The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, March 25, 2010

How d'you get there?

Bristol is well known for its graffiti, not just the Banksies, but lots of little bits of urban art tucked away in the city's streets, like this fantastic typewriter down a little lane at the side of our house.

Lots of it is very clever, but recently I've started to notice a phenomena that really makes me smile. A few weeks ago, I spotted a road sign on the way out of Bristol, in amongst a battery of signs on a one-way system, for Timbuctoo! But it wasn't an amateurish, jokey sign, it'd been carefully included on an existing sign, very professionally, same lettering etc. so that you hardly noticed it. In fact, I'm sure lots of people didn't! It was one of those marvellous double-take moments. Sadly, the next time I went that way, it'd gone. But then yesterday, I came across another on my way to the dentist's. It made me smile even in the midst of filling anxiety!

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Friday, March 19, 2010

More libel comedy

Just heard Marcus Brigstocke talking about libel reform again on The Now Show on Radio 4 - very funny and worth checking out on iPlayer on as a podcast on iTunes.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Big Libel gig

Over the weekend, I went to a comedy gig in London, a charity event to support Libel Reform. To be honest, I got tickets because there were people on the bill I wanted to see - the likes of Dara O Briain, Marcus Brigstoke and the incredibly funny, Tim Minchin. And in terms of value-for-laughs it was fantastic - not only very funny, but really intelligent comedy too. In-between and mixed in with the comedy though, there was a lot of serious stuff about the problems with the UK libel laws, which I have to admit, I only had the haziest of awareness of. The main focus was on the problems scientists and science journalists face in criticizing "scientific" claims without fear of finding themselves caught up in a very long and incredibly expensive libel case. I hadn't been aware of the fact that Britain has some of the strictest libel laws in the world that encourage a huge amount of libel tourism; people from other countries coming to the UK to sue for libel because they wouldn't have a case in their own country.

It got me thinking about the restrictions we face in lexicography and EFL publishing generally. I don't know of any cases where dictionaries have been directly sued for libel, but there have been times they've come close. The most obvious was over the term McJob - a word that came into usage in the late 80s or early 90s to refer to "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector" (OED). The OED was the first dictionary to include it in 2001, followed by the American Merriam-Webster's dictionary in 2003 despite unsurprising objections from McDonalds. In 2007, the company even launched a campaign in the UK against the OED definition on the grounds that it didn't reflect a true picture of jobs in the modern service sector ... Aren't they missing the point?! If you found your job in a fast-food chain exciting and stimulating then you wouldn't call it a McJob any more than you'd refer to it as a dead-end job or burger flipping. The wonderful thing about language is that no one can tell us what a word means - not a dictionary nor a global corporation - words come to mean whatever people use them to mean. The job of a dictionary is not to make judgements or to bow to outside pressure, but simply to reflect usage.

Having said all that, as a lexicographer, I know that there is a degree of self-censorship in what we decide to include, or more importantly, avoid in the dictionary. We are, after all, trying to sell our product in markets around the world and we don't want to include anything that might offend our customers; be that individual students or the education ministries that might approve our books for use in schools. There are the obvious offensive and taboo words to be considered. Generally, you'll find these appearing in advanced learner's dictionaries but left out of lower level dictionaries with a younger target market.

Trickier sometimes is the content of example sentences for words with negative connotations. As lexicographers, we want to reflect language as it's actually used and we draw on real corpus data to find our examples. So what do you do when you look up a word like invade and are faced with screens of lines about US troops invading Iraq? The reality is, you take out the names and just talk about troops invading a country or you go way back in history and have an example of the Romans invading Britain (as in OALD). Are we sanitizing the language, giving a false picture or misleading our readers?

I recently read an academic article (Linguistic and cultural strategies in ELT dictionaries) which suggested that ELT dictionaries should include more real cultural references to help bring the language alive for students and help them to relate it to their own experiences of global and local culture. It's a very interesting idea, but I do wonder what obstacles such a project might run up against in terms of objections or even libel suits from those real people, companies or organizations they chose to include.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Camera shy

I received a message this week asking me to put together a very short profile and a photo to go in the Authors section on the Global website. It's always odd trying to write about yourself in the third person, especially when you've got such an eclectic 'career' as I have - not quite sure what to say about myself; EFL lexicographer, writer, editor, corpus researcher, EAP tutor ... What's even more difficult though is finding a photo. I've always hated having my picture taken - school photos were a terrible ordeal. And when I did my first conference presentation some 10+ years ago, I had to go to a photographer to get a proper portrait picture done for the blurb. It was the whole school photo thing relived and the resulting picture was truly awful. Thankfully, I don't still have a copy, so don't have to embarrass myself by showing it here!

