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OED Editor Retires As Only Seventh Person To Hold The Job


John Simpson is going to retire. As you may know, Samuel Pepys wrote in 1667 of another gentleman: He did not think any man fit to serve a prince that did not know how to retire and live a country life. There may be some peril in retiring. Mr. Simpson is retiring from the position of chief editor. And as Bishop Joshua Hall wrote in "Resolutions and Decisions of Diverse Practical Cases of Conscience" in 1649, some interloper may perhaps underhand fall upon the work at a lower rate and undo the first editor.

If these comments are a little more researched than usual, it is in honour - with a U - of John Simpson's position. He is chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, a perennial massive work in progress, recording the story of the English language. And those are fairly typical citations from the OED. John Simpson joins us now from Oxford. Welcome to the program.

JOHN SIMPSON: Yeah. Thanks very much.

SIEGEL: You're only 59. Why are you retiring this year?

SIMPSON: Well, I'll be 60 at the end of the year, and I thought, well, I've been working on the OED for 37 years. Well, there must be lots of things out there between 9:00 and 5:00 in the day that don't involve actually updating the OED all the time, so I thought I'd give it a try.

SIEGEL: Now, the dictionary is in the midst of its third revision, I gather. It's the third in how many years?

SIMPSON: Well, it's the first comprehensive revision the dictionary has ever had since it came out first between 1884 and 1928. So what we're doing is we're going right back to first principles. We're taking every word in the 20 volumes of the dictionary. We're reviewing the etymologies, the documentation to show how old the word is in the English language and the definitions, et cetera, the pronunciations, and we're updating it for the 21st century. It will take probably another 15 years or so to complete. And really, it's never completed, anyway, because the language just carries on.

SIEGEL: When you were first hired at the Oxford English Dictionary, what was - what's the first word you handled?

SIMPSON: The first word I ever worked on or the first - well, first of all, you have to acclimatize yourself to the ways of the dictionary. So I was given a very obscure translation of a French cinematographic textbook to read, looking for words that we might put into our card files. But (unintelligible) was allowed some free rein to do some actual editing. The first word I worked on, in a patriotic manner, was queen, in fact.

SIEGEL: Did you include a more risque usage of queen?

SIMPSON: Well, we have every single meaning. There's an old sense of queen where it's actually spelled Q-U-E-A-N, which means a prostitute or strumpet. And then there's a modern - you have gay sense of queen. That was - that's been around since the 1920s, '30s, I think. I haven't got the dictionary in front of me at the moment. But quite a wide range of meanings we had to include at the time. No holds barred.

SIEGEL: In the past, we've had the spoken language, and then we've had the written language and texts. But now, we have something in between. With a tremendous amount of Internet writing, which is almost as casual as speech, does it qualify as material to cite?

SIMPSON: Well, certainly. We're interested in the language in any of its manifestations. About 10 years ago, we broadened our policy to allow these quotations, citations that we use in the dictionary to come not just from printed texts or whatever but also from the Internet because we think it's important for us not just to find the first printed record of a word, but the first real record as far as we can. And if the earliest record is on the computer, the Internet somewhere, then we're going to include it.

One of the first we included was the word deflame. Now, if you didn't like somebody, you could get all your friends to send them lots of spam. You flame them. The first records we found for that were documents simply on the Internet. And so for us, that's quite a change. We had to sort of think hard about it before we actually did it.


Over these years of editing the OED, have you had time for a lot of reading that was simply for pleasure, or have you always been reading some assignments?

SIMPSON: Well, I'll let you in on a secret. The first 10 years working on the OED, you can't read for pleasure. Every time you read anything, you're always thinking, oh, that's interesting. Maybe I should write that down. I used to carry a little notebook right in my trousers. But after a while, you get used to it, and you think, well, actually, you get a bit naughty and let somebody else jot that down because somebody else will notice it, and you managed to get it through. So it's sort of rite of a passage business. You have to get through it, and I think I have got through it now.

SIEGEL: Well, as a lady-in-waiting said to Pompey in "Love's Labours Lost," John Simpson, great thankes, and that's with an E.

SIMPSON: Thank you.


SIMPSON: Great thanks to you too.

SIEGEL: John Simpson is retiring later this year as chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.