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Watching Our Language

Verbatim magazine's love affair with words.

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By Ted Shen

Erin McKean was procrastinating over a high school research paper in the Wake Forest University library in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when she first came upon Verbatim, a periodical for language aficionados. Out of curiosity she flipped through its pages and was soon hooked. "There were articles on word usage and dictionaries and a column on British English, written in a style anyone could understand," she remembers. "It had the same sort of appeal that attracted gadget fanatics to Popular Mechanics or armchair scientists to Scientific American." McKean didn't know it then, of course, but ten years later she'd take over as Verbatim's editor, entrusted with revamping the publication when terms such as "carbon-dated," "slutorama," and "cuddle-monkey" from the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer are held up as candidates for dictionaries of American slang.

Verbatim was started in Sussex, Connecticut, in 1974 by Laurence Urdang, now a legendary figure among lexicographers for the number of proteges and dictionaries he's produced. In the inaugural issue, Urdang explained why he went to the trouble: "For many years, friends and acquaintances who are not professional linguists have commented to me on their interest in language: they buy dictionaries and other popular books about language, do word puzzles and indulge in other word games, yet are frustrated by the lack of a publication to serve their interest."

Many subscribed. By the 80s, says McKean, the number had risen from the initial 80 to more than 20,000--enough for Urdang to pay his writers and place expensive ads in the New Yorker. The newsletter format was expanded to accommodate lengthy reviews of new dictionaries as well as erudite articles with titles like "Antipodean English." The journal ran articles by jail inmates on prison slang, and "businessmen who had traveled to and resided in foreign countries, knew the language, and offered insights on Russian, French, and Chinese, and other tongues," says Urdang, a self-billed "escapee from the graves of academe." "As an editor, my biggest problem was trying to impart to a contributor who might be a prominent linguist that his writing was not good enough to be published in Verbatim, an exercise in tact and discretion, as you might well imagine."

McKean, who's only a few years older than the journal, traces her own obsession with language to a fateful day in her eighth year. "I was and still am a voracious reader," she recalls. "So I even read the Wall Street Journal my dad brought home every day." A human-interest story on the front page caught her eye. "It was an account of the completion of the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, along with a profile of its editor, Robert Burchfield," she says. "I knew right away that I wanted to become a lexicographer. Here was a real, interesting job, not like ballet or astronautics that one could only dream about."

But few colleges offer a curriculum in lexicography, the systematic compilation of a dictionary. "Courses in it are usually part of a linguistics or English lit program," McKean explains. "After all, there aren't enough jobs to justify a major." She enrolled in the BA/MA linguistics program at the University of Chicago. For her master's she sought advice from two U. of C. scholars experienced in editing monumental dictionaries of ancient languages--Erica Reiner (Assyrian) and Gene Gragg (Sumerian)--even though her task was a comparison of the treatment of phrasal verbs in children's dictionaries. The work, she says, was "basically a lot of counting" to tally up the ways phrasal verbs--such as "act up," "stare down"--are listed in various dictionaries. By then, 1992, she'd begun her lexicography career at the textbook publisher Scott Foresman in Glenview.

McKean had joined the Dictionary Society of North America (whose membership hovers around 500) as a grad student, which was how Warren Gilson, the new owner of Verbatim, learned about her. Back in 1996, Urdang had posted a for-sale notice in the periodical because he wanted to devote his time to publishing specialty books and researching a "historical nautical dictionary"; no doubt another factor was a circulation that had plummeted to the low thousands. A copy of that issue was given to Gilson, an octogenarian physician and businessman who lives near Madison, Wisconsin, while he was recuperating from a cataract operation. McKean says Gilson is just as eccentric as he is wealthy: his company manufactures medical laboratory instruments, some of which he invented; his other patented creations include the zippered tie (the knot zips up to the collar) and a tie with a flashlight at its tail. A lifelong language lover, he thought Verbatim "was a good thing that should continue," says McKean. So he immediately set up a not-for-profit outfit to purchase it.

Next up was an editor. A lexicographer who'd heard McKean give a talk at a DSNA convention thought she'd be right for the job. "I got a call one night," McKean recalls. "This man with a deep, laid-back voice asked if I'd like to edit Verbatim. I thought it was a joke. The more Doc talked about it, the more fun it sounded." She and her husband drove to Wisconsin for an interview and things clicked. She found out later that "Doc was influenced by the experience of opening a factory in France years ago. The young managers he hired didn't know a lot but they made it up in enthusiasm."

Both Gilson and McKean knew that Verbatim would have to be a side venture for her. The subscription base of 1,700 is hardly enough to pay for the printing expenses, let alone a good salary. Besides, says McKean, she enjoys working at Scott Foresman, where she's a manager in charge of two thesauruses, two children's dictionaries, and two picture dictionaries.

Verbatim resumed publication in the fall of '98 after a one-year hiatus. With the help of a volunteer copy editor and publishing software, McKean has put out six issues from the basement of her Lincoln Square home, the latest just a few weeks ago. Though the mix of articles has been eclectic--ranging from the confession of a man saddled with the name Wiener to secrets of Navajo grammar--McKean likes to keep up with pop culture. She's recruited as a columnist Nick Humez, a classicist respected by amateur lexicographers for his etymological knowledge and breezy writing style. So far, he's looked at the linguistic roots of terms relating to time, money, and chance. After listening to Michael Adams's paper on Buffy slang for the American Dialect Society--deemed too frivolous for scholarly publications even though it deals with what McKean calls the "morphological features of the vocabulary of a speech community"--she asked him to abridge it for Verbatim. It was a hit. Other features have included a concise glossary of up-to-date S-M patois (such as "wrapping," accidentally delivering a whipstroke to the side of the body, where it can leave marks) and a classification of the language of porn sites. (Articles and correspondence from earlier issues are on the Web site, www.verbatimmag.com.) McKean says an upcoming article will discuss abbreviations used in Internet chat rooms.

For all its interest in how language is used, Verbatim isn't a grammar cop. "I'm a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist," McKean declares. "If you want to know about proper English usage, read William Safire's column. Verbatim is about language quirks, not just rights and wrongs. However, I think people do pass judgment on other people based on their speech, not unlike the opinion we might have on people who wear shorts to church. But an occasional 'ain't' isn't the end of the world. For me, it's more important to be comprehensible. We want to say things in a way that others can understand."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.

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