Kernerman Dictionary News Number 11 July
The following interview was conducted on-line by Rex How, publisher of Net and Books in Taipei, Taiwan, and published in late 2002 in Chinese translation on www.netandbooks.com and in the mook (magazine-style book) number 5: A History of Dictionaries.
Levine is the former V-P and Publisher of the Random House Reference Division
and was recently Senior Strategist for New Product Development at Encyclopaedia
Britannica. Wendalyn Nichols is the former Editorial Director of Random
House Dictionaries, and prior to that the editor of the Longman Dictionary of
American English. She is now freelance editing and writing.
Dictionary Publishing in America Today:
1. When we met in NY last time in 2000, you
mentioned that all the reference works were influenced by the advent of
CD-ROM and online versions, except the works in one single volume form.
What’s the exact definition of “one single volume form”? How big?
Also, please talk about the newest situation.
2. As for ESL dictionaries—lexicography and publishing—the United States is far behind Britain. Is there any change in this aspect? And the reason?
WN: All the pioneering work in lexicographic works
for second language learners of English was done in the UK, and the US has
never really caught up. There are many reasons for this; the main one, I
think, is the large size of the native speaker US domestic market combined
with an unwillingness to cater to the special needs of immigrant
populations; the prevailing attitude until the 1960s was the “bootstrap”
mentality: “I or my forebears pulled themselves up by their own
bootstraps, and you should too.”
3. Actually the previous question is related to corpus lexicography, so is there any significant change in corpus lexicography in the States? I heard that there was a big conference held by some universities and publishing houses in 1999 about how to develop some corpora together. What happened after?
is now the American National Corpus Consortium (I am an advisor) which got
investment from enough publishers in the US, UK, Germany, and Japan to start
work on an ANC that is modeled after the BNC so that comparative studies can
eventually be done. The first 10 million words are meant to be released this
Fall 2002. The initial founder investors have exclusive access during the
developmental period; other commercial houses that wish to invest may still
join, but at a higher fee than was the case for initial invstors. The
details are on their website, http://americannationalcorpus.org.
Non-commercial educational institutions and individual researchers will also
have access from the start. The texts are being gathered under the
supervision of Randi Reppen at Northern Arizona University; they are being
tagged at Vassar under Nancy Ide; and the resultant corpus will be housed on
the servers at the Linguistic Data Consortium at the University of
Pennsylvania, which is also administering the licenses.
4. Could you express your observation about why does the States, so advanced in technology and the Internet, remain behind Britain in the field of corpus lexicography?
WN: See my
answer to question 2 above.
CL: I would only add to the excellent reply
to question #2. above that for a long time Britain perceived and understood
the value of its language as a national asset that should be supported and
could be exported, first to the far-flung British Empire and then to the
Commonwealth. Recently, some American publishers have shown signs of
awakening to this aspect of our brand of English—as an important national
asset, with both cultural and commercial value—especially as American
English gains prominence and currency globally.
5. What’s the general attitude of the top management of the big publishing groups toward dictionary publishing?
WN: They look
at the bottom line: dictionary publishing does not make the margins they
like to see, so they are perennially putting pressure on the dictionary
units to cut costs.
For example, it would cost several million US dollars to develop a new unabridged dictionary, or to thoroughly update and revise an existing one. Without being able to amortize these investment costs over several years (instead of expensing them immediately), a publicly traded consumer publisher would find it unappealing and difficult, if not impossible, to make the investments needed to create or even adequately maintain a significant dictionary program.
And, in my experience, it goes even deeper than the economics of trade publishing. The American comedian Rodney Dangerfield gained fame for his hang-dog refrain “Can’t get no respect.” Dictionary publishing during the 1990s did not fare well when owned by trade publishers like Simon & Schuster or Random House. Even when the bottom line looked good, the reference groups “Couldn’t get no respect,” and were either sold or downsized.
It ultimately came down to a clash of publishing
cultures more than economics, in my experience. That is one reason why
Merriam-Webster, left mostly to its own devices in Springfield,
Massachusetts, far from the madding crowd of trade publishing in New York
City, and with the help of its own dedicated and experienced sales force,
has done so well over the years and continues to do so.
