Thursday, March 24, 2005

Ten questions with Steve Kleinedler

Earlier this week I reported on an article in the New York Times, highlighting a whole new crop of American lexicographers who happen to be my age (mid-thirties), former punk-rockers, and sexy as hell. Well, guess who I heard back from not even a day later - none other than Steve Kleinedler, one of the people mentioned in both the article and my entry (he of the shaved head and phoentic-chart tattoo - see the NYT article for a photo of him). Damn you, Technorati watch lists! DAMN YOU TO HELL! His email humbly pointed out that, while he does actually come from the '80s punk-rock community, mostly he shaves his head because he's going bald. Since I had his attention, I asked if he would mind doing a sorta mini-interview for [metafeed] - basically, ten random questions lobbed his way, that he was free to answer or ignore as he wanted. Mr. Kleinedler graciously answered all ten of my questions; his unedited responses run below.

1. In that NYT article I originally referenced, you are mentioned only as "the second in charge" at American Heritage Dictionary. Could you mention your actual job title, and briefly describe your main daily duties?

My job title is actually "Supervising Editor," which is one notch above "Senior Editor". I'm responsible for writing, revising, and editing material for not just the American Heritage Dictionary, but also for the numerous other reference titles made by Houghton Mifflin, and I also have some management responsibilities (thus the "supervising" bit). I spend a lot of time researching, drafting, editing, and marking up copy.

2. That article also mentions that there are currently around 400 full-time lexicographers working in the US. Do you all know each other, much like science-fiction fans and poetry slammers? Is there an annual lexicography convention where you all get drunk in hotel rooms together?

Every two years, the Dictionary Society of North America has a meeting. The next one is in early June, and this time it happens to be in Boston. I'd say about 100 or so people attend. Additionally, many lexicographers attend the American Dialect Society annual meeting in January, which is held in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America. I know most of the people who go to the meetings, although there's not really that much drinking!

3. In a world where most industries are led by people in their sixties and older, I find it interesting that so many leaders in your industry are the same age as me (mid-thirties). Being part of that industry yourself, do you feel there's a reason for this, or has it just accidentally worked out that way at this particular moment in history?

Well, the article focused on the 30-somethings, but there are plenty of august personages involved in lexicography. My boss (the executive editor) is in his 50s. I know plenty of lexicographers in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. Like most people, many of them retire at normal retirement age.

4. What made you decide to become a lexicographer, and what age were you when you made the decision? How old were you before you found out that there even was such a thing as lexicographers?

I started out as a theatre major, dropped out of college, moved to Chicago, hung out for a year, got bored, applied to Northwestern as a transfer student, got in, and literally had one day to choose a major, as I was going in as a junior. I weighed Linguistics versus Geography -- I'm really into words and maps. One of my professors was a lexicographer, I took one of the few lexicography courses available in the states, and after I graduated, he started farming me out free-lance work.

5. You're obviously a fairly savvy online person yourself, given that you found my entry about you a day after it was posted, without me actually writing and giving you a heads-up. Could you briefly describe your current online life, and how you feel it relates to your profession? Or does it? Do you just go online for fun instead?

It was Grant [Barrett, another person mentioned in the article] who sought out all the blogs. I actually don't read many blogs -- I just don't have time during the day. However, in my 20s I was very net-oriented. I was using BBSs in 1990, and I was really into USENET in 1993-1995 when I was in grad school. Many of my closest friends as well as my spouse are people that I met off alt.society.generation-x in that time period! Nowadays, I just use it for research or to check news.

6. What is the one common grammar mistake that drives you crazier than anything else, when you see it being done? (For example, mine is when people confuse "its" and "it's.")

Hypercorrections like "between you and I" jump out at me and make me want to shout "me me me," but usually I keep quiet. I don't like correcting people unless they ask me to correct them.

7. Is it liberating or frustrating to do your job in a language that has no "official" lexicon? For example, it's my understanding that in a number of European countries, there is actually a board of language experts appointed by the government, who literally decide each year what are going to be "official" new words of that language. Does the lack of such a board in the US make your job more exciting, or more stressful/tedious?

I like the fact that there's no American version of the Academy Francaise. Although it would be nice to be able to do some things by fiat ("OK, let's just make it 'thru' officially, not 'through' -- I mean Webster dropped the 'u' from words like 'labour' pretty much by fiat), the current set-up in the States works quite nicely, I think. For some reason, a government run board of language evokes images of the movie Brazil in my head.

8. Who are some of your favorite contemporary writers? How much is this list influenced by the type of language these writers use? Is it possible for someone in your position to turn your "lexicography radar" off while reading a book for pleasure, or do the intricacies of language pervade your reading experience at all times?

Contemporarily, I really like William Gibson, Neil Stephenson, Donna Tartt, Mark Z. Danielewski, Cory Doctorow. [Ed: Hey, me too!] I really like the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction. Tartt crafts language like no other modern writer I know. Reading The Little Friend was like eating very rich chocolate. I will be the first to admit I don't read nearly as much as I should. I wish I had more time to read. I love reading. When I read for pleasure, I of course take note of the language that they're using, but it doesn't get in the way of my reading experience.

9. In a related question, do you/would you refuse to answer a personal ad only on language issues alone? If you were otherwise attracted to someone who wrote badly, would you turn down a chance to go out with them for that reason?

You'll be interested to know that my spouse and I got to know each other over 11 years ago in a written medium - USENET and emails - it was 7 months after we started writing that we even met each other in person. So I'm very into how people express themselves in words. it doesn't bother me if people type in lowercase, in fact, i do it a lot myself to save time. Simple typos don't bother me either, if I know someone's in a hurry and is just dashing off a memo. I'm more interested in how people express themselves, so, yeah, if you can't express what you're trying to say, then it would be a problem for me to get to know you in a written medium.

10. Finally, what advice could you give people like me and my readers (mostly college-educated, intelligent fans of the arts) about improving our language skills? For instance, I've often thought of sitting down and reading one of those thick "style manuals," just to learn more about proper grammar and sentence structure; every time I try it, though, I get so bored and frustrated that I drop the project a mere five or ten pages into it. Are there better resources out there, for those of us who would like to be better writers but don't want to delve into it in a full-time, academic way? (Oh, and feel free to plug American Heritage, by the way, if your company actually produces a reference publication along these lines.)

Why, we have a whole line of inexpensive products ($4.95) that fit the bill: our 100 words series -- 100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know, 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses, to name two. But, basically, the best way to improve your skills is when you're reading and you come across a word you don't know: LOOK IT UP. Keep a journal if you need to in order to retain this information. And you know, as wired as I am, I personally love my physical dictionary. I love opening it up looking for something, and browsing around -- I always find something new or interesting. Dictionaries are very, very interesting. Of course, I'm partial to the American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition, but it really and truly is an amazing work.

Thanks again, Steve, for taking the time to write. And I don't care if you are balding - that shaved-head look works on you, man.