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Front Matter Matters: How to Start a Relationship With Your Dictionary

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: the second part of our conversation with Erin McKean, editor-in-chief of American dictionaries for Oxford University Press.

RS: We start by talking about the proper way to get to know a new dictionary.

ERIN McKEAN: "I wish that everyone who bought a dictionary, that the first thing that they did was sit down and read the front matter. Lexicographers spend a lot of time and effort writing the introduction to the dictionary. And the introduction to the dictionary is the users manual. And a lot of people, when they buy a new piece of electronics, they never read the users manual, and then they're frustrated by the remote control, they can't figure out how to make it work. Same thing happens with the dictionary."

AA: "Yeah, because I just bought a dictionary and I'll be honest with you, I haven't looked at the ... "

ERIN McKEAN: "I know, no one reads the front matter."

RS: "And you're saying it's really important."

ERIN McKEAN: "It tells you what the kind of habits of the dictionary are. For instance, the New Oxford American Dictionary, as I said before, arranges entries by core sense and then sub-sense. But other dictionaries put their definitions in chronological order, so the oldest one comes first. And other dictionaries put it in frequency order, so the most frequent one comes first."

RS: "How can understanding your dictionary help you to be a better writer?"

ERIN McKEAN: "Well, if you think of words as the tools of writers, the more you work with the words as your tools, the better you'll be with them. I feel that most writers need not just a good dictionary but a good thesaurus, and that they should always be used together. It's like you can't have a hammer without a nail.

"So if you have a thesaurus, that gives you kind of a constellation of words that [are] all grouped together. You should then go to your dictionary and sort out exactly what the two or three likely candidates that you want to use mean. One sign of a very poor writer is someone who goes straight to the thesaurus to replace what they consider to be an ordinary word with something fancy and shiny and sparkly, who chooses a word that is completely wrong for the context."

RS: "How does the Oxford American Dictionary address grammar?"

ERIN McKEAN: "We do try and give as much information as possible about how words work -- what kind of complements they take, in what context you find them. Are they mostly used as adjectives? If they're nouns, are they mostly used as adjective modifiers? If they're verbs, do they take an object, do they not take an object?

"Unfortunately because our core user, our target user, is a native speaker, we don't give as much information as a learner's dictionary does. And that's the real tradeoff. A learner's dictionary [is] the training wheels on your bike, to get you to the point where you can use a dictionary that's intended for a native speaker."

AA: "Now the Internet makes it easy to look up frequency of use, right? To be able to see how often new words are being used in publications and so forth. Can you give us a hint of what's coming up on the radar -- are there terms you'd like to see in the next edition, or something you tried to get into this one but got overruled?"

ERIN McKEAN: "The Internet is actually very, very frustrating. It gives us glimpses of words that are coming up, but we can't get any exact numbers. I'm trying to think what some of the newer words are. Actually I keep a running memo on my cell phone of words that we want to add. I'm looking at the word 'pathosphere,' which is kind of the realm of pathogens, things that make you sick.

"I know that I want to include the word 'turducken.'"

AA: "Spell that please."


RS: "And what does it mean?"

ERIN McKEAN: "It's this crazy New Orleans Creole delicacy that is served at Thanksgiving. It is a turkey, deboned, stuffed with a chicken, deboned, stuffed with a duck, deboned, and then there's bread stuffing all around all the different layers."

AA: "Sounds good for Thanksgiving."

ERIN McKEAN: "It is good for Thanksgiving."

RS: "Well, what's it going to take to get it into the dictionary?"

ERIN McKEAN: "I need to make sure that it's as widespread as I think it is. I was actually surprised that it wasn't in at this point, because I've heard it for years. It was featured in a Wall Street Journal article, but it just slipped by. Sometimes words sound like they've been around forever."

RS: Erin McKean is editor-in-chief of American dictionaries at Oxford University Press. You can look up the first part of our interview on our Web site,

AA: And, to send e-mail to Rosanne and me, write to With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.