Dictionary Service Answers Questions About Words

Jeremy Marshall spends a lot of his time wondering how to answer strange questions about words. Questions like: ''I have come across the word 'tattarrattat.' What does it mean?'' Or, ''what's the female equivalent of the word 'brethren?' '' Or, ''how would you pronounce 'Don Quixote?' ''

If such questions give you a sleepless night, you can't phone Mr. Marshall direct, but you can contact OWLS. ''OWLS'' may suggest profound wisdom, but in fact it is an acronym for the ''Oxford Word and Language Service.''

Marshall is associate editor at the Oxford English Dictionary department at the Oxford University Press. He is chief among a group of word experts who run OWLS. He admits that there are some unanswerable questions, but he does not turn a hair if you refer to OWLS as ''the fount of all knowledge.''

This informational service was launched formally 12 years ago. But the answering of innumerable word questions had always been part of the life of the Oxford Dictionaries people. Even today, Marshall says, ''we tend to do it as a sort of 'out-of-work' activity. I should think there are about half a dozen lexicographers regularly contributing to it. It's fun.

''It is a sort of goodwill gesture on the part of the Press. Certainly it does have positive advantages from our point of view. With some of the more erudite and academic queries, we can actually learn more from our correspondents than they do from us.'' They may ''have found an antedating for a word in historical sources, for example.''

But questions to OWLS are not all erudite. They come from a worldwide community of people. And all inquirers are taken with equal seriousness, Marshall says. ''Relatively simple letters from schoolchildren can take quite a bit of sorting out.''

In a book published last fall called ''Questions of English'' (Oxford University Press), presenting some of the mixed bag of questions OWLS has answered over the years, Marshall and co-author Fred McDonald describe the OWLS questioners as word-game enthusiasts, translators, monks, and lawyers.

Marshall also cited ''authors having arguments with their editors ... students arguing in pubs ... my mother ... who asks about conjunctions and split infinitives.'' He recalls answering one letter from students in dispute over ''the difference between a 'flavored milk drink' and a 'milk shake.' ''

Questions about litigation, however, can be tricky. ''We have to say quite firmly that we do not offer legal advice,'' he says.

As the book introduction says, ''not all our correspondents seem to have appreciated the limits of our expertise,'' though OWLS has been able to offer ''some help to the enquirers who wanted to know ... how to play [the children's game] 'hunt the slipper' ... ''

OWLS answers queries about pronunciation. But, Marshall points out, this is ''terribly subtle and constantly changing.'' The yardstick used is a ''received pronunciation'' based on ''the speech used by BBC news readers rather than elderly marchionesses.''

The service only very rarely invents words. But once, says Marshall, ''the temptation was too great.'' The question was: ''Please can you tell me the word for a person who drinks their own bath water, as opposed to one who drinks another's bath water?''

Part of the OWLS reply read: ''As the concept is not central to European civilization, I am not surprised that it has failed to find a place in dictionaries. If words for this are needed in the future, then autoloutrophilist and alloloutrophilist are waiting in the wings for their brief flash of celebrity.''

* For further information, write to: OWLS at Oxford University Press, Walton Street, Oxford, OX2 6DP, UK.

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