On the Job: Word Wonk

Dictionary editor Erin McKean hunts for words even while making dresses. Keeping dictionaries democratic.

By Matthew Hutson, published March 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

For a dictionary editor, Erin McKean doesn't come across as much of an authority figure. Though some people think of lexicographers as the final arbiters of what count as "real" words, they're more like naturalists, describing how words behave in the wild. And McKean loves finding new critters. With a master's degree in linguistics, she's become chief consulting editor of American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press and authored three volumes of Weird and Wonderful Words. But she's still terrible at Scrabble.

What makes a word weird or wonderful?

I like words that make you think about new things. It's pretty wonderful that a word can completely reorganize your worldview.

What's one of your favorites?

Kurdaitcha. It's an Australian word for a malignant supernatural being that is taken from the word for the shoes you have to wear to keep this thing away from you. The shoes are made from the feathers of an emu stuck together with human blood.

Does kurdaitcha reorganize your worldview?

It certainly puts a little bobble in it. I don't think you can ever go shoe shopping the same way again.

I didn't know you could say "a bobble."

If you use something like a word, it turns into a word. Language is one of those places where "Fake it till you make it" actually works.

How do you select Oxford's Word of the Year?

A word that generates discussion is interesting, because I don't think people talk about language enough in a mood of scientific inquiry. There's a lot of knee-jerk "I hate that word" stuff, but there's not a lot of people doing analysis of why a word works or why it doesn't.

Do any words make you flinch as you put them in the dictionary?

Even the worst words need a space. I think for irregardless we say something like, "Educated speakers avoid this word." Dictionary usage notes are occasionally a little passive-aggressive.

Are lexicographers bookworms?

People who come to dictionary-making from a literary perspective are always surprised by how much fussing around on the computer is required, writing programs to sort through text files, etc. I think they're surprised how many lexicographers are flat-out geeks now.

How scientific is lexicography?

Finding new words using computers is closer to a science all the time. But finding new uses for old words is very hard, because computers are not so good at figuring out when one meaning of a word shades into another. People disagree as well. The lumpers try to write the most inclusive definitions that cover all possible cases, and the splitters try to make new definitions for each case. I think each individual shade of meaning should get its own day in the sun.