. For instance, Lynne Truss’s book [Eats, Shoots and Leaves] is a surprise bestseller coming out of Britain.
BW: On punctuation, actually.
RB: Sorry. Isn’t that a subset of grammar?
RB: Is it its own subject?
BW: I guess it is its own subject
RB: Let’s not argue.
BW: You will please note that even the subtitle of that [Truss's] book is mispunctuated according to the rule that it gives in the book—"A Zero Tolerance—no hyphen—Approach to Punctuation." Everybody will tell you that a ‘zero-tolerance approach’ ought to have a hyphen in it, between zero and—even Lynn Truss, when she talks about that kind of thing in the hyphen section. So, that’s a real "Do as I say not as I do" kind of book.
RB: As far back as the ’70s Edwin Newman was the word person of that time and then William Safire has continued to be a commentator. Are they doing the same thing that you do?
BW: Oh—nobody does the same thing that I am doing.
BW: Because I really do want—I really do think people should think for themselves. And do it in sophisticated way. So many of the questions, so many of the things that people have seized on, as really important to their sense of the way language ought to be, are just wrong. And they can easily, easily demonstrate that by looking at a dictionary and believing it. Or if you don’t believe that dictionary, go look at another couple of them. You have to look at the dictionary in a sophisticated way. If you look at Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, which is America’s most popular dictionary, its point of view—and it will say so right up front—is that it’s going to tell you how everybody, quote everybody, uses the language. So uses that people who are fussy about the language think are appalling. I would say 90% of America’s copy editors hate ‘impact’ used as a verb when it isn’t an actual physical collision. But the word is used that way a lot. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate will give you that definition and not say anything about, "Oh a lot of people don’t like this." Most of the other dictionaries will say or have some sort of usage note warning you that—the most laconic is Webster’s New World, which says things like "usage disputed by some."
RB: Is that the one you dislike?
BW: The one I don’t like very much is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate. It doesn’t give you the information. It is as if copy editors don’t exist. Standards don’t exist; the language is just what it is. And people who have gone to the trouble of learning what the niceties of language are, what the well-educated person knows, find no validation in that dictionary.
RB: As you say a number of times, it is all about communication. So what do the so-called usage panels do? Are they making judgment about neologisms that appear? How do they work?
BW: Nowadays, I’m proud to say, I’m a member of the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel. Every so often you get a letter from the dictionary and it will say, "Would you accept this use?" All right a new word that is kind of in play that isn’t just the same old thing you have always heard of, is ‘about.’ The example that is in the American Heritage Dictionary now is a sentence like "A hundred-dollar teapot is not about making tea, it’s about showing your friends that you have a hundred dollars to spend on a teapot."
RB: ‘Around’ is used in the same way, as in, "There are issues around such and such."
BW: There are similar things that you can do with ‘around.’ I don’t think I saw a question on that. The question will be very specific. "Would you accept this as standard American English?"
RB: Do you just vote? Or provide research?
BW: You vote yes or no and if you have particular comments—
RB: You don’t sit in one room and hash it out?
BW: Fight it out, until the winner has emerged, red faced and bloody but victorious. No, it’s all done by mail. So, that’s a use that probably 10 years ago would have struck people as pretty strange. And now it’s all over the place. There are people who find it just—somebody in Your Own Words, a letter came in that’s in the book complaining about exactly that use: "An election is about voters." I think that was in an argument made before the Supreme Court. This person was just outraged that somebody would talk that way to the Supreme Court. But when you think the question is, "Is this something that conveys something that could be conveyed as conveniently before? Is this a new idea?" Or is it just a slightly different way of looking at the world? Which of course would go along with, "Times change and our viewpoints change." Or is it just completely pointless? Is it a word that used to mean one specific thing that now is coming to mean its opposite, sometimes? And therefore you can’t—a traditional example of what I am talking about right now is that ‘nauseous’ is ‘sickening’ and ‘nauseated’ is ‘sickened.’ But now almost everybody who uses ‘nauseous’ uses it to mean ‘feeling sickened’. Now I don’t actually think that opinions about language even matter very much any more. Because you can find information out in a way that you never could. You can find out whether—well, I went and looked on Google news and the Nexus database: How is ‘nauseous’ used?
RB: So it’s quantifiable?
