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  Chris Smith

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  Adam Nadel, AB'90

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Jesse Sheidlower, AB'89, collects words and their usages for the next incarnation of the Oxford English Dictionary.PHOTO:  Jess Sheidlower, AB'89.  Stepping into Sheidlower's office, one might think he grows books for a living, as naturally as a farmer grows tomatoes or grapes.

Asking Jesse Sheidlower if he has a favorite word is like asking a Supreme Court justice if he has a favorite law, or a mother if she has a favorite child. "No," says Sheidlower without hesitation. "Everyone in the language business hates that question. Words in general are interesting.I don't play favorites."

PHOTO:  Jess Sheidlower, AB'89.  Stepping into Sheidlower's office, one might think he grows books for a living, as naturally as a farmer grows tomatoes or grapes.Such objectivity is an asset for a man in his position. At 32, Sheidlower, AB'89, has recently become the Oxford English Dictionary's first North American editor. He joins a staff of five other principal editors and several dozen lexicographers, philologists, and etymologists who are compiling the first major rewrite of the 20-volume work that has been called "the greatest effort since the invention of printing."

If there are such things as celebrities in the intimate world of dictionary makers (according to lexicographer Orin Hargraves, AB'77, the same 100 or so people seem to write all commercial dictionaries, traveling from one project to another), Sheidlower fits the bill more than most. During his eight years at Random House before joining the OED in 1999, he made a name for himself as the project editor for the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang and originated the "Word of the Day" feature on its Web site. But what really raised eyebrows at the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and New York magazine-the latter listing him among Gotham's 100 smartest people-was his 1995 cause célèbre The F-Word, an exhaustive, 240-page reference work on the ultimate four-letter word.

"It's obviously a word of great interest," says Sheidlower. "The fact that you can produce an entire book about one word shows that it must be pretty important. I think it was a book that deserved to be out there." His enthusiasm for the book, however, is accompanied by a justifiably defensive attitude about the sensationalism surrounding its press. "I've been asked a lot about 'dirty words,'" he says. "I didn't write a book about the F-word because I think dirty words are neat. If you look at it, it's a very detailed, scholarly treatment of the history of a word that goes back over five centuries." A puzzled look crosses his face, as if he is unable to comprehend how an audience could mistake professional interests for personal nature. "After editing the book, I knew things that I hadn't known before, but the fact that I work on slang doesn't mean I'm going to start using a lot of slang. I'm a professional, more or less an academic sort of guy, and I speak that way."

PHOTO:  Search for meanings.It's early December in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, a colonial community at the intersection of the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound, 30 miles east of New Haven. Trains deposit visitors from Boston or New York four times a day at the one-room station, where the most prominent display is a flyer for the local Lyme disease support group. Sheidlower-who, with his wife, Elizabeth, and 14-month-old daughter, Maisie, calls the town home for now-drives from the station along the main road, pointing at houses and calling out dates: "1836… 1785… 1799…." One of the few modern structures visible is the bland rectangle of a building where his office suite sits on the second floor, above a hearing-aid dealership and a dentist's office. "Sometimes I can hear the dentist's drill while I'm working," he says.

Stepping into Sheidlower's office, one might think he grows books for a living, as naturally as a farmer grows tomatoes or grapes. There is a desk, a door, a window, and books. There are books stacked in neat piles on the floor, in crooked piles on the desk, in short piles on the edges of the bookshelf in front of other books. Books with bookmarks, books in neat brown packages tied with taut twine. Books with frayed covers and well-worn edges, unread books with fresh price tags and spines begging to be snapped. Books with instantly recognizable authors and titles-Doctorow's City of God, Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Kerouac's Selected Letters. Imposing tomes by masters-The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin, three stern volumes of H. L. Mencken's The American Language, an entire stack of William Safire. Scripts of Shakespeare in Love, The Truman Show, The Sixth Sense, and every episode of The Sopranos. Rows and rows of subculture literature, ranging from Prince Edward Island Sayings to Life in Sing Sing to Surfin'Ary-A Dictionary of Surfing Terms and Surfspeak (a surprisingly large book). Empty Strand bags litter the office like abandoned socks, balled up and lying among 18th-century leather-bounds, 19th-century cloth-bounds, and 20th-century hardcovers with slick jackets. To call Jesse Sheidlower a literate man is like saying Albert Schweitzer was a nice guy or Bill Gates makes a comfortable living.