I've realised over the years that all the 'best' photos of me are the ones taken when I'm not aware and definitely not 'posing'. So I keep an eye out for pictures that come up that I might be able to use for work purposes. There are a couple that I've used on my website that were both taken when I was chatting away to someone - perhaps the most natural state for somebody who's professionally involved in language and communication. One was taken from across the room at a family party and another when I was on holiday in Australia, in full flow (hands in motion!) telling a story to a group of friends in a bar after several glasses of wine. The key to using social photos for professional purposes though is careful cropping - the wine bottles here needed editing out!

Having had a fairly drastic haircut just before Christmas though (from fairly long, to pretty short), I feel like I ought to go for an up-to-date picture for the website, so I can't just pick out one of my existing favoured shots. We're down in London for a visit this weekend, so I'll be asking my boyfriend to snap away with the camera while we're out and about in the hope that something usable comes out of it.

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Monday, March 08, 2010


As someone who's fascinated by language and typography, I'm always on the lookout for interesting signs, words, posters, etc. Yesterday, I came across some 'rural graffiti' on a tree at Symonds Yat in the Wye Valley. It was right by a fairly busy footpath, but why it'd been chosen as a site for names and initials obviously carved over a number of years, who knows. I t made an interesting change though from the more conventional Banksy-style graffiti I'm used to here in Bristol and was every bit as striking, especially in the sunshine.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The joys of freelancing ... #2 Tea on the terrace

Those of you who know me or have followed the blog for a while, will know that I moved house back in October. One of the draws of the new house was its little roof terrace (actually just the top of the garage, accessed through double doors from the living room on the first floor). Sadly, soon after we'd moved in, I realised that it was actually in shade for most of the day and as the winter sun's got lower in the sky, it's been completely in shade even on the odd sunny day. Today though, I noticed for the first time, that the sun is creeping back into a sliver in the corner. It's no more than a foot or two at the moment, but it's given me hope of greater things to come as the sun gradually climbs higher in the sky over the coming months and hopefully clears the surrounding buildings.

It also provided the perfect excuse for a joy that I hope is to come; tea on the terrace! Because of my RSI, I try to get away from my desk at every excuse and there's surely no better way to take a break than with a cup of tea in the sunshine! The tea, by the way, for any tea connoisseurs, is teapigs Morning Glory - my favourite post-lunch brew.

And while I was out there, a glance into my neighbour's garden revealed some beautiful crocuses showing their faces to the sun - spring must be on its way!

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Monday, March 01, 2010

RSI Day Part 2: Fiddly fingers

So it's Monday morning and you've sat down at your desk for another week working away at your computer. Well, if you're at a desk with a proper screen, keyboard and mouse, then avoiding RSI is a relatively easy affair. It takes very little time to get your workstation set up correctly, only a bit of effort to think about your posture, and a little discipline to take regular mini breaks. With new developments in IT though, we seem to be moving further and further away from the rather chunky, but safe desktop towards smaller, more mobile but potentially less healthy alternatives.

I've talked before about the potential dangers of laptops, with their cramped setup; necessarily working too close to the screen, at an angle that's difficult to change, using a small keyboard and a truly horrible mousepad. But even that can be got around with a little bit of effort; see my February 2008 archive for some ideas or check out this link for an NHS Laptop Health guide.

Over the past couple of years though smaller, handheld devices, like Blackberries and iPhones seem to have become more and more popular. For many, they're no more than glorified mobile phones on which they can quickly check their e-mail or look up multimap to find an address. But I get the impression that for some people they're becoming a key part of their working day, to send full-length e-mails or to read whole documents. And that's a concern because their small size inevitably entails fiddly, awkward hand movements which when repeated over longer periods are going to cause RSI-type problems. As someone who already suffers from RSI, I'm particularly sensitive to those awkward little movements. I spent ages looking for a mobile phone with comfortably large and separated keys (a definite gap in the market, with older users on the increase). And when I've tried using other people's iPhones, as beautiful and sexy as they look, to me they set all kinds of alarm bells ringing. Whilst touch screen technology might feel like a more comfortable, natural development, when it's on a tiny little screen a few inches across, those awkward little repeated 'fingerbob' style movements are a recipe for disaster. And as for those miniscule little keypads, whoever thought that was a good idea?!

Yes, I know, I can hear you say that you don't use it very much, but how much is 'much'? These things creep up on you and and it can be quite easy not to notice just how much a part of your daily life something is becoming. Avoiding RSI type problems is hugely about self-awareness, being honest with yourself about just how long you're spending doing awkward, repetitive movements, looking at yourself objectively from the outside. So if you do nothing else, try and be a bit more aware of how you're working with IT this week, whether that's gripping your mouse too tightly, not taking enough breaks, craning your neck to see a laptop screen or spending too much time using your Blackberry or iPhone.

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