The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

"My secretary will fax you the details"

In a recent social media post, ELT writer Katherine Bilsborough was bemoaning the appallingly sexist images that came up when she was searching for secretary on a stock image site. I won't share the images, but I'm sure you can imagine the kind of thing. The post prompted a lot of equally appalled reactions about the actual images, but there were also a couple of comments about whether we even use the word secretary anymore anyway. Which, of course, got me thinking and sent me off to check ...

My immediate reaction and that of several people I spoke to was that secretary, to describe someone who does an admin job, has been replaced as a job title nowadays by 'assistant' of some kind - admin assistant, personal assistant, executive assistant. A bit of googling very quickly turned up several articles to back up my hunch. But what do the stats say?

There is some evidence that usage of the word secretary has fallen off slightly since about the 1980s.

Graph from Google Ngram viewer showing a slight decline in use of the word secretary between1970 and 2008
Source: Google Ngram viewer

graph showing a slight decline in the trend for the word secretary between 1958 and 2008
Source: Collins Dictionary online

It's difficult to pin down stats though because it's hard to disentangle from its other senses referring to a. political positions (Secretary of State, Home Secretary, press secretary, etc.) and b. formal positions in the hierarchy of certain organizations (Secretary General of the UN, General Secretary of a trade union, club/company secretary, etc.). I looked across several corpora though and took a random sample of corpus lines to scan through. In each case, for recent corpus data, there were a tiny number of cites that referred to the admin assistant sense (less than 5 per 100 cites). Comparing that to the old BNC (from the 1980s and 90s), I came up with around 18 in 100. Not rigorous research but still a fairly clear decline.

So, we're all agreed that secretary is probably as dated as typist or air stewardess. Which begs the question, why was an ELT materials writer looking to illustrate it? Answer: because it's on a (newly updated!) Cambridge exams vocabulary list ... Cue a flurry of further checking ... and I was slightly shocked to find:
  • it appears on all the major publishers' word lists - A2 on EVP and (the brand new!) Oxford 3000 and B1 on the Pearson GSE
  • it appears in all the major UK learner's dictionaries (Oxford, Cambridge, Collins COBUILD, Macmillan and Longman) without any kind of label or usage note to flag that it's old-fashioned - unlike stewardess which is labelled as 'old-fashioned' in all but one of them. I won't name and shame the dictionary with the example sentence of the title.

I found this particularly disappointing because I know just how aware lexicographers are of trying to keep on top of this kind of thing. I know how much work goes on to try and weed out dated entries and examples from dictionaries. And with most ELT lexicographers being female, we're especially sensitive to anything that smacks of sexism. It seems that this one has just slipped through the gaps.

So, I'm calling on all those dictionary publishers to at least take a look and reconsider your entries and also to relook at your word lists. I know this kind of change can't necessarily always happen overnight, but can you at least promise to check it for your next editions?

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Monday, September 02, 2019

Walking away from my desk

Friends with conventional jobs often say that they wouldn't have the discipline to work from home. I think they imagine me lounging around in my pyjamas and watching daytime TV. To be honest, after almost 20 years of freelancing, I probably suffer more from the opposite problem. Especially when I'm busy with several projects at the same time and deadlines are coming thick and fast, the greater danger is in spending too long at my desk.

As an RSI sufferer, I've always been conscious of taking regular breaks and yes, going downstairs to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and maybe hang the washing out while I wait for the kettle to boil is a good way to take those much-needed regular physical breaks from a focused, tense posture at my desk. It's not enough on its own though. Last winter, I found myself 'home alone' with my partner working abroad for a few months and with grey, uninspiring weather outside, it was all too easy to spend all day at my desk and some days to not leave the house at all. Going out for regular daytime walks was already a part of my routine, but one that tended to slip when the weather was bad or when I had a deadline looming or was just feeling a bit low and couldn't be bothered.

Photo looking down at walking shoes in a puddle in the rain

Then friend and ELT colleague, Karen White told me about a walking challenge to walk 1000 miles during the calendar year (that's about 1600km). It's a semi-organized thing which you can sign up for or which you can just decide to do individually and you can set your own rules about what counts. I already walk quite a bit generally because I don't own a car and walking is the main way I get about. What I needed though was to get out regularly for conscious breaks that were just about walking and fresh air and clearing my head, not nipping to the supermarket to get some groceries. So I decided to log just those 'proper' walks using an app on my phone.

