This post comes to you slightly delayed, since I’ve spent the past week being distracted by the vitally important tasks of eating Christmas cake and going to the British Library for a second go at their Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. However, I am now back behind the keyboard and ready to give an account of my recent activities.
A while ago, I was sent an email by the University of Glasgow’s “Internship Hub”. As the name probably suggests, the Internship Hub is an arm of the university’s careers service that focuses on finding internship placements for students. They email out information about a lot of opportunities in all kinds of different fields, but I was still rather surprised to see an advert for an editorial internship in the dictionaries department of HarperCollins.
HarperCollins is a slightly mind-bogglingly huge publishing company that, among other things, is very well-known for its dictionaries. (Indeed, a Collins dictionary was one of the “family” dictionaries when I was growing up. Whenever I wanted to look up a word, I used to enjoy pitting it against the slightly antiquated Concise Oxford Dictionary that was our other go-to, to see which had the better definition. In retrospect, this was probably a sign of things to come.) It has offices all over the place, but – by a happy coincidence – its dictionary publishing activities operate out of Bishopbriggs, less than an hour’s bike ride from my flat in the West End of Glasgow. They happened to be looking for an intern to help revise their thesaurus content. Predictably, I leapt at the opportunity, and, after completing an aptitude test and attending an interview, was slightly startled and tremendously excited to find that I’d got the job.
In some ways, HarperCollins was a rather familiar environment for me; I do, after all, spend a lot of my time thinking about dictionaries. Still, when I have my PhD hat on, the dictionaries that I’m thinking about are mostly old (sometimes several hundred years old) and are designed to be read almost exclusively by mediaevalists. So it was an interesting change of scene, not only to be allowed to do lexicography rather than just talking about it, but also to work on something that’s closer to the average person’s experience of dictionaries (or, in this case, thesauruses).
The main task I was given to work on during my internship certainly wasn’t something I usually have to think about; I was asked to revise a batch of thesaurus entries for their presentation of gender, doing things like making sure spokeswomen and businesspeople were recorded as well as their male equivalents. To some of my readers this may sound like nitpicking, but users are conscious of these kinds of issue and want their reference works to address them appropriately. Furthermore, while some of the changes are simply mechanical (for instance, changing ‘give someone his marching orders’ to ‘give someone their marching orders’), others required a good deal of thought and research and (I hope) make the thesaurus more informative. For example, I can think that being a henchman should be an equal-opportunities job, but can I find evidence that people actually write about ‘henchwomen’ and ‘henchpersons’? In this case, yes, so it’s useful for thesaurus users to know this.
These kinds of issues in language use are very much in the public consciousness these days, so it was fascinating to be able to get involved myself (and to make my own small contribution in favour of singular ‘they’). And, of course, it was amazing to know that all the small improvements I made, even if it was just fixing a typo in an entry, would go into a real, published product, making it just that little bit clearer and more accurate.
I learned a lot of things as an intern. Some of them were practical: how to handle the Dictionary Production System software package, for example. (Yes, that’s really what it’s called. Yes, it is a very prosaic name for a tool used by a group of people who make their living dealing with words.) Some of them were more about improving my research skills: I spent many hours sifting through corpus data trying to work out what was relevant. Some had very little to do with the tasks I’d been given, but were a brilliant insight into the work of the office more generally: I got to hear about the difficulties involved in designing the layout of a visual dictionary, and got taken down to a trip to the company archives to see a lot of old books, a letter from Agatha Christie and (my personal favourite) some original Paddington Bear illustrations. (Sorry, no photographs allowed, or I would have shared them with you!) All of it was great fun and I’m very grateful to everyone in the office who was so welcoming to me, as well as to the Internship Hub at Glasgow for making it possible. I was sad to leave at the end of my placement, but – as will become clear in my next post – 2019 is bringing a whole host of other things to fill up my diary. Stay tuned!
Even more so than usual, this feels like the kind of post in which I should remind people that this is a personal blog, and that my ramblings are my own and don’t represent the official opinion of HarperCollins or anyone else. However, some of my edits will, I hope, soon be making their way to a thesaurus near you, either online (www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english-thesaurus) or, at some point, in paperback. I wouldn’t especially recommend reading the whole thing in search of my changes, but if you do please don’t send me angry letters about how much you hated them!