Katherine Barber, RIP.

Ian Austen’s NY Times obit starts off in lively fashion:

In Canada, it’s possible to find a man lounging on a chesterfield in his rented bachelor wearing only his gotchies while fortifying his Molson muscle with a jambuster washed down with slugs from a stubby.

But until Oxford University Press hired Katherine Barber as the founding editor of its Canadian dictionary in 1991, there was no authoritative reference work to decode contemporary Canadian words and meanings. (That sentence describes a man on a sofa in a studio apartment wearing only underwear while expanding his beer belly with a jelly doughnut and a squat brown beer bottle.)

Austen goes on to describe Barber’s work on the dictionary:

Before Ms. Barber was hired to assemble a team to create the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, there had been no research-based attempt at codifying the country’s form of the English language to create a general-use dictionary. At that time, Canadian dictionaries were minimally adapted versions of American or British texts.

The group consulted dictionaries of regional Canadian dialects as well as specialized dictionaries like “A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles,” a scholarly collection published in 1967 that traced Canadian English back to its origins but did not include Canadian pronunciations, Canadian spellings of words common to most varieties of English, or many words that were then contemporary.

To hunt for Canadian entries and the distinct Canadian meanings of words, Ms. Barber partly relied on a technique long used by Oxford. She assembled a small army of freelance “readers,” who pored over catalogs, newspapers, magazines and almost anything else they could find for distinctive Canadian words. Ms. Barber always traveled with a notebook to record words on posters and signs that struck her as possibly Canadian. […]

Ms. Barber also adopted another technique that proved useful. She effectively started the dictionary’s book tour years before it was published by getting herself interviewed, often on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio programs, to discuss Canadian English. She used that airtime to ask listeners to send in words. She discovered “jambusters,” which is mostly used in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, by asking radio listeners what they called jelly doughnuts.

Her witty conversations became so popular that she eventually gained a regular time slot on the CBC as the “Word Lady.” […]

Several entries that made the final cut involved words used in most of Canada — like “eavestrough,” for rain gutter, and “keener,” “a person, esp. a student, who is extremely eager, zealous or enthusiastic.” But others were regional, like “parkade,” a Western Canadian term for parking garage, and “steamie,” a steamed hot dog in Quebec. […]

When the Oxford Canadian Dictionary appeared in 1998 — it was based on a revised version of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary — it was an immediate best seller, and Ms. Barber expanded her long-running book tour.

Because she did not drive, she called on friends and family members to take her to public speaking events laden with boxes of dictionaries to sell. The dictionary, and a 2004 edition that added about 200 more Canadianisms, became the standard word authority for Canadian news organizations and schools. Several spinoff versions were produced, including one for students.

“When the dictionary came out,” Mr. Sinkins said, “for some people it established for the first time that there was such a thing as a unique variety of English we can call Canadian.” […]

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary was a great success and remains in print. But the digital technologies that helped create it ultimately undermined its business model, as sales of print editions declined. The Canadian dictionary office was closed, and its staff members, including Ms. Barber, were laid off in 2008.

She continued to lecture and give interviews about words, and she maintained a blog about language until weeks before her death.

I’m sorry I didn’t know about the blog, which I would have been happy to promote (check it out, it’s good reading). I’ll end with a quote from a comment Q. Pheevr made here in 2007:

I’ve heard Barber on the radio a few times, and in person once. From what I know of her sense of humour, I can easily imagine her saying something like “We lexicographers just feel there are too damn many words in the language” in jest (the more words there are, the more work she has to do), and relying on her audience to be, unlike Brown, clever enough to realize she wasn’t serious.

(Thanks, Eric!)


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    In the photo we observe two hosers wearing toques and brandishing stubbies.

  2. Like many Yanks, I got my first impression of Canadians from “Great White North.”

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