STC Spotlight: Erin McKean, Honorary Fellow and the Summit's Keynote Speaker

As we've announced, Erin McKean—founder and CEO of the online dictionary Wordnik; former Chief Consulting Editor, American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press; and former editor in chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2e, among many other credentials—has been selected as an Honorary Fellow and will deliver the Keynote Address at the 2010 STC Summit. Her talk is titled, “The Dictionary is Dead. Long Live the Dictionary.”

Erin was kind enough to enter our Spotlight and answer a bunch of questions from Your Friendly Neighborhood Blogger, ranging in style from informative to humorous. The questions and her answers are below; she went into great detail and gave some interesting answers. So grab your favorite tasty beverage, sit back, and enjoy!

Let’s start at the beginning. Do you remember your first word? If not, is there someone you can ask to find out what it was?
Unfortunately, I don’t remember my first word. I could ask my mother, but I’m worried that she’d feel pressure to come up with something more oracular than the traditional “mama” or “dada.”

The most recent word I marked as a favorite on Wordnik, though, was “yex,” which is an old English dialect word for “hiccup.” Does that count?

Did you have a distinct love of words growing up, or did that develop as you went through high school, college, and beyond?
I’ve always been a big reader, and you can’t love reading without loving words—it’d be like loving Oreos without loving chocolate. As I get older I find that I appreciate linguistic creativity more and more—there’s something to be said for a joke word, like “Hasbropocalypse” (in reference to Scrabble considering allowing proper nouns onto the official wordlist) that only lasts for a moment but is fully of its moment.

Tell us a bit about your work with words over your career. How have you worked with words?
I haven’t had a job that wasn’t working with words since my senior year of college—I started as an intern working on the Thorndike-Barnhart children’s dictionaries, and have been messing around with words ever since. And even my last non-word job, running a campus coffee shop, turned out to be a word job, as I wrote it into my first novel, The Secret Lives of Dresses.

What exactly is a “dictionary evangelist”? Does that allow you to legally claim someone “wedded” to a certain word?
Well, the nice thing about being the world’s only dictionary evangelist is that I get to define what, exactly, “dictionary evangelist” means. I try to convince people that it’s interesting and important to know and use information about words. I also try to convert them to some of my articles of faith, including that words can be perfectly good words and not be in any dictionary, and that words’ meanings depend on our shared understanding of them.

Can you expand a bit on Wordnik? Explain a bit about how our readers can best make use of the site.
Wordnik’s mission to collect as much information as possible about as many words of English as possible, and to share that with as many people as possible. We collect not just dictionary definitions and synonyms and antonyms, but examples of use taken from real sources, comments and tags from users, text and audio pronunciations, collocational information, tweets from Twitter, pictures from Flickr, and more!

Wordnik users can use our site as they would a traditional dictionary, or to explore words that are not covered well by traditional dictionaries. Wordnik users can also mark words as favorites, make lists of words on any topic (or none at all), share comments and tags, and record their own pronunciations.

What about your work with the Boston Globe? What can you tell us about your column there, “The Word”?
I am an accidental newspaper columnist. I had occasionally subbed in there when Jan Freeman, the Globe’s regular “The Word” columnist, went on vacation, and last year she asked me if I would like to take over the column part-time so she could get a bit of a break (and spend more time with her grandchildren!). I really enjoy writing for the Globe, although it’s a lot of hard work. (And I have to say that my editor there, Stephen Heuser, is the kind of editor every writer wants—he asks the right questions and makes every column better.)

With the Globe column I’m always trying to convince my readers that language change is something both natural and interesting. Sometimes they even agree!

You were principal editor of The New Oxford American Dictionary. Is there any word that you really wish you could have allowed to be included, but professionally you just couldn’t?
It’s probably easier to count the words that I was able to get included. The terrible secret of print dictionaries is just how small they really are. There are tens of thousands (and possibly hundreds of thousands) of words that could be in print dictionaries but just aren’t, purely for space reasons. The English language really needs a warehouse store, and most print dictionaries are 7-Elevens.

How many dictionaries do you own personally?
I don’t know how many dictionaries, but a couple of years ago I had an intern help me record all the language-related books I had at that point into Library Thing, and it was well over a thousand. I think I probably have half as many over again now.

Wikipedia attributes “McKean’s Law” to you. What’s McKean’s Law and how did you develop it?
Wikipedia goes back and forth as to whether McKean’s Law is notable or not. It’s a variant statement of a couple earlier laws (neither of which I had known about in the 1990s when I tossed off McKean’s Law): Muphry’s Law and Skitt’s Law. I think my version is the shortest, though: Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.

I think that McKean’s Law really came about when I started editing VERBATIM and realized (as Safire had before me when he started writing On Language for the New York Times) that there would be a gang of folks whose joy would come primarily from catching the editor of VERBATIM making a language faux pas. So I said, in effect, yeah, well, of course I will make plenty of mistakes, but the laws of the universe are such that criticisms are themselves subject to criticism, and on the same grounds.

Nowadays I mostly shrug off the folks who need to let me know that I split an infinitive. They’re almost certainly right, and in any case I’ll never convince them otherwise!

What do you think are the five funniest words that just make you laugh every time you hear them—not for the meaning, but just how they sound.
Oh—I used to drive from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin, semi-regularly, and on the drive I would pass the sign for Oconomowoc, then spend the rest of the drive saying “Oconomowoc” out loud to myself. I can’t say Oconomowoc just once—I usually end up saying it five or ten times in a row. I love the word “pickle,” the word “macabre,” and slapping the suffix –tastic onto unsuspecting words to make them funnier. I do think that the most hilarious phrase in English is “The Jerry McGeogheghan Galvanised Iron Workers’ Apprentices’ Left Hook Chowder Association.” If you only tossed in the word “amalgamated” it would be perfect.

Earlier this year “tweet” was crowned Word of the Year and “google” the Word of the Decade. What would have taken home the honor if you were the sole judge?
I was very, very sad to miss the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year Vote—it was the first time I’d missed it in more than a decade! I am very fond of “tweet,” so I’m pretty sure it would have had my vote. I also like the verbing of nouns, especially proper nouns …

How many drinks would I have to buy you to get you to use the word “meepin your keynote address at the Summit?
Sadly, I am a complete teetotaller, so no matter how many drinks you bought me, my judgment would be at the same level of impairment as it always is. However, I have a strong sense of the ridiculous and am a big fan of Beaker from the Muppets, so let’s see!

What about “erinaceous”?
Whether or not I use “erinaceous” in my presentation depends entirely on whether I can find a cute enough picture of a LOLhedgehog to use in my slides.

You also have an affinity for dresses. How did that develop?
I’ve always loved fashion, but never loved being fashionable—so I started sewing from the time I was twelve or so. I picked it up again seriously when I left college—I bought a sewing machine with my first paycheck from my first dictionary job!—and at this point I make about 70 percent of everything I wear, and virtually all my skirts and dresses. Sewing is very relaxing and at the same time nurtures my control-freak and OCD tendencies, because I get exactly what I want, even if what I want is a Tetris-print 1950s dress.

Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m still a bit overcome by the honor of being selected by the STC to speak, much less being named as an honorary fellow—especially considering the august company of prior fellows!

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