To do 1000 miles in a year works out at around 83 miles a month or 20 miles a week or 3 miles a day.  From where I live I can do a walk of just over 3 miles around Bristol harbour which takes me between 45 mins and an hour depending on how fast I walk and whether I stop en route to take photos or get stuck crossing roads. That doesn't sound too difficult until you realize you need to do that EVERY day .... you miss a day and you have to fit in 6 miles the next!
Screenshot of my walking app showing my regular route
My regular route

I've just reached the two-thirds point in the year and so far I'm bang on target with 669 miles walked to the end of August. Looking back at my stats, I don't generally manage to walk every day, but I typically fit in my 20 miles a week spread over about 5 days. The missed days tend to be when I just can't fit in a walk because of other commitments in the day. I also swim twice a week and I can't always justify an hour out of my working day to swim and an hour to walk, although I do have some swim+walk days.  And although I do walk in all weathers, I am occasionally put off when it's really heaving with rain.

I mostly do my regular route around Bristol harbour just because I can go out on autopilot without having to plan. And it's a great route with so many different things to see, people to watch and stuff going on. I've developed a few other regular routes too, including a couple of good 5-milers for when I need to catch up on my mileage. 

Photo of Bristol harbour in the snow
A snowy harbour walk
Photo of old cranes and a steam train
Cranes and a steam train on a grey day

Photo of an old boat in dry dock for repairs
Always something to see in Underfall boatyard
Photo of Bristol harbour in the sun with sailing boats on the water and colourful houses overlooking
A sunny day on the harbour

The #walk1000miles2019 challenge has definitely kept me motivated to keep it up as has sharing my walking with friends on social media and via the #StetWalk hashtag on Twitter which aims to encourage editors and writers to get out and away from their desks - 'stet' being an editing term meaning 'let it stand'. 

A Tweet showing a photo taken from Cifton Suspension Bridge and a tweet with the hastag #stetwalk

Has it made a difference? I think it has. It definitely kept me from slipping into depression through some of the more miserable, lonely winter months. Not only did the actual walking and fresh air often perk me up and give me a sense of achievement, but coming up with suitable photos to share on social media - even if they were rather grey and soggy - gave me a reason to stay connected.

It was helpful during a lull in work at the start of the year, giving me a regular activity to plan my days around. And more recently through a particularly busy, full-on patch of work juggling numerous different projects, when it felt like I had a hundred things whizzing around my head, an hour out walking often either let me switch off completely and come back and start afresh or else it helped me settle everything back into order and get stuff back in perspective.

Will I be doing #walk1000miles2020? Probably not, but I'll definitely be trying to keep up the habit for the sake of both my physical and mental health.

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Thursday, August 29, 2019

Talking teaching writing in St Petersburg

Last weekend, I was in St Petersburg, Russia to deliver a day of workshops to a fabulous group of local teachers. It was the first time I'd visited the city since 1986 and unsurprisingly, it has changed quite a bit! It was lovely to have a couple of days to explore a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with its spectacular museums and dramatic architecture, and I was pleasantly surprised to come across some gastronomic treats too with some great meals in interesting contemporary restaurants.

I was leading a day of workshops on the topic of Teaching Advanced Writing Skills with a group of 20 very knowledgeable and engaged teachers. It's always good to get away from my desk, especially after a long stretch with my head down writing, and I find delivering CPD workshops particularly rewarding professionally. 

Connecting with teachers: 
I sometimes feel a bit guilty that as a materials writer, I don't get much time in the classroom myself nowadays. I think that spending time with teachers from different contexts though can actually be just as helpful. Although I write materials primarily for students, teachers are also a crucial part of my audience. If something on the page doesn't work for the teacher, they're going to struggle to get it across to the class. And when you're writing for a global market, understanding the attitudes and approaches of different groups of teachers and the reality of their teaching contexts is really key. Of course, you can't be familiar with every possible context and you can't please all the people all the time, but I find it helps to have a few different real teachers in mind. I'll often imagine each of them working through an activity and think about whether there are any tweaks I can make to help it work better for them.

