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Meet the editor of Verbatim, a surprisingly feisty magazine for language geeks

Wednesday, Jan 2 2002
As Mark Twain (see Thursday) once wrote, "The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter -- it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." We've all been struck by that lightning at one time or another, using the wrong word when it really mattered (a book I once edited unintentionally included the phrase "pubic library," much to my dismay). Only certain folks, however, have been bitten by that lightning bug, the one that makes seemingly normal people intensely interested in language, searching for a spark of light in the darkness of English.

Verbatim: The Language Quarterly is a magazine for such word geeks, but it's not dry and boring, as one might expect. Instead it's a feisty read, whether making fun of published bloopers (in a column called "SIC! SIC! SIC!"), discussing the slang used on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or analyzing the terminology of S/M practitioners. Based in Chicago, the publication was founded in 1974 by noted lexicographer Laurence Urdang, who edited it for 23 years before turning it over to its current editor, Erin McKean, in 1997. McKean recently pulled together an anthology of 58 of the magazine's best essays, some with titles like "Sexual Intercourse in American College Dictionaries" and "Never Ask a Uruguayan Waitress for a Little Box: She Might Apply Her Foot to Your Eyelet," for which she's now touring.

In addition to her Verbatim work, McKean is a senior editor for the U.S. dictionaries published by Oxford University Press. In her publicity photo she looks like a gal with a sense of humor, with funky granny glasses and a half smirk. The magazine is similarly sassy, with trivia and anecdotes interspersed with real (but jargon-free) linguistic study. It's written for laypeople rather than for scholars, so anyone who loves words can pick it up and dive in.

Some articles proceed with a wink. In "Assing Around," for instance, Jessy Randall and Wendy Woloson write, "Of course, ass is often used to refer to the ass: that is, the buttocks, the gluteus maximus, the hindquarters, the butt, the bottom, the tushy, the rear-end. (We could go on all day with other terms for this part of the body -- but such a digression would last for paragraphs.)" Others launch right into guffaws: Gary Wiener, in "I May Already Be a Wiener," discusses the "metamorphosis from hot dog to phallic symbol" of his name, lamenting, "I was born a Wiener; I will die a Wiener. My children, even my wife, are all, inherently, undeniably Wieners." Regardless of the approach, Verbatim's subject is always the eccentricity of language, one that anyone who abhors typos on menus can appreciate.

About The Author

Karen Silver


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