An Exit Interview With the Man Who Transformed the Oxford English Dictionary

After almost 40 years with the OED, Chief Editor John Simpson is preparing to retire

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Courtesy of Oxford University Press

John Simpson, the seventh chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, is retiring after 20 years at the helm.

In 1857, the Oxford English Dictionary was just a sparkle in the eyes of some English gents who thought the current dictionaries weren’t up to snuff. Today, the OED is a vast, searchable database that tells the story of human history through a constantly expanding survey of the words we use. And the man who has led this remarkable print-to-digital transformation is retiring.

John Simpson began working at OED in 1976. The young index-card-shuffling assistant demonstrated a real way with words: in 1993, he was named Chief Editor—only the seventh in the dictionary’s long and storied history. On Wednesday, the 59-year-old announced that he would, in six months time, close the book on his career. TIME talked to the England-based lexicographer about how technology changed the dictionary business, how his profession is misunderstood, and what the word magazine has to do with the Spanish Armada.

So how are you feeling about retiring?

It’s going to be an enormous change. The exciting thing with vocabulary is that you’re dealing with something completely different with every word you do. There’s always some historical or social aspect that you need to come to grips with, making the entry whole together. I’ve been able to maintain a childish fascination with it for almost 40 years.

Do you find that people have common misconceptions about your work?

Oh, yes. When they come to the department, people are expecting our beards to be scratching the ground and that we’ll be talking about very early Scandinavian sound changes. It’s hardly the case. To be a historical lexicographer, you’ve got to be interested a little bit in everything.

How has the job changed during your time there?

When you approach a word, you have a feeling for what the end product ought to look like. Each word is a different sort of poem. The smaller entries are like Shakespearean sonnets — the larger ones, more like Joyce’s Ulysses. What we’re going to realize more and more, as we work with the dictionary on the computer, is that we’re not really looking at individual words. Individual words are just part of the mosaic of language. With the networks we’re able to build up, you’re able to see the connection much more clearly than you could in the old days.

How was your job different from your predecessors’?

What’s changed is the accessibility of information about language. Nowadays, when we’re working on a word like American or European, you’re going to have far too much material. You’ll be able to instantly find twenty-thousand 17th-century examples. And you just can’t read them all. So you have to select and sort and be practical in a different way.

What have been some of the major technological milestones you’ve overseen?

We had a prototype of the OED online in the 1990s. It was one of the first few hundred websites of its kind. And from that, we managed to argue with the Oxford University Press that we should go public online [in 2000]. At the time, it was pretty innovative.

You’ve been working on the third revision. What’s the philosophy behind it?

When we set the project up in the 1990s, we had to settle what the editorial policy was. We wanted to make things much more approachable than they were in the Victorian period, when they were at the mercy of the print culture, making everything as cryptic and abbreviated as possible so they could get more information on the page … We wanted to cite from sources that weren’t just the canonical texts [such as Dickens and Shakespeare], but much more social documents, diaries and journals. We were trying to open up the dictionary. We also wanted to continue the tradition of asking people in the real world to contribute.

How many people are working on the project at the OED?

We’ve got about 70 editors, about 10 of them work on the word origins—the old Germanic and French origins of words, and so on. And about 10 of them work on new words. Another large set work on revising the 20 volumes of the text of the existing dictionary. We’re revising that into, if it were printed, close to 40 volumes. Those staff are divided into generalists and scientists.

Are there particular words that stick in your mind that have been interesting to revamp?

One of the earliest ones we worked on was the entry for magazine. It was originally an Arabic word meaning storehouse. The earliest usage in English, around the time of the Spanish Armada, referred to military storehouses. Gradually people started to think of what else you keep—like a storehouse of information. And it transferred into books and the magazines we know now. You can still see the original meaning somewhere in the background.

When you did the revision, what letter did you start with?

We didn’t start at A because nobody in their right minds starts at A. You should steer clear of vowels until you know what you’re doing—a’s and o’s are interchangeable in some contexts. It causes all sorts of problems. You’re much better off starting with a consonant. We thought M was a reasonable short letter. So we went from M to R. Now we have a system of looking at important clusters of words, because we think those are the ones that people are most likely to look up. We worked on blue, for example. We’d already worked on black and red. These are big entries because people are very familiar with color, so they use them in lots of expressions.

What does it take for a new word to be included?

We’re really looking for nothing other than widespread currency, either in a general use, or in a particular specialist area or geographical area. … The people who were brought up on the old linear tradition find it really quite disturbing that the dictionary can actually change from three months to the next. But from our point of view, it’s important to have the dictionary as up-to-date as you can. I’m quite proud of the amount of change from quarter to quarter.

So how much are you done with now?

We’ve done about a third of it. In some ways, I’m sorry to leave at this stage. But on the other hand, I’ll be leaving 70 very competent people to carry it on.

Are there any favorite citations or definitions?

I am quite well known for taking a very neutral view. People often ask me what my favorite word is, and I tend to say I regard them all as objects of analysis rather than lovely little things, pets and favorites. But I remember very well my first entry, when I walked into the office, was queen.

How is the OED different from other dictionaries and why is it important?

It’s the only comprehensive historical register and record of the English language that there is, which means it deals with language from the earliest period up to the present day. And within each entry, the senses are organized in a sort of family tree, so you can often tie in changes in language to historical events or the life in the past. We see ourselves as historians of the society and culture of people who speak English … If someone says to you, “How old is to face the music?”, you need somewhere you can go where that information is found.

Has the decision been made about whether there will there be a print version when you’re done with the revision—or will you go the way of Encyclopedia Britannica and be all online?

We don’t need to at the moment because it’s going to take another 10 or 15 years to complete the edition … On the one hand, I think everything’s gone digital these days, there’s no room for anything in print. On the other hand, I think, I read books and if libraries want them, I’m sure they will be printed.

Are there things you’ll miss?

The day to day working in office, on particular words at that depth, I’ll miss that … One other thing is I hope I’ve given the impression to the editors working here that it’s fun to be doing this. It’s not a task, not a labor. Because language is constantly doing things you don’t expect, and if you’re prepared to follow those trails, you feel you’re contributing to other people’s knowledge of the language and enjoyment of the language.