BW: You can find that the great majority of times that it is used, it’s used in the way that usage experts say is wrong. You have to just give that up. We’re not talking about rules about what is right and wrong. We are talking about a medium of communication. If everybody who says ‘nauseous’ means ‘sickened’, then you have to get with the program.
RB: That someone is infuriated by the use of a word—would this suggest that some people hold there has been a degradation of language? Is there something really bad happening?
BW: People certainly think so. And I think there is something potentially bad happening all the time. People use language in a very —we all can use language in a very sloppy way. It’s not clear what we mean. And if we let ourselves get away with it, then pretty soon we don’t know what we are thinking. Or certainly other people don’t know what we are thinking. But that doesn’t seem to be what gets people so upset. I was reflecting just a little while ago that my 7th grade Home Economics teacher… I remember clearly her telling the girls in Home Ec that the right frequency with which to wash our hair was once every five days. Sooner than that and it got all dried out, and if you wait longer than that it begins to look greasy. Does anybody who was in that class, a single one of us, follow that advice? Or go around repeating it? But people will l keep saying, "My English teacher told me never to split an infinitive." Well, okay, folks, think for yourself. Do you see good writers doing that? You can read all kinds of commentary about this and think for yourself. Is this sentence you have written improved by allowing the infinitive to be split? Well, then say, why not improve it?
RB: Your Own Words is structured to provide a list of good tools to be used. I am stuck at deciding about the various stylebooks. Issues where it’s a choice that requires consistency, not adherence to a right and wrong choice. Numerals or numbers? ‘OK’ or ‘Okay’?
BW: Exactly. There are a lot of things where there aren’t right and wrong answers. At this level, language is a lot like dress. There is nothing wrong with wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots. It might not be what you would choose to wear to a formal wedding.
RB: I would wear black boots.
BW: Yes, you dress differently according to what you are doing. If you are going to the beach and go swimming, you don’t wear a tuxedo. There are fancier styles appropriate to—well, the Chicago Manual has a lot of rules with how to deal with foreign languages and footnotes and italicizing this and that. It’s a deliberative style for things that people have time to think about.
RB: For academic presentations and things that are specialized?
BW: Yes, for material that is well thought over, well deliberated and you expect it to be around for a while. Newspapers are in a hurry. Of course they are in a hurry, they have to get today’s news out. So there are no italics. There isn’t an entry in the AP Stylebook about footnotes. Just forget about it. It’s a much more stripped-down style that makes perfect sense for what it’s for. So neither one is right or wrong–they are just appropriate to different situations.
RB: I gather the early iterations and continuing on, of your column have been very popular. What does that mean in the real world? Are usage columns as popular as poker columns? How large is the constituency that cares about these issues?
BW: I am exactly the wrong person to ask, aren’t I? Because the people who care about these things are all in touch with me. So in my world there are a lot of these people. They are all over the country. They come from all walks of life.
RB: What does this interest signal about this cultural moment? That this is good evidence against declinist theories?
BW: I like to think that’s true. On a slightly more depressing note, the schools have not been teaching grammar for probably a generation. And people are very insecure about their knowledge of how things are supposed to work. I get a lot of letters that say, "Forgive me if I have made some grammar mistake." I really do think that the point is communication. I don’t want people to be thinking that talking to me is like talking to a psychiatrist who is writing down all your little—noticing all your little tics and foibles. I can turn the machine off and listen to what people are saying, and I wish other people did that more often. But the English language can be a very subtle thing, and to really take advantage of that you have to be well read and know how things work so that you are not just distracting people and getting them lost.
RB: At what level of sensitivity do you operate? When you read a new piece of fiction how quickly do you get caught up in correcting the uses of words?
BW: They used to pay me to do that. [Both laugh.] And now if I am not being paid to do it, it’s kind of a luxury to try to keep that machine turned off and try to focus on what the person is saying. Then again there are irritating tics or things that make me think, "No, no this writer is ill advised. If only they had a good copy editor."
RB: I speak with many published writers, and they feel very lucky that they have good editors or feel very unlucky that they haven’t been copy edited well. And when they read, they can’t believe what is being published.
BW: I am leading workshops around the country for copy editors— who some of them feel as if their skills could use some upgrading. They are not quite confident that they know exactly what they are doing. And or if they are sure that something is right, they don’t know how to persuade the writer of that. And then there are very confident copy editors that wish they could get the writer to go along with them because they are absolutely convinced that it would be in the writer’s best interest to just let them have their way with the copy. Without seeing the samples of their day-to-day work, I never quite know where they should be on that continuum.
