Thursday, 20 March 2014

Episode 24: IT'S A GIRL!

In July, 2013 summer finally arrived in a sustained period of unbroken sunshine. As words basked in the balmy conditions, rumours swept around Wordsdrow that Meaning was on the brink of retirement and about to appoint a successor. Universally acknowledged as the ├╝ber word of the OED, he – historically, Meaning had always been male – was both well-liked and deferred to by other words although there were occasional grumbles over his “pseudo-shaman” status. In reality, Meaning’s powers were limited and he was scrupulously impartial in using them.


Meaning was the one word in the OED to which another word could be officially appointed and the succession always generated widespread interest. The current holder of the title had been in situ for just over eight years having been promoted from his previous role as Definition and it was assumed that an appointment along similar lines would ensue when he stepped down. The committee which made such decisions consisted of a small select group – Neutral, Democracy, Illumination, Alphabet and Knowledge – and they took guidance from Meaning in naming his own successor.

‘I think it’ll be somebody who commands respect, somebody like Control,’ said Correspondent.

‘Too authoritarian,’ said Code. ‘This might be the time when the committee and Meaning decide to go for some new or new-ish word. If they offered it to someone like Computer, that would send out a strong message.’

‘And a wrong one,’ replied Clever. ‘Nothing against technology but the OED stands for more than just 60 or so years of history. My guess is somebody like Lexicon.’

‘Wow, that would be pretty left-field; we’ve never had a woman in the role before,’ Code said. Noticing the look of reproach from Candle, he quickly added, ‘Although it’s probably about time that we did.’

Candle smiled and mockingly fluttered her eyelashes at Code.

‘The way things are going around here, it’s more likely to be Cutback,’ Cynic said with a sigh. ‘Anyway, I don’t see Meaning handing over the reins for a while yet.’

But Cynic was wrong. Two days later, Correspondent was woken early in the morning by a call from Editor. Meaning had indeed retired and the announcement of his successor was imminent. Correspondent jumped out of bed, dressed, picked up his mobile phone, pen and notepad and left his room.

Tradition dictated that the identity of the new holder of the title Meaning was posted on an ornate gilt-framed easel positioned outside Murray House, the most prestigious of the M-blocks. Although the dissemination of the news through this means was recognised as archaic, it was a piece of pomp and theatre which the word community held dear. During the walk to Murray House, Correspondent fell in with Blog, Download, Podcast, Globalisation and Geek, all of them chatting excitedly.

‘I suppose this is the first time there’s been a new Meaning since you guys arrived in the OED?’ Correspondent said to them.

‘Yeah. Do they really use, like, an easel?’ asked Blog. ‘How cool is that? Totally old-school.’

‘Who do you think it’ll be?’ asked Download. Correspondent said that he had no idea but hoped it would be someone who recognised the honour bestowed on them and the significance of the role.

‘Oh, don’t give us all that tradition and honour malarkey,’ scoffed Podcast. ‘It’s time the OED moved with the times. Why should one word receive all this deference? It’s not as if whoever gets the role has been democratically elected. I know it’s not quite an accident of birth but not too far off it.’

‘How can you…’ spluttered Correspondent before deciding not to dignify Podcast with a response. ‘So, who would you like to see appointed then?’

‘Moderator or Broadband or Smartphone,’ answered Geek. ‘At least, let it be someone relevant.’

Correspondent summoned up his most disdainful expression: ‘Why should it have to be someone with a technology-related name? The OED has a proud history, I’m sure the new appointment will reflect that.’

‘Whatever,' drawled Geek. 'I think there’s only one real candidate: Wikipedia…it has to be. These days, I’m sure that as many people use Wikipedia as the OED when they’re looking up a word or a name. Appointing Wikipedia would be a rare incidence of humility on the part of the OED and would send out the right message.’

Correspondent continued the walk to Murray House in silence. He was horrified by the possibility that Globalisation would be proved correct: Correspondent thought of Wikipedia as just a collective pool of opinions rather than knowledge. It could be updated at will – not always correctly – and often by people with a vested interest. It didn’t possess the authority or impartiality of the OED and to appoint Wikipedia would send out a garbled message, an unsure message, akin to acceptance that this upstart encyclopaedia was now recognised by the OED as its equal. He could almost feel James Murray and the other eminent Victorian lexicographers turning in their grave at the prospect of this.

As Murray House came into view, he saw that a sizable group of people had already gathered and it was clear that most had been roused from their beds just like he had. He spotted Announcer - normally a vision in co-ordinated designer clothes – dressed in a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and flip-flops, her hair tousled and her finger-nails unvarnished. More interestingly, he saw her punch the air as she read the announcement on the easel. What could that mean?

‘It’s Lexicon!’ she exclaimed. ‘We’ve done it. That glass ceiling has finally been broken.’

Correspondent drew level with the easel and read the notice:

The OED is pleased to announce that the role of Meaning has been offered to Lexicon and accepted by her on this day, July 22nd, 2013. Lexicon’s duties will be re-assigned immediately allowing her to assume this prestigious position. Please join us in extending our heartfelt congratulations to Lexicon and our gratitude for Meaning’s unstinting work during his eight year tenure.

The news spread quickly and the digital news ticker housed on the front of N-block already had IT’S A GIRL! as a headline with Lexicon’s name in a sub-heading. Correspondent walked around the crowd of people, recorded a few vox pops on his mobile phone and retreated to an office to write up his story for the Daily Word. The selection of Lexicon for the role, he thought, was a good one…an apposite combination of tradition and modernity. Infused by this, he wrote a gushing editorial for the newspaper...........

Every so often, a decision is taken which is so incontestable that one wonders why there was ever any doubt on the matter. The announcement today that Lexicon has been appointed to the role of Meaning is one such decision and immediately dispels any apprehension that the future of the OED might be swayed by temporary whims or be dictated by zeitgeist fads. It had been rumoured that the new incumbent would come from within the glut of new words added to the OED which are reflective of the march of technology and the power of social media.

Such words are commendable and appear in the OED for reasons of necessity but they should not be allowed to ride roughshod over the trust and respect invested in our venerable dictionary. By the same token, there has been a concession to the times we live in through the appointment of a female to this prestigious post. This is also the correct path to take and will fire the imaginations of old and young, male and female alike. We are fortunate to live in such exciting times.

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