Disturbing footage from an upcoming BBC Panorama episode looking at modern dictionary-making techniques has been handed to the Oxford Police.
The images are of organised ‘cagefights’ between proofreaders and staff lexicographers, which are sponsored by various UK and US dictionary makers. The fights are over spelling, punctuation, or occasionally whether a particular acronym ‘belongs’ in the dictionary yet, or not. While some feel it simply a contemporary version of the early sport of scrabbling (still a common pastime, but not without its dangers), full-contact lexicography seethes with a viciousness that makes this small basement under the Bodleian Library seem a world apart from the dreaming spires of Oxford only metres away.
Here new words and alternative spellings are thrashed out by academic gladiators. Lexicographers are baited with questions such as ‘Should wimp be spelled whimp?’, while proofreaders wrestle over ‘spelt’ vs ‘spelled’.’ ‘Yeah, our boys receive a basic training in all the common Indo-European techniques. But, they soon attach themselves to a particular language ‘family’, explained senior OED lexicographer Dr James Murray.
‘Some of them choose the Romance languages, where they specialize in handling the razor sharp accents and cedillas and stuff, others go the more muscular Germanic route. Getting a clout from a Kraut, isn’t pretty. And the umlaut will often knock you out.’
Visiting language scholars from overseas universities and National Language Institutes, often posing as ‘harmless drudges’, can usually be found at these fights. US linguists are the most common. ‘The Americans – the Websters crew are a dangerous bunch, let me tell you. They’re allowed to use their z’s, which are sharper than our traditional s’s.”But they know they’re in the wrong, and that’s why they cheat!’
‘The trick’, he explained, ‘is to whisper words like Arkansas to them. Or to mis-spell Mississippi – out loud, and really slowly. It drives them blind with rage!’
‘And me? I’m a Cockney, see’, he continued. ‘I can just hold them with a glottal stop for a few minutes, until they stop drawling, and start talking proper.’
Traditionally, fights stop as soon as one of the disputants says The Word. Taught on the first day to every trainee, primarily as a safety measure, but also to induct them into the mysterious traditions of English spelling, The Word allows the disputants to cease combat and shake hands like gentlemen. When asked what The Word might be, Dr Murray explained that he’d said too much already.’We wouldn’t put that particular word in our dictionaries, now would we?’, he added. ‘But I’ll give you a clue. It rhymes with orange.’