The venerable Oxford English Dictionary certifies 414,825 words of the Queen’s English. But it does not include the following: hero sandwich, dude ranch, grungy, schlock, Chippewa, ponderosa pine or persnickety. Why? “Those words are strictly American,” explains Robert Burchfield, 57, the OED’s ebullient, New Zealand-born editor-in-chief. “They are not known nor used in England.”
But at long last these and other Americanisms have found their way into an Oxford lexicon: The first Oxford American Dictionary was unfurled in the colonies last month. Bearing the imprimatur of the 502-year-old Oxford University Press, which publishes the 13-volume OED, the book may not have the last word on American usage—but perhaps the most recent. Certainly it is among the first to include both “ayatollah” and “gridlock” (defined for non-New Yorkers as “an urban traffic jam caused by continuous lines of intersecting traffic”).
Burchfield played chief lexicographer to a team of U.S. wordsmiths who compiled the OAD. To contain the American language in one 816-page volume, they simplified pronunciation symbols and shortened definitions. The editors said okeydoke to Americanisms like “blow dry,” “blow one’s mind,” “on the fritz,” “go bananas” and “humongous.” Four-letter words, however, are taboo. “This is a family dictionary,” harrumphs Burchfield, who takes great pleasure in being the final arbiter. “The buck,” he pronounces, borrowing from a plainspoken American, “stops here.”
From his lofty vantage, Burchfield has developed his own theories on language. English, he notes, is “alive and kicking”—about 450 new words have been added every year since the Anglo-Saxon beginnings. In the New World new lingo comes from television (“bionic”), black dialect (“right on”), Yiddish (“schlemiel”), crime reportage (“hijacking”), the drug culture (“spaced out”) and bureaucracy (“finalize”). That just complicates international communications, Burchfield says, “because English has become a world language. It’s the main language President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin have in common.” Interestingly, he notes, English words are now pouring into French (Franglais), Japanese (Japlish) and Chinese (Chinglish), whereas before 1945 foreign words were more often entering English.
As a youth in the New Zealand seaport of Wanganui, Burchfield was anything but a linguistic chauvinist. “Being a New Zealander and hence not part of the English establishment,” he observes, “I have a more global and irreverent view—as if the Queen’s English is only one of the dialects.” His father once worked in a coal mine and his mother as a cook. Young Bob was the family scholar. At 17 he entered Victoria University College in Wellington and completed his B.A. in the army. (Burchfield was a gunner in North Africa and Italy during World War II.) Determined not to return to the “suffocating provincialism” of his hometown, he sought and won a Rhodes. His tutor in those days at Oxford was J.R.R. (Lord of the Rings) Tolkien, who led him into the thickets of medieval English. “A great person, a desperately bad supervisor,” smiles Burchfield.
In 1957, at 34, he was offered the chance to edit the first updated supplement to the 13-volume OED. (The original was trickled out between 1884 and 1928.) Burchfield figured on one fat volume and seven years of work. So far, though, his labor has yielded only volumes I (A-G) and II (H-N); the third is in the works, and he hopes the fourth and final will be on sale by 1985—”21 years late.”
Divorced from his first wife in 1976, Burchfield is married to Elizabeth Knight, promotion manager for Oxford University Press. “She sorted me out,” he says, “making work not the only passion in my life.” The two of them reside in a converted barn 12 miles from Oxford. Burchfield’s three children—Jenny, 30, Jonathan, 26, and Elizabeth, 24—are all on their own. So he is already looking forward to completing his “bloody war with words” and retiring. What is his favorite of the 414,825 of them? “Finished,” he declares with a smile. “As in ‘I’ve finished the dictionary.’ ”
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