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Paul Sparkes: Barber was the chair

The 4.5-lb. weight (just over 2 kilograms) of the 1998 Canadian Oxford Dictionary may be one reason people use the weightless internet now for spellings and definitions. Yet this printed dictionary is decisive. It makes its point, shows if there is any debate, and that’s it. The internet, on the other hand,  checks with every person and their dog for variations in spellings and meanings.
The 4.5-lb. weight (just over 2 kilograms) of the 1998 Canadian Oxford Dictionary may be one reason people use the weightless internet now for spellings and definitions. Yet this printed dictionary is decisive. It makes its point, shows if there is any debate, and that’s it. The internet, on the other hand, checks with every person and their dog for variations in spellings and meanings. - Paul Sparkes photo

I’ve never met Katherine Patricia Mary Barber but she’s one of my favourite people. I’ve known a lot of editors in my time and they’re generally a sharp-witted lot with an analytic interest in everything. But very few of them, I suspect, would take on a dictionary to edit.

Barber did, but mind you, she’s a lexicographer. And she’s not just an editor, but an editor-in-chief. The final “word” so to speak. She is, in case you don’t know, the person behind “The Canadian Oxford Dictionary” (C.O.D.) The internet today tells me that when it was first published 20 years ago the C.O.D. was a runaway best seller. But I didn’t need the internet to tell me that as I remember hearing that good news when it was news. 

But I did learn something online when I put in Barber’s name. A second edition of the dictionary was issued shortly after the first, in 2004. That edition, apparently, contains 2,200 “true Canadianisms.” The reason I didn’t know these points is because I’m so attached to my “original”. There’s not a day goes by (give or take a week) when I do not pull it out of the bookshelf and check something. Peddling words for a living as I do, I can’t afford to be without the right tools.

Now, all this adoration (“honour/ deep affection/ worship or offer reverence to as divine”) is not total. I consider myself proficient enough in verbiage to throw out the occasional challenge, even though I’m not a lexicographer. Right now, in this day-and-age of Trudeau II, I, like everyone else in Canada, have reason to note that Barber sailed into political correctness fully two decades ago, viz.:

“MANKIND, n. The human species. Some people consider the use of ‘mankind’ in this sense sexist and prefer where possible to use humankind, or the human race, instead.”

Weighing meanings

To make sure she had everything right when it comes to Newfoundland English editor Barber tapped into Dr. William Kirwin, a MUN professor (now deceased) who had a major role in compiling the “Dictionary of Newfoundland English.” An idle thought occurred to me. As he was born in the United States, he could no doubt be unbiased when it came to deciding upon a Newfoundlandism which might be contested, one cove to another.

When I used the word “unbiased” just then, a point of contention sprang to mind. The springing word is “disinterest.” Great swaths of the human race think it means “no interest.” It means impartiality. The C.O.D. acknowledges. that but passes down what sounds like a judge’s ruling, too:

“The use of ‘disinterest’ to mean ‘lack of interest’ is sometimes objected to, but it is in this sense that it is most commonly found and the alternative ‘uninterest’ is rare. The phrase ‘lack of interest’ avoids both ambiguity and accusation of incorrect usage.”

I happen to believe that we have more than enough words to indicate absence of interest so we don’t need to drag disinterest forward only to abuse it. However, I must admit Barber is fair. She betrays no emotion; no inordinate affection for ‘disinterest’ and so leaves it intact, should any purist wish to make use of it.

Feeding your vocab

Barber’s dictionary feeds the hunger for a full vocabulary. But a rich vocabulary should not be acquired so that its user might shine in public. We may well shine as much, or more, with the mouth closed. Neither are lovers-of-words Neanderthals, holding on to their “prithee” against all onslaughts. Nay, the purpose must surely be to fashion our descriptions more clearly, y’know. Right?

At some point, I wanted to learn what it was that Pierre Trudeau had so famously said in parliament that caused more stir than any of his prime ministerial pronouncements (LOL). So I turned to “fuddle duddle” and found three descriptions: “Go to hell; Drop dead; What Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau claimed he said in Parliament rather than ‘f**k off’.” Telling it like it is with a word very much in our language but with unsubstantiated, yet colourful provenance.

Word science

It is 20 years ago to the month that Katherine Barber wrote her preface. Here’s an (amazing) excerpt:

“Fiction and non-fiction books, newspapers, magazines, even theatre programs, grocery store flyers and Canadian Tire catalogues were read to ensure that the vocabulary recorded in this dictionary is that of Canadians’ everyday life ... the vocabulary of logging and wheat farming, of commercial fishing and mining is found alongside the very abundant vocabulary of hockey, figure skating, sport fishing and hunting” ...

When the dictionary was being compiled the internet was quite new. But it was up and functioning and it was introducing words and phrases which did not miss the attention of the C.O.D. panel. For example, there was “squeegee kids”, “web site”, “browser”, “firewall” ... and 20 years ago, “big box stores” all brand new “(adj. completely or obviously new)”.

From the C.O.D. “Barber chair, n. 2. Cdn. A tree stump with a large splintered point of wood left above the undercut as a result of improper cutting.”

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.

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