6. Since the big publishing houses in the States are owned by the huge groups, the departments of dictionaries in these publishing houses are under great pressure from higher management and have been done something very strange in the recent years. Did these kind of things happen in the past history? What’s the newest situation?
WN: Merriam-Webster is the only major American dictionary publisher that is not under financial threat: there is still some uncertainty about the American Heritage line at Houghton Mifflin because of the recent sale by Vivendi of its publishing holdings; Random House closed its division a year ago; Webster’s New World has had three different owners in five years. Encarta, the corpus-based UK-US collaborative project that was supposed to mark a new breed of dictionary, was done so quickly and edited so poorly that it was a near-complete failure: you now see copies of it everywhere on bargain book tables and street vendors’ stalls next to the cut-price brands, because it had unprecedented numbers of returns of unsold copies from booksellers.
CL: Webster’s New World is
now owned by John Wiley & Sons, which has a solid reputation as a
serious publisher of non-fiction. Although it is financially conservative,
John Wiley should appreciate the solid scholarship that has gone into the
Webster’s New World line over the years, and is likely to seek a way to
keep the dictionaries alive and active going forward. This could represent a
small victory for American lexicography—but, we shall see how this
develops over the next few years.
7. The dictionaries should be revised every ten years or
so. Are you worried that all these situations could influence the revision
of the dictionaries? Could what happened to Funk and Wagnalls’s New
Standard in the past happen again in the future? (I mean a great dictionary
just declining without any revision.)
8. Did the problems in the States also happen in Britain? Why or why not?
still maintains a commitment to promoting the English language that is
lacking in the US, so the UK-based publishers are less eager to divest
themselves of dictionary units. The only dictionary house in the UK to
undergo significant restructuring is Collins (the company is now
HarperCollins), and this may have much to do with the fact that it is now
owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. Its schools assets in the US were sold
to Pearson (Longman’s parent company) in the 1990s; the COBUILD project was closed in the late 1990s
because the sales of the product were disappointing. Collins still owns COBUILD
and so one assumes that they intend to keep updating it, but the
lexicographic unit that produced it is no longer in operation. The
dictionary program now concentrates on native speaker and bilingual titles,
and is based in Glasgow.
9. Besides all these, what are strongest aspects of lexicography that the States does hold in the whole English-speaking world?
WN: Outside the US, American products simply do not have enough sales success to make an impact. The few exceptions, I think, were the works that Random House had the foresight (in the old days) to license for translation in Japan, Korea, and China—the beautiful editions of the Unabridged and College dictionaries that made Random House a respected name in parts of Asia. The American lexicographic tradition for native-speaker products is long and illustrious, but the commercial climate has taken such a toll that the most brilliant lexicography now happens in specialized areas: Jonathan Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang; the Dictionary of American Regional English project under Joan Houston Hall; and the recently-completed Middle English Dictionary at the University of Michigan are examples.
understand that when Mainland China’s President Jiang Zemin first visited
the States, he brought a copy of the Chinese edition of the Random House
College Dictionary (published by the Commercial Press of Beijing) to give to
then President Clinton as a token of friendship between our two countries.
10. In the past, the quality of a lexicographer depended on the tradition as well as his own taste. How would this happen in the future? What will be the qualifications to be a lexicographer?
WN: The quality of a lexicographer will still depend heavily on all the traditional skills, as well as talent. I’ve trained plenty of people who learned the basic concepts but never became truly good, instinctual lexicographers—and unfortunately there are too many people out there who’ve had lexicographic training whose work is really quite patchy. Anybody can be taught the basic principles in a university course or an in-house training program on lexicography, but it takes someone with an instinct, an ear for the language—a poet, I would argue—to find just the right genus and differentiae and commit those to paper (or electronic database!) within the restrictions of a particular style guide.
A lexicographer will still need to have something
of the teacher in him or her: an ability to convey complexity in a clear,
simple, consistent form. A lexicographer will still need an unerring
knowledge of grammar and a curiosity about usage and new words that keeps
him or her alert to changes in the language—new words, new uses, shifts in
sociolinguistic register. He or she will still need to be able to interpret
citations, which have their own role to play in an active reading and
marking program alongside corpus data. He or she will still need a keen
attention to detail.
