Katherine Barber—Bachelor for rent: things you never suspected about Canadian English (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

Disclaimer: I am utterly incapable of replicating Katherine Barber’s humour and delivery, but she said some important things about language that editors would find valuable, which is what I’ve summarized here. (I’d previously had the privilege of hearing her speak at the PLAIN 2013 conference.) If you ever get the opportunity to hear the Word Lady speak in person, don’t let it pass you by!


Katherine Barber was the editor-in-chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary when it became the first dictionary to change its definition of marriage to “the legal or religious union of two people,” in 2004. At her keynote to close Editing Goes Global, Barber, bestselling author of Only in Canada, You Say: A Treasury of Canadian Language and Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs, told us she was very proud of that change. “And I can tell you—we got letters,” she said, to laughter. “We also got letters saying, ‘Thank you so much for doing this.’” This milestone shows the importance of dictionaries; they’re not just about looking something up.

Barber joked that her job as a lexicographer was easy, compared with our jobs as editors: “Lexicographers only have to write sentence fragments,” she said. “We don’t have to worry about transitions or plots or character development.” What they do have to worry about, though, is capturing the regional differences in language that can help define a culture or a nation. Canadian English is a good example: “You must not confuse Canadian English with American English,” Barber told the international crowd, “because Canadians will hate you! We’re unclear about what our identity is. One thing we’re sure of is that we’re not American. And I say that with all respect and fondness for Americans.”

Differentiating ourselves from Americans is why we stick a u in colour, for instance. Barber enjoys checking dictionaries to see if they’ve included the colour variant. In one “Webster’s” dictionary at a discount store, she didn’t find a u in colour because colo(u)r wasn’t listed at all! A lot of so-called Webster’s dictionaries aren’t legitimate—anyone can claim to have created a Webster’s dictionary. “Merriam-Webster is the real deal,” said Barber.

Merriam-Webster doesn’t always capture Canadianisms, though: its entry on toque defines the word as “a woman’s small hat without a brim made in any of various soft close-fitting shapes” and claims that the word is pronounced “toke.”

We may recognize toque as a Canadianism, but we use many terms without realizing that they’re unique to Canada (or to certain parts of Canada). What do foreigners think when they first see signs advertising “bachelor for rent”?

Barber closed with a plea that editors retain regionalisms when their meaning is clear. Huck, meaning throw, in Western Canada and jambuster, meaning jelly donut, in Manitoba are not only valuable data for lexicographers, but they add to the vibrancy of our linguistic tapestry.


Peter Sokolowski—The dictionary as data (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

For most of its centuries-long history, the dictionary had been the source of a largely one-way flow of information. Today, online dictionaries can track what words people are looking up, and, as Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski showed us, this rich data can offer us fascinating insights into what people may be thinking about at any given moment.

“Editors know the dictionary better than anyone else,” said Sokolowski. Merriam-Webster’s traditional constituents were mostly librarians and teachers, and it was only through Twitter that Sokolowski (whose own Twitter feed was named among TIME’s best of 2013) discovered the large editorial community of dictionary devotees. Many of us find ourselves reading the dictionary for fun. “People think they’re the only ones telling me they read the dictionary,” he said, “and always in a conspiratory tone. Looking up a word in the dictionary is an intimate act.”

In Noah Webster’s time, that intimate act was restricted to an elite few: Webster charged $20 for his dictionary in 1828, making it very much a luxury item. After Webster died, the dictionary’s printers—the Merriams—reduced the price to $6 in 1847 and then to $3 in 1847. After the war, they introduced paperback versions, and the pocket dictionary cost only 25 cents. The democratization of the dictionary continued: Merriam-Webster put its Collegiate Dictionary online in 1996, and now we can all look up words for free.

Adults use the dictionary a bit differently compared with children, said Sokolowski. “We look up to learn more, not to profess ignorance.” We look up words to learn about their etymologies, to get a better grasp on their usage, and to understand their shades of meaning in different contexts. Major events often trigger a spike in lookups: when Princess Diana died in 1997, top lookups included paparazzi, cortege, and princess. After the September 11 terror attacks in 2001, lookups included rubble, triage, terrorism, jingoism, and surreal. When California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage was struck down, Merriam-Webster saw a spike in lookups of marriage—and what Sokolowski calls an echo spike for bigot.

