February 02, 2007

Uncle Jesse wants YOU!

Uncle SamlowerThe BBC, recognizing the great appetite that the public has for etymological amusement, is beginning the second year of an actual television series devoted to same, Balderdash and Piffle. That's right, not only is the public interested enough for a TV show about words to get off the table and onto actual film, they are interested enough that it is entering its second season!1

This season features an appeal to the public from the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, a plea to help them provide antedated quotes for and determine the origins of 40 words and phrases whose etymologies are currently unclear. The appeal is covered in the most recent Chronicle of Higher Education* (temporary public link here; permanent link for subscribers only here), with an interview with editor-at-large (North America) Jesse Sheidlower. 2

Jesse notes in the inteview, "From the very beginnings, the OED has always gone to the public." The original editor of the OED, James A.H. Murray, invented crowdsourcing long before the advent of Wikipedia, the personal computer, or the internal combustion engine. Back when the OED was still mostly just a gleam in his eye, Murray appealed to the literary British public to send him quotes taken from their reading material illustrating the uses of words, particularly their earliest occurrences and meaning variations. The current appeal thus just revives the tradition.

For a truly readable retelling of the amazing story of the inception and early days of the OED, I recommend The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester. I used to think it was an remarkable illustration of the modularity of mind. One of the protagonists in the story has a mental disorder so severe that he amputates his own penis. Yet his mind works so well that he can read volumes of complex English prose with such sensitivity and understanding that he contributes thousands of useful entries to the OED quote-collection project, many of which made it into print and are still in use in the second edition.

1People really are clearly pining for a more sophisticated linguistic education than they are currently afforded. Institutions of higher (and lower) education, take note!

2I'm really getting into these anarthrous NPs.

* Thanks to Sara Heitshu for sending me the article!

Update: B.C. highlights the very issue at hand in this cartoon.

Posted by Heidi Harley at February 2, 2007 03:38 PM