Do dictionary writers start with the letter M? [y][n]
March 27, 2010 10:10 PM   Subscribe

My friend alleges that dictionary writers start with the letter M, but when I asked, "Why?" he had no response. Apparently he just saw it on QI (with Stephen Fry). Extensive googling has produced no results, and I won't be able to sleep until we get to the bottom of this. HALP!

I'd be happy with an episode reference, Youtube link, or any authoritative cite confirming this is the case. I can't imagine why they would start with the letter M, so unfounded speculation would also be appreciated. Thanks!
posted by booknerd to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The episode is "Dictionaries" from series 4. Here's a YouTube link to the actual episode.
posted by inmediasres at 10:27 PM on March 27, 2010

Simon Winchesters 'The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary' is a more interesting than expected history of the OED and the task that literally took lifetimes to complete. I'm pretty certain that there is a reference to this, but as I only have the audiobook, it's hard to narrow down.

As an attempt to provide some part of an answer, the OED page in Wikipedia has the following reference:

"Since the first work by each editor tends to require more revision than his later, more polished work, (work on the first edition was begun at A) it was decided to balance out this effect, by performing the early, and perhaps itself less polished, work of the current revision at a letter other than A. Accordingly, the main work of the OED3 has been proceeding in sequence from the letter M"
posted by azlondon at 10:28 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're at all interested in the history of the OED, The Professor and the Madman is a fascinating and scintillating tale about the contributors to the dictionary, and includes a lot about the process and the undertaking as a whole. Every single usage of every single word with the earliest use thereof cited with a specific example is a considerable effort, and one that took over 70 years in the 19th and 20th centuries. Truly, the mind boggles to consider what it took back in a time without computers.

It should also be noted that the OED most certainly began at A, as azlondon mentions.
posted by disillusioned at 12:36 AM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also quite liked the book Reading the OED. (I just re-read the "M" chapter to see if Shea referenced the tidbit you're asking about, but he did not.)
posted by churl at 1:08 AM on March 28, 2010

'the task that literally took lifetimes to complete.'

Actually, the OED is not complete, nor will it ever be. It is continually being updated, and new entries are added all the time.

Another interesting tidbit of listening is PRI's The World In Words, episode 11, which includes an interview with an OED editor:
posted by tonyx3 at 1:58 AM on March 28, 2010

Lore around the office at Collins dictionaries had it that trainee lexicographers were started on the letter P. In most European languages, it's a huge and demoralizing task which a) proves you've got the tenacity required to be a dictionary type, but more likely b) no-one else wants to do it.
posted by scruss at 5:25 AM on March 28, 2010

M is apparently "halfway through the dictionary" (or n, or possibly j). In a four volume dictionary it may be the first letter of the third volume. Searching for exactly that phrase gives this snippet
halfway through the dictionary where the style was largely consistent, and to return to the ear- lier, less consistent areas later. ...
But of course I can't actually get to the article (argh).
posted by anaelith at 5:31 AM on March 28, 2010

In The Broken Teaglass, we are told that they start with "B," since reviewers begin with "A." Arsenault is a former lexicographer.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:32 AM on March 28, 2010

Your friend is wrong.

> Simon Winchesters 'The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary'

Man, I hated that book.
posted by languagehat at 10:41 AM on March 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Aren't dictionaries written by teams? And, if so, wouldn't it be logical to assume that the teams are all working on different sections at the same time and not really "beginning" with any particular letter?
posted by Thorzdad at 11:11 AM on March 28, 2010

The Dictionary of American Regional English is still being published, with the final (?) volume V due this year. It has come out in alphabetical order:
* Volume I (A-C) 1975
* Volume II (D-H) 1991
* Volume III (I-O) 1996
* Volume IV (P-Sk) 2002
posted by dhartung at 12:10 PM on March 28, 2010

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