The only other noticeable feature is the trio of computer monitors on Sheidlower's desk, one of which displays two clocks side by side, the first set for the East Coast, the second for London time.

Sheidlower has no staff, and other than his office there is only a windowless anteroom that houses the computer server, miscellaneous research materials, and-no surprise-more books. He works alone, his spaniel Phoebe keeping him company in the office when he's not visiting the local library for research. "In England, principal editors are for the most part not doing their own work from scratch," he says with a hint of jealousy. "They have people under them who are doing the background research and drafting the entries and so forth, so they will edit things that have already been done, but they will not do the very time-consuming introductory stuff. And when I have a staff, that's what I will be doing as well; someone else will be doing the work, and I will guide them as necessary depending on their background."

For now, however, he is a jack-of-all-labors, directing volunteers who scour American literature in search of unusual words, processing entries from these readers, defining North American usages of new words, and reviewing existing entries to ensure that 20th-century American usages are included. In just a few months, he will relocate the OED's North American office to Manhattan and begin hiring staff members. Within three years, Sheidlower hopes to have an assistant and three or more editors to help shoulder the work. "Some will be experienced editors," he says, "some will be junior editors or novice lexicographers, graduate students in linguistics without dictionary experience who will be appropriate for the job. And of course we'll be looking for people with strong language backgrounds interested in the history of American English."

Why the sudden attention to the colloquialisms of North America from a work that bears a reputation for Victorian correctness? And why did the venerable OED hire an editor who made his name as an authority on slang? "That image of the OED is wrong," says Sheidlower, leaning back in his office chair, his fingers curling and uncurling a worn red dog leash. "The OED is not strictly concerned with literary correctness. It's not concerned with enforcing some perceived idea of propriety. The idea is to record the language, and right now we are making a big effort to look at things like slang and informal language that had been, if not ignored, then certainly not treated as thoroughly as they could have been in the past. Someone with my background is exactly what they were looking for."

A Long Island native, he grew up around the sciences, his parents manufacturing science and nature toys while his grandfather maintained the largest butterfly collection in the world. Originally a physics major, Sheidlower quickly switched to classics when he found himself interested in philology. "I ended up switching to English at the very end because I thought I was going to have trouble passing my Greek finals," he says with a grin. After Chicago, he studied for a year at Cambridge University's Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic before beginning his career as a lexicographer.

The Oxford English Dictionary-originally called the New English Dictionary-was intended to be an inventory of the English language, including not only every word, but definitions and literary references for every sense in which every word has been recorded in print since 1150. When the Philological Society of London first proposed the undertaking in 1857, it projected the work would include four volumes and take ten years to complete. By the time the project was finished in 1928, it had taken 70 years to publish the ten massive volumes that contained the meaning, history, and pronunciation of nearly half a million words. The definitions are supported by almost two million references from 4,500 works of literature ranging from the Bible to anonymous nursery rhymes.

Of course the real beauty of a language, what gives it life, is that it is constantly evolving, thus, no dictionary is ever really complete. In 1933, just five years after the monumental work appeared, a single-volume supplement to the OED was published along with a reissue of the original work in 12 volumes with its new title, the Oxford English Dictionary, a change brought about by a more substantial agreement between the Philological Society and Oxford. Decades later, a four-volume supplement followed, published one book at a time between 1972 and 1986. In 1989, the original OED and its supplements, as well as several thousand new words, were combined into the OED's second edition, released in 20 volumes containing more than 60 million words. The third edition is expected to be released in 2010 and will be available in its entirety online, making the OED available to a worldwide audience. Perhaps more significantly, for the first time editors will not have to wait decades to make changes or additions. The third edition will, in a sense, be a final edition that will change at the same speed as the language.

The project also marks the first time that the work of the other original editors will be rewritten. "We're updating the whole thing," says Sheidlower. "None of it will have a Victorian feel. It's a dictionary for our times."

"Our times" is a tricky term. Pop culture fiends may be surprised to learn just how far back some recently popularized terms go. "For example," says Sheidlower, "over the last few years there's been some attention paid to the expression yadda yadda yadda because of Seinfeld. I was at Random House when that Seinfeld episode came out, and we had in fact been tracking the term several years before that. It was not coined by Seinfeld by any strength of the imagination. In fact, we have examples of yadda yadda yadda going back to 1945, very clearly used in the exact same way-although sometimes with different spellings such as yadada instead of yadda-in the same context, or varying contexts including used as an interjection to indicate that further material is obvious from what has gone before, and also as a verb: 'All this yadading yadading from the back seat.' So that's one example of an exciting recent word that actually has much earlier roots than most people realize.

