by Mark Peters

Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp
erin mckean

Dictionary doyenne Erin McKean

On your next romantic outing, why not lean in to your date and whisper “bookiesug” or “dob o’ goody”? Erin McKean found these regional American synonyms for “sweetheart” through a somewhat unromantic Google search. A linguistic expert, she compares the kismet of searching for new words to meeting one member of an extended family: “Once you meet the second cousin, then you have access to the aunts and the uncles.”

As editor in chief of the most recent New Oxford American Dictionary, McKean is one of the most important people in the word world-and, at 35, one of the youngest. From a basement office in her North Park bungalow, she reads citations, word-hunts in magazines, and consults subject-matter experts and other lexicographers (dictionary makers). In her spare time, she edits Verbatim-a humorous linguistics quarterly for laypeople-and writes books such as the newly released That’s Amore: The Language of Love.
In That’s Amore, the happily married McKean takes a multilingual look at romance-centric terms such as the Welsh “rwy’n dwli arnat ti” and the Japanese “hiza o majieru,” which, respectively, mean “I’m stupid on you” and “to mingle knees with one another.” Rescuing such gems from obscurity is just a day’s work for McKean, who resurrected for a 2005 book the tongue twister “lethiferous” (deadly).

A ravenous reader, McKean says her fascination with language began at age eight, when she saw an article about the Oxford English Dictionary in her father’s Wall Street Journal. “That’s really cool. Somebody makes the dictionary,” she recalls thinking. Ultimately, she attended the University of Chicago, where she earned a bachelor’s and a master’s in linguistics.

When she’s not word spotting, McKean, who dabbles as a seamstress, blogs about fashion and dressmaking ( One writing project has stemmed from the blog and another is in the works; meanwhile, for another book, she’s studying how language actually works and changes. This work in progress will reflect her own perspective, which is refreshingly unassuming: “People think of language as this big rock-like a mountain,” she says, “but it’s really more like a big castle we’re all constantly remodeling.”