War Of Words

Venerable Oxford Dictionary Taps American Editor

There are lots of dictionaries on the market but the Oxford English Dictionary towers above the rest as the bible of dictionaries. It's one of the world's most influential reference books and a long-time guardian of the queen's English.

So when the OED, for the first time in its history, appointed American Jesse Sheidlower as a top editor, it may have signaled the end of the war between American and British English. Clearly, most people don't want to speak the queen's English anymore, as correspondent Bob Simon reports.

"It's a life's dream," says Sheidlower. "The OED is the greatest dictionary there is....And being able to work on it and contribute to it is...a really great thing."

The hiring of the 32-year-old lexicographer is momentous. It puts the royal stamp on something some have suspected for quite a while: that England's dominance over English is history.

"Most people want to learn American English," Sheidlower says. "In the past, everyone wanted to learn British English. That was considered the standard. That's not the case anymore."

At OED editorial meetings, there is now an American at the table persuading the British editors of the worthiness of American words. Sheidlower has already gotten master of the universe into the dictionary as well as Mcmansion, macchiato and stalkerazzi.

"I want to make sure that American expressions aren't given short shrift because whatever editor looking at them hasn't heard of (them)...(and) that anything that's part of our language makes it into the dictionary," he declares.

The Oxford English Dictionary comes in 20 volumes, weighs 149.5 pounds and contains nearly 750,000 words and phrases. If you love language, the OED is your best friend.

A new edition will be coming out online in 10 to 15 years. There are no deadlines in the dictionary business. The new electronic OED will contain more than 1 million words and phrases, with many of the more recent ones added by Sheidlower.

Take the word babilicious, which according to Sheidlower, refers to an extremely attractive woman. Used in the TV sketch of Wayne's World on Saturday Night Live, the word has been drafted for the OED since the movie popularized it.

In the world of lexicography, Sheidlower is a star. He is the author of "Jesse's Word of the Day," which first appeared on the Internet.

And he edited a 272-page book devoted entirely to the F-word. "I wasn't telling people to use this word," he explains. "It said very clearly in big, bright letters on the back, 'Warning, don't use this word.' But what it was was a historical glossary of this word, the same way the OED works."

"I look at the OED as a kind of monument, an oracle, an authority," says Brian Sewell, an art critic for a London newspaper.

A stickler when it comes to the English language, Sewell declares, "Slang has no place in a proper dictionary."

But Sheidlower is already putting slang into the OED, including the expression yadda yadda yadda. "Seinfeld certainly may have popularized it," he says, pointing out, however, that yadda yadda yadda was used in the 1940s.

"It's very similar to blah blah blah, which we have going back to the 19-teens, I think," he adds. That OED entry predates Sheilower's arrival.

"Yadda yadda yadda has that kind of meaningless sound about it," says Sewell. "Everybody one day is going to wake up and say, 'My god, why am I saying this gibberish?'"

But Sewell knows that the English he speaks is fast becoming obsolete. Not even the royal family speaks the queen's English, he says. And in 50 or 100 years from now, "it will have gone, completely."

In New York, people declare what they like awesome. Sheidlower favors recognizing this usage in the OED. "Awesome is there," he says. "But you draft another sense, and we've already done so."

And when it comes to yo, Sheidlower cites similar interjections used in the 13th or 14th century. "Clearly the current use is something a little bit different," he adds.

Kids in America are fond of the expression whatever; Sheidlower has already drafted an entry for that, he says.

Sheidlower expects scudsbucket and scudsball will make their way into the OED. "I'm not sure of other scuds compounds," he says.

But for Sewell, fads and fashions should come and go - and only be acknowledged in a dictionary of slang and common usage. "It's like putting cinammon in your coffee," Sewell observes. "It came and it's gone, which is terrific. It's what fads and fashions do. And nobody can remember them."

Many new words originate from the OED's global legion of contributors and readers, word mavens like 88-year-old David Shulman. Every weekday, he plies his trade at a New York public library. Among the words he's gotten into the OED are doozy and shyster.

America really is where the new words are. "America's always been a place where things buzz and change," Sewell admits.

When Sewell is told that he's using buzz in a very modern, colloquial, if not slangy, fashion, he replies: "We're all entitled to sin occasionally."