A Lexicographer’s Lot: Interview with Orin Hargraves

Orin Hargraves began his career in lexicography in 1991 after answering an ad in a London newspaper. Since then, he has contributed language reference material to a variety of publications, including Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, Scholastic, HarperCollins, and Merriam-Webster.

Here, Orin Hargraves speaks with NML Secretary Greg Nedved about the wonderful world of words.
Every year new words are added to various dictionaries. How involved are you in this process?

A recurring task is to investigate lists of words that are generated computationally on the basis of their frequency in various places online, in order to determine if they are in fact new words requiring dictionary treatment, or just noise. This is a judgment that computers themselves are not yet capable of making, and that a lexicographer must undertake.

What features should dictionaries have that they don’t? What do they have that they shouldn’t?

With the possibility now of having dictionaries online, without the space limitations that paper dictionaries formerly imposed, there’s no good excuse for a dictionary not having everything that a user needs. Surveys have shown that what most users really want is more examples. A dictionary aggregating site which offers definitions from many different dictionaries is really not that useful. More useful is a single set of definitions for a word, accompanied by many examples—and pictures, if appropriate, and clickable pronunciations that you can listen to.

I can’t think of any features dictionaries have that they shouldn’t—everything is useful to someone. But all dictionary publishers know that no one other than reviewers reads the front matter.

Pop culture has a tremendous effect upon the development of English words. How does this phenomenon influence the work of lexicographers?

It has a greater influence on lexicographers of slang than of “general purpose” lexicographers because pop culture additions to the lexicon normally have a probationary period as slang or jargon before they enter the mainstream. But many do in fact enter the mainstream, at which point they become the subjects of regular lexicographic analysis and definition.

Which language has the most influence on English at the moment?

English in different parts of the world is influenced by different languages. American English is most influenced by Spanish, because of the large number of Spanish speakers in the US.

How accurate can we be in determining English dialect development? For example, will we ever know what a Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln actually sounded like when they spoke?

Any attempt at determining what English sounded like before the invention of recording can only be an approximation, based on evidence of rhymes and meter. That does not go very far in giving us the real flavor of spoken language. So no, we will never know very well what anyone sounded like before the late 19th century.

Which punctuation mark is used too often/not often enough in your view?

In my students’ writing, there is serious underuse of the comma. It is hard to communicate to them that commas should be inserted for the benefit of the reader where there is a break in grammatical or syntactic continuity. For overuse, I think the exclamation point. One is nearly always enough, if not too many.

In addition to your writings about language, you have written about customs and cultures.  How did this come about?

A friend of mine was aware of the Culture Shock! series of guidebooks, which are intended more for people moving to a country rather than visiting it. He suggested that I write one for Morocco, since I had lived there for three years. I did, and the publisher then expanded the series to include individual cities. So I wrote the Culture Shock! guides for London and Chicago, two cities in which I had lived for considerable periods.

Interview has been edited and condensed.