RB: How much of a jump is there between editing fiction and nonfiction?
BW: In all cases you are just trying to get in the writer’s head and understand what that person thought they were doing.
RB: There is not a certain license attached to writing fiction? It seems that that fiction would allow for more linguistic license.
BW: For the writer or the editor?
BW: It depends on the writer. You are right that that’s where, if you are going to allow wacky stuff, that’s the likeliest place that you will find it. Think of an author like John Updike, who writes very tight, good grammatical sentences.
RB: Towards the end of your book you mention the EB White—is it an admonition, "Use the least amount of words?"
BW: "Omit needless words."
RB: That sounds to me like Ossie Davis’ s character in [Spike Lee's] Do the Right Thing, who says, "Do the right thing." What exactly does that mean, "Omit unnecessary words"?
BW: Another usage commentator, a contemporary of mine, Bill Walsh, says, everybody says that but some of those things, you can definitely follow out the window. What is this word doing or what is that word doing? Well, actually, it may be doing something about the tone of the sentence or making something that could otherwise sound like peremptory barking, calm it down.
RB: Writers will repeat a word or phrase for a specific effect.
BW: The pejorative word is ‘redundancy’ but the non-pejorative is ‘pleonasm’: "Ah, but that’s pleonasm, that’s not redundancy." It’s all in the ear, the eye of the beholder: whether it’s just slow, slow, slow and pointlessly repetitive or it’s giving people a chance to really take in what you are saying.
RB: At The Morning News I have a copy editor [Kate Schlegel] who I love working with. It’s hard for me to imagine that there are writers who resist working with an editor, who think that what they have done is so precious that it can’t stand someone else’s point of view. In many ways your first audience is the copy editor.
BW: And that’s one of the things that a good copy editor is very aware of: they are the first reader standing in for all the readers. It’s an art, not a science, and some people are more artful than others. Since I have worked both as an editor and writer, I know what it feels like to sit on each side of the desk. It does feel bad when you are looking at an edited manuscript and you think, "No you have completely misunderstood me. You don’t know what I am talking about. You’ve messed me up, and why didn’t you see what I thought I was saying clearly?" Now, of course, there is work to be done there, if this other person really didn’t understand what you were saying. Then you have to go back and fix it. And find something else to do that satisfies you both.
RB: In that situation you have misunderstanding, each party claiming the other is the one that doesn’t understand.
BW: Well, sometimes you just have a mismatch. You have… let’s say Henry James came back to life and was trying to write for Maxim: "I’m sorry sir you have good credentials but you don’t write in the short sentences that we like, the subject matter is a little off and —just forget about it." You have a mismatch. Obviously, that’s an extreme example, but as an editor I have always tried to get into the head of the writer—I think with pretty good success. I have some very nice blurbs on the back cover of the book [Eric Schlosser, Anita Diamant, Justin Kaplan, Bill Walsh, Margaret Mahan, PJ O'Rourke]. And they come from writers with whom I have worked, who have been appreciative of the things I have done. Writers themselves have told me that I am pretty good at getting inside their heads. Once you are there, once you see what they’re intending to do, you can step back and say; "Yeah, but you are not doing it. Here’s what you meant to say." Really almost the most fun you can have as editor—it’s a perverse kind of fun—is turning something upside down and backwards and just buffing and polishing and doing all kinds of stuff to it and then getting it into type, giving the typeset version to the author in a way that he or she doesn’t get to see the changes, just the final version. And have them look at it and say, "Oh you did hardly anything." And you are thinking, "Yes! Because I made you say what you meant to say. Clearly, you weren’t being detail-oriented about this. Let me do that for you. And now it says what you want."
RB: Is it a process of subtraction, mostly?
BW: Sometimes. But there are also people who are making an argument from A to B, B to D, and you need to go back and fill in C as an essential link in the train of thought that is not there on the page. And you think, "How do you get from there to here?" and you just have to figure it out.
RB: Can you compartmentalize your various skills? When you are writing, do you edit as you go along?
BW: Of course, to some extent.
RB: There are writers who take years to write their works because they won’t move on past a page until it is, to them, perfect. They don’t dump out a draft and rework. When they are finished, they are finished.
BW: I happen to be a much better editor than I am a writer. And it works out fine if you just write something lousy and edit. I do a lot of self-editing.