"Another example is the use of not in Wayne's World, such as 'Madonna's my girlfriend. NOT!' This became enormously popular after the movie came out in 1992. In fact, that use of not dates back to the 1880s and is grounded in the writings of some very important American authors including Theodore Dreiser and F. Scott Fitzgerald. We have examples from every decade since the 1880s using the term the same way-there's either a dash or an ellipses followed by not with capital letters or an exclamation point or something like that. The word was unquestionably popularized by the movie, but just as unquestionably, because you have extensive documentary evidence for it, is not a new term at all.

PHOTO:  For the first time, the entire OED will be available online, allowing it to grow as fast as the English language."An example of something that is not that old, and the antedating isn't that big but is just as important, is the term virtual reality. For uses referring to computer-generated worlds, the term is almost always said to be coined by Jaron Lanier in 1987, and it became popular after that. I recently came across an example of virtual reality in what is pretty much the same sense, from 1979, in an internal IBM document. It's only eight years, but it's an important eight years, because this is a computer term, which for the most part you don't expect to be able to push back as far."
Antedating a term-finding an earlier specific usage than was previously thought to exist-is an important function of the lexicographer, whose ultimate goal is to trace each term back to the point it was originally introduced to the language. While historical dictionaries do not concern themselves with the rules of correct English ladled out to college freshmen-do not use less than with countables, avoid using literally when you mean figuratively, never use a modifier with an absolute, etc., etc.-Sheidlower does see the OED as a valuable resource for stylists who want to know how a word's use has changed through the years.

"We don't want to be the authority," says Sheidlower. "We're not telling people what to do; we're giving them more information than they get anywhere else without doing a vast amount of work on their own. We're not in the business of saying to avoid or favor certain words because William Safire says so or so on. If someone comes to the OED upset about the use of a word, they may not walk away any less upset, but they'll at least know a little bit more about its history in the language and how it's been used.

"For instance, people complain about the use of unique with any kind of adverbial modifier: 'most unique,' 'very unique,' whatever. In fact, the history of unique shows that it was an exceptionally rare word at one time, and then around the 1860s or 1870s, pretty much all at once a number of senses sprung up, one of those senses being the sole example of something that you can't modify. But other examples meant unusual or esoteric; you certainly could say 'very unique,' and the OED will tell you that. It will also give other examples of words that are usually considered unmodifiable like perfect, where one of the reasons this country was founded was 'to form a more perfect union.' So while I am not going to say people shouldn't be upset by 'more unique' or 'most unique,' nonetheless, one would like them to be so with the understanding of how unique has been used throughout its entire history, to know that objecting to 'more' or 'most unique' is almost entirely arbitrary and has nothing to do with the history of it or any related word."

Despite Sheidlower's democratic view of language usage, one can't help but feel intimidated when talking with him, careful not to use less than with countables, literally for figuratively, or a modifier with an absolute. A thin man with perfectly combed hair, he is impeccably dressed in suspenders and a tie even though he works alone. Judging from physical appearance only, one would never guess that he rowed crew as an undergraduate, or that he is a bold conversationalist, unafraid to challenge one's usage of a specific word-not for literary correctness, but to ensure that the speaker is communicating exactly what he intends.

Words are, after all, symbols for thoughts, and Sheidlower believes the only way to use language incorrectly is to use it ineffectively. "Linguistically, a native speaker of English can make no mistakes that are not obvious slips of the tongue or typos or whatever," he says. "The sorts of things that are normally pointed out as grammatical errors usually have little to do with good writing or accurate writing."

Sheidlower drives back to the train station along Old Saybrook's Main Street, the afternoon sun glinting off the windows of the Federals, the Victorians, and the Georgians that line the blocks like snapshots on a mantel. At the stoplights, he unconsciously winds and unwinds a string around his finger while he talks.

Although he has been working for some time on a new book called The It-Word-a look at pop culture vocabulary in the 20th century-his current position unwinding words for the OED has left him with little free time for outside projects. "I spend all my time on the OED. At home I'm reading the second volume of Hunter S. Thompson's collected letters. It's on my table now-that's what I'm reading in bed. I don't read things for personal pleasure anymore," he says, somehow managing to be simultaneously wistful and matter-of-fact. "I am always thinking about the words when I'm reading. I try to read things that I think will provide useful lexicographical material. I'm always underlining words."

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