Interview with Dr Ruth Wajnryb

Interview by Magdalena Ball

How were you involved in this dictionary’s creation?

This is the 9th edition, and they’re coming out every 2 years now. I’ve been involved for 5 years. I’m not the main writer; there isn’t one writer. There are teams of lexicographers. As soon as one goes to press, work begins on the next one. My job is to collect new words from the Australian environment. To do that I keep my ears and eyes open. You’d be surprised at how many new words I hear — a few a day. I’m an eavesdropper. As I walk behind people in the street, I’m unconsciously listening for the turn of phrase. Once you start, you become attuned to new words. And because I’m known for this, people often send new words to me. For example, someone sent me “brightful” yesterday.

Have you seen many changes over the many years that you’ve been doing this?

The dictionary is always in the process of becoming something else. But that’s not a source of dissatisfaction to me. There was a time when dictionaries were thought of as custodians of the reservoir of English, passing it onto the next generation, but we don’t think that way anymore. It’s more a snapshot. One thing that has changed even in the last ten years, is that most modern dictionaries now look as much to the spoken word as to the written word, and of course we now have the casual word that is somewhere between written and spoken — the language of chat rooms; text messaging; discussion boards.

A lot of new words are driven by technology and by youth culture and that’s probably much more the case each year. We didn’t really have a youth culture till the 1960s, when adolescence marked itself out with its own way of speaking, using language to create a shared identity. Youth language is very perishable and changes quickly. As soon as the mainstream catches onto a word that young people are using, they drop it. The whole point of young people’s slang is to mark themselves out as different.

Where do you draw a line when language is changing so rapidly?

I don’t have to draw the line. I just keep entering my words into the database, and every 2 years when the dictionary comes out, they simply become a snapshot of where were were at. It’s all mathematical. The computer will do frequency counts and range assessments to see whether the word is used often enough for it to count. I think something like fifty new words are coined every day, so if I worried about drawing the line I’d be a lot more stressed than I am now.

Are there differences in the dictionaries for each English speaking country?

Collins doesn’t put out an exclusively Australian dictionary — just the name and cover changes. What they create is a dictionary of the English language, and it flags dialectal contributions — all of the Australian words in the Collins dictionary are flagged. But the language that we use is much larger than the subset of the terms that are assigned as dialectical. We don’t walk around saying things like “bonza mate, put another prawn on the barby”. Those words are there, and are interesting and useful, but the vast majority of our language is intelligible to speakers of English as a foreign language and common across the board.

Some of our corporate/media jargon is, in itself a way of avoiding meaning though, rather than creating it, isn’t it? Overuse of acronyms, cute buzzwords, words which have already become so overused and trite that they no longer seem to signify. Do you love all linguistic play, or is some of it more Orwellian than positive?

My job is to observe, describe and catch. I try not to pass judgment. But I do like to look at the forces and factors that make people talk like that. It’s not an accident that corporate speak employs a lot of male sporting metaphor. Though the glass ceiling is being broken every day, the corporate world is still primarily a man’s world, and it’s in the interests of capitalism (if you like–I don’t want to sound like a raving Marxist) that people keep their eye on the ball and get across to the next target. That’s the way you manipulate large numbers of people to do what you want them to do. I don’t see it as English being demolished from outside or English decaying or less value being put on good ‘words’. But it is meaningful to look at linguistic trends of terms of what they do and how they’re used.

Is Collins more relaxed in their approach to dictionary making than others?

Collins has a particular, more flexible and pliable attitude towards language, and I think it’s the right attitude. That language is ever shifting tectonically. It’s never fixed. The best one can do and the most admirable goal you can have is to be able to describe it as fully as you can at any one time. With a linguistic orientation towards language we don’t discriminate against spoken in relation to written. We don’t discriminate young versus old language, or medical versus legal jargon. We want to include all language. We do flag slang from a register point of view; words which might get you to into trouble are flagged. But we don’t keep swear words out because they aren’t nice. We don’t keep Cancer out because it isn’t pleasant.

Interestingly, though you’re a linguist, much of your work is in that area where words struggle, for example, in The Silence you look at things like “unspeakability’ and “unhearability” – the way that tragedy renders its victims mute. As a linguist, do you feel that words have a kind of power?

I think words are powerful, yes, I do. I think that they are able to be used by leaders or demagogues in the case of populist tyrannies, to manipulate large numbers of people to do their bidding. Words do create. If you can name a thing then there is a power there. For example, we have a new word “manflu” commonly used to describe a minor cold exaggerated by a man. Men don’t seem to get that one at all, but women instantly know what it is and find being able to name it very empowering. They can now name what hitherto they’ve only had this niggly notion about.

Do you think that, by giving us more words, the dictionary can expand our horizons?

This is quite a despondent and pessimistic thing to say, so you might not want to quote me. But I often think that people who read widely around the particular word they might be looking up are the ones who least need to. That those who really do need to look up words and use the dictionary, don’t. They are either intimidated by it or have had themselves constructed as literate failures. Maybe they weren’t good at English through their schooling, so that when they reached adulthood didn’t see the dictionary as a resource. I recently wrote an essay for Spectrum, looking at the gap between what people expect of dictionaries and what dictionaries can do. Dictionaries don’t do the work for you. To get the best from them you need to do some work. You need to understand how to use them. To be dictionary literate so you know how to read the abbreviations, and on a deeper level, to have the ability to move between semantics and pragmatics; between the referential word in the dictionary and ones experience of the world. Many people are unwilling or unable to do that work; to fill in that gap, so for them dictionaries have a limited meaning.

How would you see parents using this dictionary – more than just looking up a word. Can it be put to use to help children expand not just their vocabulary, but their understanding of feelings and the world around them?

I’ll tell you about how I was raised. In my family there was my mother, my father, my older brother, and Webster, who was also a member of the family. He came out every night — a great big huge dictionary. I don’t know why he was kept in the study–he should have been kept in the kitchen, because there was a regular ritual. Something would always come out at dinner, while we were clearing up, and my mother would be cursing because she hadn’t finished cleaning the table off. Dad would find a word and talk about it. As kids we’d all groan, but in fact, over time you come away with a sense that in this huge big book there are keys to knowledge; secret tunnels into a kind of experience. I think if you grow up that way you’ll end up with a dictionary on your shelf. Parents should introduce the idea early of checking meanings of words, in a natural comforting unthreatening and exploratory way. I found when I used to teach, that if I approached research in the very liberal sense everytime; if I approached it as an exploratory thing, taking an almost archaeological attitude towards language and pooling our findings and arriving at our understandings by various means, it always worked best. That was I, as the teacher, was allowed to not know, and instead my role was to be the lead archaeologist. If parents did that with children, taking an organic, non reverent approach, children will feel comfortable going to the dictionary regularly.

What’s next for you?

Are you sitting down? I’m writing a detective novel. My detective heroine is a forensic linguist who’s using forensic linguistics to help her in the detection process.