Academic Accidents and the Development of Usage Guide

Date: March 16, 2011 | Category: Strathy Guest Column
Author: Margery Fee

My first introduction to the Strathy Unit came from Henry Warkentyne.  I had just taken his course on Canadian English as part of a Diploma in Applied Linguistics at the University of Victoria.  In the mid-1980s, jobs in English were scarce and I was retooling to become an ESL teacher in Japan, where the yen was high.  He said that he was on the board of a “funny little outfit” at Queen’s that had something to do with Canadian English.  He thought that there might be a job coming up for which I could apply.  When it did, George Logan, the Head of English at Queen’s, wrote me saying that I was a “long shot,” but that they might get back to me.  Of course, and rightly, they were looking for a linguist, but their usage guide project (see Fee and McAlpine 1997, 2007) was in an area where few linguists at the time cared to go, trained as they almost all were in formal (Chomskyan) linguistics.  Most regarded dialectology as outmoded and guides to usage as analogous to etiquette books.  In my defence, I had taken more than one course in Canadian English.  In fourth year at Glendon College (York University)—not incidentally a hotbed of Hallidayans (who have a broader view of language)—I took Canadian English from Richard Handscombe; not much beyond a hazy memory of reading Martin Joos remains, but it was enough to keep me enthusiastic.  In the 1970s, for example, I chose to review a collection edited by Jack Chambers, Canadian English: Origins and Structures, and a bibliography by Walter S. Avis and A.M. Kinloch, Writings on Canadian English 1792-1975, for the Canadian Book Review Annual.  Jack Chambers and Murray Kinloch would be on my advisory board at the Strathy when I arrived in 1987, as were Henry Warkentyne and Sandra Clarke.

Getting evidence for any assertion about specifically Canadian usage was very difficult.  My predecessor, W.C. Lougheed, realized that such evidence could only be had by building a corpus, in a day when a million-word corpus was a gigantic achievement (see Brown Corpus, LOB Corpus).  Wary of having his data “owned” by the mainframe specialists, he presciently moved—almost before it was feasible—to working on PCs (10-megabyte hard drives!!!).  He also inveigled the university into purchasing a very big and expensive Kurzweil flatbed optical character reader to read Canadian text (slowly) into digital form.  One needs a very big corpus to find examples of rare usages—how many times in a million words will “decimate” turn up, for example?  When I arrived, we had two million words.  Figuring out how to store, back up, and search that much text was then a Very Big Deal.  Again luckily for me, the University of Waterloo was working out how to tag the digital version of the OED (1989), and visits to Waterloo helped me understand how tagged text worked—and didn’t.  Most Humanities computing software required one’s text database to be tagged to facilitate searches, but I was wary of having my data locked up in a non-generic format.  We kept the corpus in ASCII code and searched it (a megabyte a minute) with a cheap and cheerful string matcher called Gofer, designed to help businessmen find files on their computers.  The big breakthrough came when Southam Press started putting out their newspapers on the very new CD-ROMs for its reporters.  They kindly sent copies along to us and finally, we had enough data.

I sent prospectuses for the Canadian usage guide to the University of Toronto Press and to Oxford University Press.  Toronto sent back a nice note, saying that they would be happy to get camera-ready copy.  Preparing camera-ready copy for a major, new and heavily cross-referenced reference book with emergent desktop publishing software was an unappealing prospect.  Fortunately, Michael Morrow had arrived at Oxford University Press in 1986 as Managing Director.  His main goal was to produce a Canadian English dictionary (the Canadian Oxford Dictionary operations were shut down in October 2008); luckily he saw our project as complementary to his.  Oxford was willing to provide proper copy-editing (thanks, Sally Livingston!) and so we signed on.  We shared our corpus with Katherine Barber, who became the Editor in Chief for the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary (1st ed 1998); she provided us with computer files for Oxford books and lots of helpful advice and we, in turn, shared our data.

Jan McAlpine and I finished the first edition of the Guide to Canadian English Usage in 1997; I have just finished proofing the newly typeset hardcover version of the second edition (2007), and finally feel happy with the way the pages look (this version will appear in June). The amount of sheer hard labour that goes into making reference books easy to read and use is astonishing.  Computer searching now makes most of this old technology redundant, but web design still has a long way to go to compare with that of the best reference books.  However, publishers are experiencing a crisis in reference book publication, since Wikipedia, Google, and the ever-proliferating internet solve (not always elegantly or accurately) many questions once answerable only by fat expensive books.

The work I have done in usage and lexicography has always seemed to me like an accident (one of my friends referred to my getting the job at Queen’s as “being let into the academy by the fire escape”).  After all, my teaching and research is mostly in Canadian, post-colonial and Aboriginal literatures.  Another accident, then, was that Stefan Dollinger arrived at UBC, where I now work, just after having been made the Editor in Chief of the second edition of the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP, 1st ed. 1967).  Now I am, with Laurel Brinton, an associate editor for the DCHP Online (or “DCHP-2”), and we are hard at work bringing this important dictionary into the 21st century—online.  And the Strathy, we’re happy to say, has helped us along with this process by digitizing the c.15,000 citation slips collected by Walter S. Avis, left to the Queen’s Archives after his death in 1979.


Margery Fee is a Professor of English at the University of British Columbia where she teaches and researches Canadian, post-colonial, and Aboriginal literature.  She is also Editor of the journal Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism and Review and an associate editor of the second edition of the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles.  Margery was the Director of the Strathy Language Unit from 1987-1993.  Under her direction, the Unit greatly expanded the size of the Strathy corpus (with the help of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant) and produced the first  Guide to Canadian English Usage.