Developing ideas: 
I also love that after more than 25 years working in ELT, my ideas and knowledge about teaching are still developing. Each time I give a workshop on a particular topic, it's an opportunity to review and reflect on my ideas. I've been delivering this particular series of workshops over the past 5 years or so and although the basic structure has remained the same, each time I come back to them, I make a few changes. This time I added a look at some practical activities to focus on specific writing skills using short, focused writing tasks and also a couple of tasks to work on editing skills. I think they helped to flesh out my point that teaching writing can involve a variety of different task types and angles, and doesn't always have to follow the traditional writing lesson which builds up to a final complete text to be written for homework at the end.

However, in my excitement about including the new tasks, I realize I didn't really think enough about how they were going to be integrated into the workshop. We ended up with a rather repetitive set of three similar groupwork tasks which, with hindsight, I should have varied somehow. But hey, that's the joy of development, you're always learning and I'll be able to tweak and improve the format next time!

Thanks to the lovely teachers of St Petersburg for inviting me, for being such a receptive audience and for giving me the excuse to revisit your lovely city!

Photos: Thanks to Tatyana and Tatiana of Deutsch Klub who helped organize the event and passed on the photos of the day.

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Monday, July 22, 2019

ETpedia Vocabulary: combining knowledge

When I was asked to be involved in writing the new ETpedia Vocabulary book, it was a no-brainer. Having started my ELT publishing career working on learner's dictionaries, although I've branched out into writing a whole range of different types of materials, vocabulary is still my first love.

For those of you not familiar with the ETpedia titles, they're resource books aimed at teachers, each of which contains 500 short teaching tips around a particular topic; young learners, exams, Business English, etc. There are 10 books in the series so far and ETpedia Vocabulary is the latest.

Drawing on a mix of expertise:
I co-wrote the book with Fiona Mauchline and Stacey H Hughes, making a writing team who brought very different skills and perspectives to the party. Our different areas of expertise came out right from the very first meeting in which it turned out to be surprisingly easy to divide up the chapters we'd sketched out for different areas of vocabulary teaching. Fiona is an expert in teaching teenagers, she has a fascinating knowledge of the psychology and neuroscience of language learning and she's full of ideas for sparking creativity. Stacey has a background in teacher training and seemed to come up with an endless supply of varied and creative practical classroom activities and tools. She made me think more about all the stuff that doesn't (and can't) appear on the pages of coursebooks, but goes on in classrooms amongst teachers and learners. For my part, I was happy to fill the language nerd role focusing on explaining terminology, looking a dictionary skills, corpus tools and some of the nitty-gritty of morphology and lexicogrammar. I think our different inputs have led to a fabulously rounded resource which will be relevant to lots of different contexts and appeal to teachers with different teaching styles.

I should also add that blending the input from the three of us, dealing with the inevitable overlaps and differences in style was no mean feat, but was ably handled by crack editor Penny Hands and the guiding hand of series editor John Hughes.

Digging deeper into my own knowledge:
The actual writing process was an interesting challenge and quite different from my usual work of writing classroom materials. It forced me to dig around in my brain and think about the why and the how of vocabulary teaching rather than just the what. It allowed me to rove around all the different aspects of vocabulary teaching that I've touched on over the past 20 years or so. It prompted me to go back and read up again on a whole range of areas, as well as checking out the latest developments in corpus tools and other online vocabulary resources. And inevitably, it left me with way more I wanted to say than would fit into the ETpedia style of short, concise teaching tips! At times, that was frustrating, but it was also a great exercise in trying to pick out the key ideas that were really worth passing on and cutting the waffle.

I hope the resulting book will be a useful resource for teachers to dip into and flick through when they're short on inspiration and want to try something new, when the way they approach vocabulary is perhaps feeling a bit stale and repetitive, or when they're tackling a different type of class (EAP, advanced learners, students with dyslexia or colour-blindness). I certainly picked up lots of great ideas from my co-authors in the process of writing the book and re-invigorated my own approach to vocabulary teaching.

ETpedia Vocabulary is available from the Pavilion ELT website as well as the usual places.

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