The question I am asked most frequently concerning my two language encyclopedias, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (known as CEL /sel/ and CEEL /si:l/ for short), is: how long did it take to write them? Surprisingly - unlike most books, anyway - it is an almost impossible question to answer, and in this post and the next I'll explain why.
One thing most people don't know is that there almost wasn't a CEL. The original idea for such a book came about like this. In 1979, a young relative, still at school, was thinking what subjects to study at university. He was interested in languages, so he asked me for advice. Was there an interesting book on linguistics and languages which he could read - something which would be intelligible, encyclopedic - with pictures in it, maybe?
I looked at my shelves, and couldn't see anything. At the same time, while looking, I found splendid illustrated guides to all kinds of other subjects - on mythology, for example, with plenty of accessible text and a liberal use of illustrations. But on language, nothing.
Why not?, I thought. And I sat down at my typewriter (we are in the late 1970s, remember - no computer-processing yet) and put together a one-page proposal. I still have it. Its opening paragraphs read as follows:
'I am struck by (a) a massive modern interest in the subject of language, communication, usage, etc., illustrated at popular level by such TV programmes as Call My Bluff and Blankety Blank, and radio series like Speak Out, and (b) the trend in publishing towards illustrated guides, of the Octopus Books, Mitchell Beazley type, the sort of thing that makes excellent Xmas presents. It ought to be possible to bring these two points together.
'Language is ideally suited for visual and popular treatment. This might sound odd at first, as people often think of language as an essentially oral/aural mediuum - speech - which by its nature isn't visual. The fallacy is to think of language as divorced from the people who use it. Rather, language reflects the society, the people who use it. It has no existence apart from them. To photograph language, you photograph the people and places in which it is used, their products and conflicts, their ways of studying language. You also, of course, include the more obviously visual side of language - written language and its derivative codes.'
My brother-in-law worked for one of the popular-guides publishers, so I sent this in to him, for an opinion. No question, he said. Far too academic. Sorry. I then sent it into an academic publisher, with whom I'd worked for several years on other projects. No question, they said. Far too popular. Sorry. I decided the time wasn't right, and put the proposal into a bottom drawer, joining several other mouldering proposals, and got on with something else. But I didn't forget about it.
Fast forward now to early 1983, when I found myself in a meeting with Penny Carter of Cambridge University Press about linguistics journals. Only at the end did the conversation turn to other possible projects. I mentioned one or two of the things I had lurking in the bottom drawer, and the idea of the language encyclopedia came up. It turned out that various people in CUP had been thinking along similar lines, and she asked me to send in the material I had. I cleaned off the dust.
I was asked to develop the one-page proposal, and it became a 12-page prospectus. We had a long meeting in which we discussed the best way to handle it. Should it be a single-authored work, or an edited book with several contributors? The arguments in favour of the former were individual creativity and stylistic consistency; the arguments against were the dangers of personal bias and the difficulties in covering such a vast field. We agreed on a middle road: I would write the book, but would have available an international advisory board who would read all the material. CEL was finally commissioned in June 1983.
Penny Carter described it as 'one of the most interesting and exciting projects' she'd been involved with. That reaction was crucial, for me. I was well aware that such a proposal would only succeed if it had an enthusiastic press behind it, for the page design and picture research would make major demands on their personnel. It would, in a very real sense, be a collaboration between author and designer.
I decided to use the double-page spread as the chief means of organizing information. I felt it should be possible to treat a topic succinctly, and illustrate it well, within a single opening. Readers should be given the impression that, when they open the book, they can see a topic laid out accessibly before them. So there would be no sentence run-ons as you turn the page. Each verso would present a fresh topic, or a fresh sub-division of a topic.
But working with double-page spreads and illustrations is a pain. The temptation is to write too much text and leave too little space for the picture. I had a terrible habit of leaving only a postage-stamp size for the picture. The designer, Roger Walker, trained it out of me, but it took a while. I paid for it dearly, by having to delete chunks of text from my drafts. And there is nothing worse than having to lose text you have slaved over.
The way the collaboration worked was like this. Roger gave me a grid, which I set up on my word processor (available at last!) - so many characters per line, so many lines per column, two main columns and one sidebar per page, and so on. A main chapter heading would use up 5 lines of text from my column; a sub-heading would use 3 lines. A certain number of lines would be taken up by the picture(s). Eliminate all of this, and the remainder is the amount of text you are permitted to write - usually around 1000 words per page.
It was never possible to get a perfect match on first draft, because the letter-spacing on a word processor is not the same as that on a printed page - so there were always extra lines to be added or taken away, to ensure that the exposition came to an end as close to the bottom of the page as possible. Some of the design sessions were like horse-trading. Can I have two extra lines of text if you crop that picture a bit more? Please!!
I planned a writing schedule with the press, and started on the job in the autumn of 1983. Six months later, and I'd written - a half-dozen pages. The vastly increased levels of university administration in the mid-1980s were taking their toll. There wasn't time to write any more. Stay in the full-time university world, and there would be no encyclopedia, and not much else either, it seemed to me. It was time to choose.