RB: So you don’t compartmentalize?
BW: I guess so.
RB: Are they separate functions, writing and editing?
BW: Not especially for me, at this point. One of the things that we talk about in these copy-editor work shops is if you are working with certain writers over and over again and they keep making the same mistakes over and over again, pretty soon you feel like you want to kill them: "Could you please stop doing that? It’s so unproductive for you to keep getting that wrong and for me to keep fixing it." Teaching writers to do self-editing, being a writing coach, raises the level of every body’s output. If you are not focused on their misspellings, you can be paying closer attention to whether their argument really holds together. So definitely writers should be self-editors, and I don’t think of my book as being just for editors. It’s also for really anybody who is interested in language on a professional or just an entertainment level.
RB: Earlier I mentioned Edwin Newman and William Safire, and you said, "I don’t do anything like anyone else."
BW: Safire’s specialty would be new words or new uses that are turning up particularly in political language, inside the Beltway. He will find a term that is being used in a new way and talk about it. That’s what he primarily does. Obviously, there is a place for that.
RB: So Safire’s view is more cultural.
BW: It’s almost reportorial about where political culture is, and he has excellent political sources. He is out there. His job is talking to people, finding out what is going on in that world. And at the same time he is listening for content, he is listening for form. And that’s where his language column comes up. A number of the other commentators have started with their own opinions: "This is what I think. I hear these ignorant things all the time." I am more of an Ann Landers figure.
BW: When people come to me, you ask me what I think about what you want to know about. And I’ll find out. I’ll tell you what I think if you are looking for information and if we need to be in touch with somebody else, I will go talk to the person who is the expert on that. So I am not so much sharing my opinion.
RB: Not so much?
BW: I actually think that in this field that what you are trying to do is have as few opinions as possible. What you are trying to do is channel the consensus of informed opinion, know what everybody else thinks. And by the time you know what everybody else thinks on some disputed point, it’s not exactly as if you have your own opinion. You just know where according to a given level of language, where you ought to be on that question. And that’s more like information than an opinion.
RB: How radically have electronic media and new media affected natural languages?
BW: I love e-mail. I was so happy when e-mail began taking over from voicemail. I can express myself more clearly in print than I can off the top of my head when speaking. To be a good writer you have to practice writing. It seemed like for a long time your average person —between the moment when the telephone came in and the moment when e -mail came in, there was a real tendency to do anything informal with language as spoken language. Now with e-mail and instant messaging people are more playful, less frightened of the written word—more used to writing as part of what they do everyday. So it is less intimidating when you actually have to write a report or a formal letter. It’s not so foreign. So I think e-mail is terrific in that way. And then the Internet and all the goodies that it gives us makes my job completely different. I no longer have to—somebody might write me and say, I wrote ‘far afield of’ in a report and my colleague thinks ‘far afield from’ is more usual. Well, just go look in a database of edited media for those two forms and see what you get. You find that both are used. I forget which one is two or there times as common. You don’t have to go with the more common one, but it’s better than me sitting somewhere in my chair thinking, "Gee, I don’t know. How does it sound to me?" We all have limited universes of expression that we have heard. But you can now basically poll every copy editor that works for a widely published publication in America by looking in those databases.
RB: Has a significant body of language been introduced by new media?
BW: There has been, but in the main what the mainstream absorbs is only what the mainstream wants to absorb. The English language in all of its glory has all of that technical stuff that nobody but MIT physics professors understand. And all of the language that snowboarders use. There are 80 zillion kinds of jargon, special terms used in special realms. And there is a lot of that, obviously, in Internet circles. And people who work with the Web have a lot of terminology. But there is only so much that has been absorbed into the mainstream. And interestingly, here’s something that you can do with the Internet if you want to know what a term like phishing with ‘ph’ now means. It means sending out these scam e-mails pretending you are from e Bay or your credit-card company. Around the time I turned in the manuscript for my book, which was at the end of 2003, if you looked on Google news for citations for the word ‘phishing’, almost all of those would be ‘glossed’ or explained. They would say, "What’s now called phishing, a scam, da da da." Now if you look, a large number of times that you see ‘phishing’ being used, it’s assumed that the reader will already know what it means. So you can actually see this word coming into mainstream English.
RB: You mention the CD ROM versions of these reference books. Do you see a time when there won’t be hard copies of these books?
