An Exit Interview With the Man Who Transformed the Oxford English Dictionary

OED Chief Editor John Simpson is retiring. I know him as the cool guy who gave me an OED yo-yo last Christmas, which he thought I’d like because the word yo-yo probably comes from a Philippine language.

yo-yo, n.

Pronunciation:   /ˈjəʊjəʊ/
Etymology:  Origin uncertain, but probably from one of the Philippines languages.
1. a. Also Yo-Yo. A proprietary name for a toy in the form of two conjoined cones or discs with a deep groove between them in which a string is attached and wound, its free end being held so that the toy can be made to fall under its own weight and rise again by its momentum.
1915   Philippine Craftsman Dec. 363   Sumpit (blowgun), pana (arrow), and yo-yo, however, are names very generally used throughout the islands.

Unrevised OED entry, first published 1986.



In 1857, the Oxford English Dictionary was just a sparkle in the eyes of some English gents who thought the current dictionaries weren’t up to snuff. Today, the OED is a vast, searchable database that tells the story of human history through a constantly expanding survey of the words we use. And the man who has led this remarkable print-to-digital transformation is retiring.

John Simpson began working at OED in 1976. The young index-card-shuffling assistant demonstrated a real way with words: in 1993, he was named Chief Editor—only the seventh in the dictionary’s long and storied history. On Wednesday, the 59-year-old announced that he would, in six months time, close the book on his career. TIME talked to the England-based lexicographer about how technology changed the dictionary business, how his profession is misunderstood, and what the word magazine has to do with the Spanish Armada.

So how are you feeling…

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