If you are interested in words, good writing, and how it is still strangely acceptable to caricature intelligent women over 60 in the press as lonely obsessives, you hit the trifecta with this wonderful blog post by Professor Christian Kay, the editor of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. You might have heard Prof. Kay on the radio last month – after all, an expert on strange historical words who has been compiling a book on and off for 44 years is a gift to any news programme.
It’s a fascinating book, and an important historical document that shows how our language has evolved, but the coverage of it owes more to those shows in which people sit in a bath of baked beans for a week. We’re no longer comfortable talking about books and knowledge, but we know how to deal with harmless eccentrics.
In her blog she writes about the odd process of publicising an academic book to journalists (In the Thesaurus: tripe-hounds) who so desperately want her to be a caricature of herself: they want a bookish, Scottish, tweedy little old lady who is doing the literary equivalent of crocheting the world’s longest scarf. One even went as far as to ask the Honorary Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow if she actually had a big piece of knitting to get back to:
I’d like to put it on record that I do not have, and never have had, “a big piece of knitting”,
Prof. Kay tells us. Instead she brings lists of strange words to interviews because that’s what they’re going to ask (paddanieg: an island with frogs on it). And like most women over 40 in the media she finds herself defined over and over again by her age. Her colleagues offered to give her a badge with I am 69 written on it “to forestall such questions”.
Prof. Kay seems to have handled the tedious sub-Miss-Jean-Brodie ageism and sexism cloaked as human interest with good humour. But she writes that she was nevertheless
startled that in 2009 a newspaper would produce a headline describing me as a “lingo-loving spinster”, and one, moreover, who “coyly confessed” to celebrating publication with a glass of champagne.
I’m offering no mugs for guessing which paper described her that way (The answer is here). So I guess she got off lightly: had she been an asylum-seeking gay single parent, we’d have never got as far as frog island.