Disclaimer: I am utterly incapable of replicating Katherine Barber’s humour and delivery, but she said some important things about language that editors would find valuable, which is what I’ve summarized here. (I’d previously had the privilege of hearing her speak at the PLAIN 2013 conference.) If you ever get the opportunity to hear the Word Lady speak in person, don’t let it pass you by!
Katherine Barber was the editor-in-chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary when it became the first dictionary to change its definition of marriage to “the legal or religious union of two people,” in 2004. At her keynote to close Editing Goes Global, Barber, bestselling author of Only in Canada, You Say: A Treasury of Canadian Language and Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs, told us she was very proud of that change. “And I can tell you—we got letters,” she said, to laughter. “We also got letters saying, ‘Thank you so much for doing this.’” This milestone shows the importance of dictionaries; they’re not just about looking something up.
Barber joked that her job as a lexicographer was easy, compared with our jobs as editors: “Lexicographers only have to write sentence fragments,” she said. “We don’t have to worry about transitions or plots or character development.” What they do have to worry about, though, is capturing the regional differences in language that can help define a culture or a nation. Canadian English is a good example: “You must not confuse Canadian English with American English,” Barber told the international crowd, “because Canadians will hate you! We’re unclear about what our identity is. One thing we’re sure of is that we’re not American. And I say that with all respect and fondness for Americans.”
Differentiating ourselves from Americans is why we stick a u in colour, for instance. Barber enjoys checking dictionaries to see if they’ve included the colour variant. In one “Webster’s” dictionary at a discount store, she didn’t find a u in colour because colo(u)r wasn’t listed at all! A lot of so-called Webster’s dictionaries aren’t legitimate—anyone can claim to have created a Webster’s dictionary. “Merriam-Webster is the real deal,” said Barber.
Merriam-Webster doesn’t always capture Canadianisms, though: its entry on toque defines the word as “a woman’s small hat without a brim made in any of various soft close-fitting shapes” and claims that the word is pronounced “toke.”
We may recognize toque as a Canadianism, but we use many terms without realizing that they’re unique to Canada (or to certain parts of Canada). What do foreigners think when they first see signs advertising “bachelor for rent”?
Barber closed with a plea that editors retain regionalisms when their meaning is clear. Huck, meaning throw, in Western Canada and jambuster, meaning jelly donut, in Manitoba are not only valuable data for lexicographers, but they add to the vibrancy of our linguistic tapestry.