Among the most looked-up words are affect and effect. “English is hard,” said Sokolowski. “English presents us with difficulties. Lookups can reveal struggles between orthographic variants,” such as camaraderie and comradery. Some words—including pragmatic, conundrum, and paradigm—are looked up all the time. Spikes in two-letter words, usually in the evenings around Christmas and Thanksgiving, are a hint that people are playing Scrabble. Some lookups are cyclical: love spikes in February every year, “not for spelling, and not for pronunciation.”

Sokolowski added, “We’re good at reading data; we’re not very good at reading minds.”

How does a word make it into the dictionary? Criteria for adding a word are

  • sustained usage,
  • frequent usage, and
  • meaningful usage.

(Antidisestablishmentarianism isn’t meaningful, so it doesn’t get an entry.) It used to take fifty or sixty years for a word to be added to the dictionary. “Blog got in after five,” said Sokolowski. Of course, Merriam-Webster regularly receives letters, some from users who disagree with the dictionary’s stance. “Standard English is a privileged language,” said Sokolowski. “Language changes fast enough for us to notice, and most of us don’t like the change.” Regardless of whether users like a definition, though, the function of the Merriam-Webster dictionary is to offer a snapshot of American English of the day. It is synchronic, in contrast with the diachronic Oxford English Dictionary, which records a word’s evolution over time. “We need both,” said Sokolowski.

The only Merriam-Webster dictionary behind a paywall is the Unabridged, with almost 500,000 words—all of them fair game for participants of the national spelling bee. Access to the Unabridged also allows you to run advanced searches, for words that were coined in a certain year or that have a certain language in the etymology, for example, and to run reverse lookups of words that appear in the definition.

Stefan Dollinger—Forks in the road: Dictionaries and the radically changing English-language ecosystem (EAC-BC meeting)

Stefan Dollinger, faculty member in the English and linguistic departments at the University of British Columbia, is editor-in-chief of the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP), and he spoke to the EAC-BC crowd about the role of dictionaries in the global English landscape.

His fascinating talk covered some of the same territory that I wrote about when I first saw him speak last year, so I’ll focus on his new content here.

English, said Dollinger, is unique in that it is the only language in the world with more second-language speakers than native speakers, the former outnumbering the latter by five to one. This ratio will only grow as more people in China, Russia, continental Europe, and South America use English for trade and diplomacy. Until recently, the study of English—particularly for dictionaries—had focused on native speakers, but scholars such as Barbara Seidlhofer, of the University of Vienna, have argued that English as a lingua franca (ELF) is the “real” English.

This shifting view influences how we approach dictionary making, which has generally used one of two methods:

  • In the literary tradition, lexicographers collect works from the best authors and compiled excerpts showing usage.
  • In the linguistic method, lexicographers empirically study language users.

One of the best examples of dictionaries compiled using the linguist method is the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), which Dollinger said is based on superb empirical data, including historical sources as well as a national survey of about three thousand users. The dictionary includes only “non-standard” regional words that are not used nationally in the United States and hence isn’t a comprehensive compilation of English words, but for researchers like Dollinger, the detail on regional, social, and historical uses is more important than the number of entries.

In contrast, the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) used the literary tradition, and, as the preface to the third edition admits,

The Dictionary has in the past been criticized for its apparent reliance on literary texts to illustrate the development of the vocabulary of English over the centuries. A closer examination of earlier editions shows that this view has been overstated, though it is not entirely without foundation.

Although the OED has become more linguistic in its methodology, residues of the literary tradition persist: Dolliger said that about 50 percent of the entries the current edition, OED-3, are unchanged from the original edition, and although the OED employs a New Word Unit, a group of lexicographers who read content on the web and compile new words and senses, such a reading program is still not empirical and will fail to capture the usage of everyday speakers.

