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How words get into the Oxford English Dictionary

I have seen the word "linguaphile" (meaning word lover or language lover) on Dictionary.com and the Free Dictionary, but it's not there in the Oxford English Dictionary. It no longer tries to be comprehensive. "The language is expanding so fast this may be an impossible mission," said Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Mark Abley recalls their conversation in his book, The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English, where he also writes about Singlish and other variants of the English language, as I mentioned here.

"The Internet poses problems," said Weiner. "We tend to avoid citing the Web unless we feel we really have to. What we've tended to cite are newsgroups and discussion groups – they guarantee to archive them for a long time. We've occasionally taken quotations from websites. But we don't like doing that."

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Before and since Harry Potter

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Book lovers will enjoy this trip down memory lane with Robert McCrum (left), who stepped down as literary editor of the Observer this month after 10 years on the job. McCrum, who has written about the English language (The Story of English) and a biography of PG Wodehouse (PG Wodehouse: A Life), writes about the changes in the publishing world. He joined the Observer in 1996, when publishing was still "a world of ink and paper; of cigarettes, coffee and strong drink", and he is bowing out after seeing in the Kindle.

McCrum writes about how book blogs are growing in importance as newspapers shrink or altogether eliminate book reviews. And, of course, he notes the changing of the guard on the literary landscape: Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Iris Murdoch, Thom Gunn, Kurt Vonnegut, Ted Hughes were very much alive when he came in; now they are gone, replaced by a generation of writers: Zadie Smith, Hari Kunzru, Monica Ali and Kiran Desai are among the writers he mentions. A host of writers from non-English-speaking countries are among the most acclaimed writers in English today.

Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point

McCrum's article offers valuable insights into the changes in the market. Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, for example, was "almost a flop", says McCrum, published to mixed reviews in 2000 but "saved by word of mouth". McCrum writes:

After a dismal launch, and as a desperate last resort, Gladwell persuaded his American publisher to sponsor a US-wide lecture tour. Only then did the book 'tip'. Eventually, it would become a literary success of its time, turn its author into a pop cultural guru and spend seven years on the New York Times bestseller list. This was one of those pivotal moments that illustrates the story of this decade.

Personally, I was rather disappointed with the book, which no doubt marks me as an old fogey. The book seemed too plain, without any intellectual excitement, to me, brought up on generations of wordsmiths from GK Chesterton (with whom McCrum starts the article) to Tom Wolfe. With advancing age, I now prefer the prose of Naipaul, Vikram Seth and Jhumpa Lahiri, though I still appreciate the stylistic feats of Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie; but Gladwell, even for a New Yorker writer, is too understated for me. But The Tipping Point reflects this dot-com society, I guess, when things catch on suddenly out of the blue.

JK Rowling and Harry Potter

JK Rowling is a case in point. McCrum recalls Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone had been published with a tiny first printing of 500 in 1997 to modest but enthusiastic reviews, swiftly followed by Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but such was the word-of-mouth success of the series that when Bloomsbury released Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at 6am on a Saturday morning in July 2000, people queued overnight for a copy of the book. McCrum says:

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The Times on TypePad

The London Times publishes its weblogs on TypePad. I just checked the URLs for the first time yesterday and, sure enough, they bore addresses starting with http://timescolumns.typepad.com/. That is the index file opening on a weblog about shoes, but dig deeper, and you will come across weblogs about travel, religion, books and more. They can be accessed from the Times web site, of course. The Times calls them weblogs, not blogs.

Peter_stothard The Times weblog on books by TLS editor Peter Stothard makes pretty good reading. He is a fan of Bob Dylan and the Beatles and quotes from Like A Rolling Stone and writes about driving around London with his windows open and the music system blaring songs from Abbey Road. That turned quite a few heads and drew appreciative murmurs, he writes and wonders if Coldplay will have the same effect. He doesn’t think so –a man after my heart. Dylan and the Beatles (and Elvis Presley) forever! My blog is named after one of Dylan’s greatest songs: Blowin’ in the Wind. But let’s also not forget Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones in their prime, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Grateful Dead.

The Times is not the only London paper blogging on a Six Apart product. So does the Guardian, which has been blogging much longer. It uses Movable Type. That is not stated on the Guardian blogs which use addresses such as http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/news/ for the news blog and http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/culturevulture/ for the arts and culture blog. But view the Source on your IE browser or Page Source on Firefox and you will see the HtML file where it clearly says content="http://www.movabletype.org/".      

Zhao’s legacy

Robert Thomson, the editor of The Times, wrote an eloquent article on the late Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang yesterday. He wrote:

When you purchase a Chinese-made television set, which may be hiding its true identity behind a Japanese brand name, you are paying homage to Zhao Ziyang. If your personal computer is replaced this year with a newfangled desktop from IBM, just taken over by a Chinese company called Lenovo, you are paying homage to Zhao Ziyang. And if you are encouraging, if not forcing, your children to learn Mandarin because of the inevitable opportunities that the language will create in their lifetime, you are paying homage to Zhao Ziyang…

The riddle for the Communist Party is that most of the ruling elite know that they owe their current position to Zhao and yet to laud him is to challenge the very existence of the party. When Zhao made an emotional visit to protesting students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the bemused official who accompanied him was Wen Jiabao, now the country’s Prime Minister. Because of Tiananmen, Wen’s admiration for Zhao is the political love that dare not speak its name.

Beautifully put.