“Language is a proxy for our thoughts. And if you’re upset by something, it’s usually not the words but the underlying concept. We’re squeamish about sex, about excrement. We don’t like for our gods to be insulted. These are perfectly normal things to care about.”
Lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower joins us to talk about his work at the Oxford English Dictionary, the process of pitching The F-Word, how what we find offensive has changed over time, the ways words get into the language, the OED’s transition to digital, the roots of “dropping an F-bomb”, the value of kids’ texting habits, and the importance of hosting dinner parties and wearing fine suits. Plus, you get to listen to me obsess over word choices and still embarrass myself!
“Many things that people bring up as signaling the end of language as we know it tend to mean the exact opposite.”
Note: if you’re uptight or sensitive about F-words, N-words, or other “strong” language, don’t listen to this episode.
About our Guest
Jesse Sheidlower is currently the President of the American Dialect Society and Editor at Large (North America) of the Oxford English Dictionary, where he has been since 1999. His current responsibilities focus chiefly on the revision of American and Canadian entries for the OED. He is also the author of The F-Word, a detailed historical study of the word fuck. He has been profiled on the front page of The New York Times and on 60 Minutes, and New York Magazine has named him one of the 100 smartest people in New York. Before he joined the OED, he was an editor in the Random House Reference Department, specializing in slang and new words. While there he was also project editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. For more information, visit jessesword.com.
Credits: This episode’s music is Word Up by Cameo. The conversation was recorded at Jesse’s home in NYC on a pair of AT2020 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB mic into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo by Miss Scorpio.