BW: One of the dictionary editors said to me that would never happen: there will always be print dictionaries. And if you are looking at the newspaper and wanting to check the spelling while your computer is turned off—
RB: Or there is a brownout.
BW: Yeah, there is definitely a place for the print dictionary. Even in a household that has a computer. A real favorite electronic resource would be the AP Style book online. Once you’ve got your site license you can go in and change all the rules if you want to. You can annotate it six ways to Sunday, and add all kind of entries. If you are local small-town newspaper and the mayor spells his name funny, you can add that—all kinds of stuff. But the print book is efficient for some things and the on-line for other. They work together.
RB: As you talked about your joy at the introduction of e-mail, I was thinking about how much mail I receive that is sloppy and ill considered and at a low level of concern for the grammatical infelicities. I don’t have a sense that people approach writing e-mails with much thought.
BW: There was a study reported in the New York Times a couple of years ago that really set me back on my heels. It said that bosses write terrible e-mails, all full of misspellings and incomplete sentences. If other people have to follow your directions and you’re in a big hurry, you don’t spend any time tidying up your e-mail. So it’s a sign of being a subordinate to write clean, thoughtful e-mails.
BW: It’s probably true. But I feel that’s not so good.
RB: It seems that the attention that is paid to writing a clear and clean e-mail comes from somewhere else. Subordination may be the sufficient cause, but I don’t think it’s necessary.
BW: I didn’t write the study, and I am probably not remembering it in its glory—
RB: Do writers contact you and say, "Barbara, I am writing my book. Please edit it. Please, please please." Do you get those kinds of pleas?
BW: I used to, but I—
RB: Discourage them?
BW: I’m kind of busy. I’ve got a lot of my own stuff going on, and I feel bad that I don’t have chance to answer in person more of the questions I get. Since I got really busy working on this book, I haven’t answered very many questions individually. I enjoy it, but the truth is that it’s all grist for my mill.
BW: And I have to at some point say that I’m supposed to remember that I am writing a column, actually three different columns, that’s what I am doing. And I have to get that done. So first do that and then do the rest of it.
RB: Your future is more of the same—continuing the columns and then a book—
BW: In fact, I’m supposed to have a conversation with my agent about what’s next. There are a couple of possibilities. But I am heading down that path of becoming more and more specialized about language.
RB: Are you more confident today about your own command of the body of knowledge?
BW: I think the most confident I have ever been was in my early days. When I didn’t know nearly as much as I know now.
RB: [laughs] A paradox of sorts.
BW: Well, it’s also a cliche. Was it Aristotle who said something like, "I have only begin to understand how much I don’t know"—that kind if thing? And it can sound kind of corny. It’s actually true.
RB: So you are narrowing your focus—
BW: Let’s remember I am Ann Landers. I am fond of Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. [Adopts a mock serious tone] "It’s not about me, Robert, it’s about what the American language needs. And I live to serve."
RB: [laughs] Oh, okay. Again, is this a hopeful sign that people care about these issues? Or is it a hopeful sign that publishers care to publish books such as Your Own Words?
BW: [sighs] Um. It is. I am thrilled that I have a publisher that wants to hear more from me. There are other less hopeful signs. A few years ago Random House fired all their lexicographers. Random House Webster’s Unabridged, an excellent dictionary, updated at some point in the ’90s and well, that’s it. You can’t just create a dictionary. It needs to have ongoing work. You need people looking at how the language is used this year and next year and the year after, and writing citations. And people putting all that into the hopper and seeing how the language is used over time. You can’t just hire some lexicographer person and start fresh on the dictionary. They had big citation files that they had no ideas what to do with. I think they were talking about giving them to the OED because of its active interest in scholarship—but there goes one of the major language reference sources. And we have to say publishing is increasingly considered to be a business. And these dictionaries and other language reference books justify themselves financially or they don’t. The OED is a special case, because it’s such a national treasure and the Oxford University Press is at least a university press. But, well, the most hopeful sign is people lining up to buy Lynne Truss’ book, making it a number-one best seller, demonstrating that, yes, there is a hunger for information. Whether it’s good information in that particular book is a separate question—
RB: [laughs] I’m going to have to come up with a way of characterizing your tone as you said that—
BW: [laughs] At least people are hungry to know about language.
RB: Well thanks very much.
BW: This was fun.
© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing