Accessibility links

The Makers of the Oxford English Dictionary Present ... American English

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: Erin McKean, editor-in-chief of American dictionaries for Oxford University Press -- which, she says, is trying to promote the use of American English worldwide.

RS: But wait, isn't the Oxford University Press a British company?

ERIN McKEAN: "It's a little counterintuitive that Oxford has a very strong American dictionary component. But people have a choice in what kind of English they want to speak. There are many different Englishes all around the world, and for some uses American English can be more appropriate. So we find that people who are learning American English are often more concerned about business, they are often studying science and technology. And American English is the English for those purposes."

AA: "Well, you know I want to ask you one thing. I've noticed -- and other people have noticed this, too -- in recent years we're hearing terms like dead-on and spot-on and one-off."

ERIN McKEAN: "I blame BBC television. No, it's just -- "

RS: "Are Americans sounding more British?"

ERIN McKEAN: "I don't know if Americans are sounding more British. I think that in America, Britishisms have always been seen as upper class, refined, more aristocratic -- even things in Britain that would not be considered aristocratic uses."

RS: "Like what?"

ERIN McKEAN: "I'm thinking that in New York the last couple of times I've been there, the people who are fashionable know what a chav is."

AA: "What's a chav?"

RS: "And spell it."

ERIN McKEAN: "A chav -- c-h-a-v. They're supposed to be distinguished by wearing Burberry and antisocial behavior and gaudy displays of wealth."

AA: "Are chavs dodgy? [laughter] Because that's a term I hear now, dodgy."

ERIN McKEAN: "I believe that they can be. The problem, of course, is that some people self-identify as chav and use it as a term of pride, and some people use it as a term of denigration."

AA: "And dodgy, can you explain it?"

ERIN McKEAN: "Sure. In fact, I could probably even give you a definition. I have the whole dictionary right here on my cell phone."

AA: "Wow."

ERIN McKEAN: "Yes, I love this thing so much. [laughter] We label it as British, informal, [meaning] dishonest or unreliable: 'a dodgy second-hand car salesman.' Or something that's potentially dangerous: 'Activities like these could be dodgy for your heart.' Or, of low quality."

RS: "Now how can an American dictionary, such as the one you edit, help students of English as a foreign language learn American English?"

ERIN McKEAN: "Well, our perspective is always American, so that the first use, the core use of the word that you see in the dictionary will always be the American use. And usages from other varieties of English will be a little further down in the entry, although I have to say that one of the most important things you can do when you're looking up a word in the dictionary is read to the end of the entry, because especially in a dictionary like the New Oxford American Dictionary, we arrange the entries in a different way than most dictionaries.

"We start from the core sense, which is the sense that we think is the most central, the most general meaning of the word. And then we have sub-senses which are extensions of the word that can be figurative. So you have to read all the way to the end to make sure that you get the whole story."

AA: "Well, you know this is interesting, because dictionaries use to be prescriptive, where they would tell you what this word -- how it should be used and what it should mean. And now, I know some people complain about dictionaries are more descriptive. They sort of just describe how people use the language. So how do you know whether this definition is correct or whether this word is being used correctly?"

ERIN McKEAN: "We are highly descriptive. And by that I mean we describe what's going on, but we tell you everything about it. And that means whether or not other people like that use."

RS: "Give us an example."

AA: "Yeah, get on your cell phone there."

ERIN McKEAN: "I will -- so, irregardless is a word that people love to hate. Irregardless is just regardless. The -ir part doesn't really mean anything. And we give a usage note that says 'irregardless with its illogical negative prefix is widely heard perhaps arising under the influence of such perfectly correct forms as irrespective. Irregardless is avoided by careful speakers of English. Use regardless to mean without regard or consideration for or nevertheless.'

"So if someone heard the word irregardless and looked it up and didn't find it, they would probably be more likely to go ahead and use it, thinking it was just too new. But here we put it in and we say lots of people really are annoyed by this word."

RS: Listen next week for more with Erin McKean, editor-in-chief of American dictionaries for Oxford University Press.

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Send e-mail to, and visit us at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.