Going completely online, however, has allowed the OED to respond more nimbly to changes in the language: corrections to existing entries can now be made immediately, and the dictionary issues quarterly updates, adding a few hundred new words, phrases, and senses each time.

Dollinger feels that if the OED wants to keep claiming to be the “definitive record of the English language,” though, it will have to reorient its approach to include more fieldwork to study linguistic variation across the globe, focusing not only on what linguist Braj Kachru defined as the “inner circle,” where the majority of people are native English speakers (e.g., the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand) but also on the “outer circle” of former British colonies like India, Singapore, etc., and especially on the “expanding circle” of countries, like Russia and China, with no historical ties to England—not to mention English-based pidgins and creoles. Although some native speakers may consider this shift threatening, Dollinger quoted H.G. Widdowson, who in 1993 wrote:

How English develops in the world is no business whatever of native speakers in England, the United States, or anywhere else. They have no say in the matter, no right to intervene or pass judgement. They are irrelevant. The very fact that English is an international language means that no nation can have custody over it. To grant such custody of the language is necessarily to arrest its development and so undermine its international status.

How, then, do lexicographers distinguish innovations from errors? World Englshes are replete with words that are unfamiliar to the native speaker, like

  • stingko, meaning “smelly” in Singapore English;
  • teacheress, a female teacher, in Indian English;
  • peelhead, a bald-headed person, in Jamaican English; or
  • high hat, a snob in Philippine English

Whether these are right depends only on the variety of English in question. Linguist Ayo Bamgbose suggested using the following criteria to judge whether a word or phrase is an error or innovation:

  • The demographic factor: How many acrolectal speakers speak it?
  • The geographical factor: Where is it used?
  • The authoritative factor: Who sanctions its use?
  • Codification: Does it appear in dictionaries and reference books?
  • The acceptability factor: What are the attitudes of users an non-users toward the word?

Dollinger is applying some of these principles to his work on DCHP, the first edition of which (now known as DCHP-1) began as a bit of a pet project for American lexicographer Charles Lovell. As a researcher for A Dictionary of Americanisms, published in 1951, Lovell began collecting Canadianisms. In 1958, Gage Educational Publishing asked Lovell to compile a dictionary for the Canadian Linguistic Association. After Lovell’s sudden death in 1960, Gage approached Walter S. Avis, known as “the pioneer of the study of Canadian English” and Matthew H. Scargill to continue his work. Together they finished and edited the dictionary and published it in 1967. That dictionary became the basis of Gage’s Canadian dictionary.

The 1990s saw a “Canadian Dictionary War,” with too many publishers—Gage Canadian, ITP Nelson, and the Canadian Oxford—competing in one market. Backed by a fierce marketing campaign, the Canadian Oxford won out.

In March 2006, Dollinger became editor-in-chief of the second edition of the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP-2), with Nelson Education providing seed funding. In 2013, DCHP-1 was released online, and Dollinger expects DCHP-2 to be complete in early 2016. Owing to time constraints, some entries from DCHP-1, which dug deep into the history of the fur trade for much of its content, will persist in DCHP-2, but these will be clearly marked as being from the original edition and annotated if necessary.

In compiling DCHP-2, Dollinger has noticed that some terms have considerable regional variation and wonders whether we should be considering national isoglosses at all, considering the U.S. and Canada have the world’s longest undefended border. As an example, he showed that whereas Western Canadians prefer the term “running shoes” or “runners,” those in Eastern Canada prefer “sneakers,” which mirrors the regional variation across the northern United States. He also noted that these kinds of variations would be much harder to identify through the literary method of dictionary making.

Another interesting feature of the entries in DCHP-2 is that 70 percent of the entries are compound nouns. “Butter isn’t uniquely Canadian, tart isn’t Canadian, but butter tart is,” said Dollinger. “Cube isn’t Canadian, and van isn’t Canadian, but cube van is.”

Dollinger wondered too if it was time for lexicographers to get even more granular and consider the variation within regional Englishes. In what ways, for example, might English spoken by a Chinese Canadian be unique?

As part of his research, Dollinger is asking British Columbians to complete a twenty-minute survey to help him and his students understand how they use English.