11. What is your opinion about electronic dictionaries?
CL: Much more interesting to
me, in many ways, than the CD-ROMs are the current offerings available
online. For example, if you are a member of the Quality Paperback Bookclub
(at QPB.com), you get free access to the OED online. This is a great
research tool. The Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary is also now
available online (at M-W.com)—with a free 14-day trial, then a US$30
annual subscription fee.
12. In the Chinese world, the electronic dictionaries are
very popular among the young generation readers, but we are quite worried
about the qualities of them sometimes—they contain many words, but without
equivalent good definitions. How do you think about this?
WN: The perennial problem is that consumers the world over do not know how to tell a good dictionary from a bad one—it doesn’t matter if it’s print or electronic. They look at the number of definitions the product claims to have, and buy the one with the largest number. And the manufacturers of these devices often choose the cheapest licensing deal they can get rather than the best content. About the only defense against this is strong consumer awareness campaigns—if a manufacturer were to choose a high-quality licensing partner (or develop its own high-quality English content) and then hit the market with a very strong marketing campaign that focused on the quality of the product, educating the consumer in the process, then it might make a dent in this trend. That’s how Longman beat out Oxford in many markets: they were quicker to exploit corpus resources and more innovative in their applications, and were able to demonstrate the difference in a global blitz of teacher-training workshops and conference presentations. The schools that teach English ought to be teaching the students how to choose a dictionary; you’re not going to convince manufacturers to reform their practices, so you’ve got to teach the consumer not to buy the inferior products.
CL: On the positive side,
however, multi-lingual handheld electronic dictionaries have been a boon to
students, travelers, and business people alike. Their popularity among
Chinese and Japanese speakers is understandable—given the multiplicity of
characters and dialects (Chinese) or writing systems (Japanese). I don’t
think it is an exaggeration to suggest that the multilingual handhelds may
be contributing to an East-West communications breakthrough, by giving more
and more people access to meanings and pronunciations that they can use in
everyday situations. Regarding quality: everyone in the dictionary business
quickly discovers that there are no shortcuts to developing quality
products, which one would hope will win out in the long run.
13. What is your opinion about online dictionaries?
You also have to be careful about quality, as you do with every piece of information you get off the Internet. Being mindful of the quality of the source matters whether the delivery format is print or electronic.
CL: See my observation in the
answer to question 11 above.
14. So how do you forecast the future of dictionaries in general?
WN: At this point, I see the UK and Japanese
publishers being more likely to take advantage of the ANC than American
publishers, and for the disparity between UK and American products to
continue. I wish it weren’t so; Charles and I had great plans for the
application of corpus-based lexicography to the Random House line, but what
can you do when the visionaries don’t hold the purse strings, and the
upper management changes so often that you don’t have a track record with
them you can point to so that they trust you with large investments? This is
the problem in nearly every US dictionary house; the one healthy one,
Merriam-Webster, has so far remained unconvinced about introducing
corpus-based lexicography. American consumers, meanwhile, will continue to
make Merriam-Webster native speaker dictionaries their number-one choice;
ESL teachers and students will continue to buy Americanized UK products.
15. How do you think about the project of Trésor
de la Langue Française? Is there any simialiar project in the States and
16. The very last my own reading question. When I read “BNC compiled 100,000,000 words from4,000 texts,” “texts” couldn’t be “articles.” What does “texts” mean here? Categories?
is used in its broadest sense here, of “printed item”. The BNC has
samples from everything from high-level scientific works to popular fiction
to ephemera like bus and theater tickets. The samples range in size from
under 50 words (the bus ticket) to about 40,000 words (long excerpts from a
novel). It really depends on what the license granted by the owner of the
copyright to that text entails: some copyright owners agreed to broader use,
while others would only grant permission for extracts that come under the
laws of “fair use”—in the US this is a 250-word limit, but I think
it’s a 400-word limit in the UK, except in cases where the entire work is
less than the word limit, as in the case of a poem. So “text” can mean a
novel, a textbook, a work of nonfiction, a pamphlet, or whatever else was a
source of the sample. Except for ephemera, no work is used in its entirety.
Textbooks can cause particular headaches because they tend to be full of
illustrations or quotations that are separately copyrighted, so to get a
nice run of text to sample you often have to search quite hard through the
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