Interview with Kerry Maxwell

Kerry Maxwell Kerry Maxwell has a first degree in computational linguistics and an MA in theoretical linguistics from the University of Manchester, specialising in syntactic theory. She now works as a freelance editor/lexicographer for various publishers such as Macmillan, Cambridge University Press and Harper Collins. She also participated in the “A Term is Born” seminar organised by the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Union in November 2012.

Her main areas of activity include dictionary compilation, corpus research, glossary compilation and presentations. She is the regular author of the Macmillan Dictionary website’s popular BuzzWord column, and MED Magazine’s New Word of the Month series, as well as the author of a book on new words in English, Brave New Words, published by Pan Macmillan.

1)     Paul Clewett: Could you explain in simple terms what it is that a lexicographer does? What are the main challenges in your day to day work and what in particular do you really enjoy?

Kerry Maxwell: A lexicographer is a language professional who records information about words for later publication in a printed, electronic or online dictionary. Lexicographers write mini ‘word biographies’, which can include information about a word’s birth, its history of use, the company it keeps and its role in life today.

 These days I work mainly with neologisms (new words). One of the main challenges of my day to day writing is to keep it fresh and interesting, trying to accurately describe a new word’s meaning and work out what facts about it are really worth recording and communicating to others.  It’s also tricky sometimes to second-guess which new expressions aren’t just a flash in the pan but look likely to stick around.  By far the most satisfying thing is when I manage to get that right, and my work stimulates interest or, longer term, has correctly pinpointed something which continues to be significant.

2)    Paul Clewett: What does it take for a new word, or neologism, to appear in the dictionary? How tempted have you been to be ‘creative’ with your entries?

 Kerry Maxwell: There’s one simple hoop that a word has to jump through to be included in a dictionary – it has to be used – and widely, in a range of sources and over a number of years. However these days, with the advent of online dictionaries, this criterion can be relaxed a little. Because electronic dictionaries can be so easily updated, lexicographers now have the luxury of being less picky. They can present an ongoing snapshot of language in use, weeding out any words which turn out to be ephemeral or obsolete, and regularly admitting any new kids on the block.

No, I’ve never been tempted to be ‘creative’ in my entry writing – it goes against every grain of being a good lexicographer – the point is we write about things that we know exist, because we’ve identified the evidence. There are plenty of words out there to write about so I don’t need to make any more up!

3)    Paul Clewett: The 21st Century has seen the end of the cassette tape, the VHS, and perhaps now, the printed book. Will this spell the end of the dictionary as we know it and is this something to be lamented?

 Kerry Maxwell: My prediction is that it will, and indeed Macmillan, a publisher I regularly work for, has already bitten the bullet, announcing in late 2012 that it was concentrating on its online and electronic resources and would no longer be producing printed dictionaries.

 I do not, however, believe that this is something to be lamented, but quite the reverse, because dictionaries have found their ideal medium in electronic form. There are so many advantages – we can incorporate multimedia angles, from British and US audio pronunciations through to sound effects to convey the meaning of words like ‘smash’ or ‘whisper’. Hyperlinking means that we can provide much more information than we’ve ever previously been able to, but still preserve a clear entry format, giving users the option to click on links to information they are particularly interested in.  We can also, as I indicated above, keep dictionaries much more up-to-date and even be guided by language users, incorporating crowd-sourced suggestions about the developing lexicon.

4)    Paul Clewett: I recently enjoyed your BuzzWord Column on the term ‘Brexit’, a variant on the widely used ‘Grexit’, relating to the potential exit of Greece from the European Union. To what extent, however, are neologisms simply becoming fashionable in media circles, rather than filling genuine lexical gaps?

 Kerry Maxwell: Annually there are of course, a whole raft of neologisms which are just media concoctions, an example from 2012 would be something like Titanorak, (a reference to people with a keen interest in the Titanic which was all over the headlines around the time of the tragedy’s hundredth anniversary in April). Such creations tend to burst on the scene and then quickly disappear when interest wanes, but not all neologisms can be tarred with the same brush. There are plenty of others which do fill a genuine lexical gap and turn out to be more enduring – think podcast, wifi, google, tsunami, carbon-neutral. If society needs them, and their use doesn’t hinge solely on transient events, then they will stick around, regardless of whether they are headlining in the media.

5)    Paul Clewett: You recently travelled to Luxembourg to participate in the seminar ‘A Term is Born: Neologisms in the Digital Age’, where you gave a presentation entitled ‘Neologisms in the 21st Century.’ Firstly, what were your impressions of the Terminology Coordination Unit?

 Kerry Maxwell: My impressions were of a hard-working team of genuinely lovely people, it was a great pleasure and privilege to meet them, and I enjoyed the demonstration of IATE.

6)    Paul Clewett: Secondly, in your presentation you highlighted technology as the main driving force changing language and creating neologisms. Given your advanced knowledge of terminology and specialism in neologisms, does it fascinate or frustrate you (or both) to see the creative destruction and reconstruction of the English language on internet message boards and smartphone applications?

 Kerry Maxwell: As a descriptivist rather than a language pedant, I’d have to say it fascinates me. I’m a strong believer that language is primarily a tool for communication, not something to be analysed from an ivory tower, so that if a particular form is fulfilling a communicative function, then it’s a bona fide element of the language. And after all, if people weren’t manipulating language and being creative in this way, I wouldn’t have anything to write about!

7)    Paul Clewett: The position of English as the working language in a majority of European organisations, and as the professional world’s lingua franca does not seem to be under any real threat at the given time, and if anything is becoming more central to European life.What do you think the future holds for English as a lingua franca, and what are the consequences for terminology?

 Kerry Maxwell: I can’t really speak with any authority about ELF but I’d guess that, as increasingly it becomes clear that there needs to be a distinction drawn between native speaker English (what I describe in my work) and English for international communication (a variety in its own right), then the role of a terminologist would become more, rather than less important, as there’d be an even greater need for experts who can pinpoint clear mappings between ELF expressions and their meaning.

On the flip side, one could alternatively argue that the Internet has made native speaker English more visible and accessible globally, which may ultimately lead to a narrowing of its distinction from ELF. It’s a difficult one to call…

8)   Paul Clewett: In linguistic terms, British students continue to lag behind their European counterparts. How do you see the state of language/linguistics study in the UK? What should we be doing about it as a nation?

 Kerry Maxwell: This is tricky. One thing I am encouraged to see, relative to my own generation (I did my A levels back in the early eighties), is how the English curriculum in UK secondary schools now has at least the option of practical language study (aka basic linguistics) – e.g. language change, phonetics, sociolinguistics – in other words, sixth formers are not limited to English Literature, and they’re coming into Higher Education with a much wider perspective and range of options for English study.  (Foreign) language study is a different kettle of fish, and still seems pretty lacklustre. I’m not optimistic that this will ever change, whatever new and exciting approaches are introduced, because the basic impetus isn’t there, and never will be. With English as the language of online communication this perspective looks likely to become yet further entrenched, if that’s possible. 

Interviewer: Paul Clewett

paulclewettpicPaul undertook a 3 month traineeship with the Terminology Coordination Unit in early 2012 as part of his undergraduate studies in International Relations & German and Spanish at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK. His passions lie with people; in addition to his studies, he works with migrants detained in the UK ( and extensively with young people in a local and European context as the founder of community enterprise ISCA and trustee of youth charity The Swift ( His work is motivated by a desire to bring the huge range of opportunities on offer within the EU to some of its most isolated and disaffected young citizens. As his studies draw to a close, he is currently weighing up different ways of returning to the ‘continent’ and once again working with some of the most open-minded and talented international teams in the world…