Tuesday, 6 February 2007

On being behind the CEEns 2

By Easter 1984 it had become apparent that, if I was to continue with the proposal to write The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (CEL), I had to find more time from somewhere. And I had to continue. The encyclopedia had become one of those projects which fill your mind. Supported by the enthusiasm of the people at Cambridge University Press, I was more convinced than ever that such a book would meet a real need. I wanted to immerse myself in it - but there was no time. I had written just a handful of pages in six months, and there seemed no chance of the university situation ever improving. Indeed, it was getting worse.

British universities in the early 1980s had found themselves in a series of Thatcher-government-inspired staffing cuts. Like everyone else, I had received several letters from the Reading University authorities asking me whether I would like to take voluntary early retirement. There were generous cash incentives. I had never conceived of myself wanting to take advantage of this scheme - but that was while it was possible to preserve a balance betwen teaching, research, writing, and administration. That balance had gone, by 1984. I decided to apply.

And was turned down. The vice-chancellor of the time decided, in his wisdom, that the scheme was not right for people in a department (linguistics) which was actually making some money for the university. That scheme is not for you, he said. But by then I had already, in my mind, made the decision to leave. So I resigned anyway.

It was a risk, undoubtedly. Once you decide to earn a living as a writer, there is a delay before you get a return - and of course there may never be a return! I didn't stop lecturing completely. There was still part-time work around. But I did escape from the burden of administration. And that meant I could get on with the encylopedia - once we'd moved house. By the autumn of 1984 I was working seriously on the project, spending about half my time on it. I carried on in this way through 1985, and by mid-1986 the writing was very largely done - though there were a very large number of changes to be made as proofs came through, and design drafts had to be rethought. The book eventually came out in November of 1987.

It did very well, and after a few years the Press was beginning to think that perhaps a follow-up book would do just as well. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (CEEL) wasn't my idea: it was the inspiration of Adrian du Plessis, the director of Cambridge Reference. He suggested it early in 1990, and as soon as he had done so it seemed an obvious project. Moreover, there had been a change of mood at the Press about encyclopedia-type projects which made the project even more attractive. Full colour was on the table.

Rewind a decade. When CUP took on CEL (sentences came to be stuffed with acronyms, as the years passed) they had done so with enthusiasm - but also with caution. As nobody had published such a book before, there was a concern to keep the costs well under control. The price of pictures was phenomenal, for example. To use just one Snoopy cartoon or a single frame from a Star Wars film would cost about £100 each. I wanted one of Yoda for the syntax chapter, to illustrate unusual word orders - well, who better? 'Sick have I become'. It cost the earth. Indeed, it cost so much that we had to get special permission from the Press to use it. And I'm told that one of the governing body, unused to seeing such aliens in a book published by Cambridge University Press, asked (in a critical tone) 'Is this the first time the Press has published a picture of a little green man?' (To which my answer would have been, 'No, you've already published Gawain and the Green Knight'.)

I also wanted the book to be in full colour - maps, for example, can really only be done in four colours - but this was felt to be excessive, and we settled for the limited use of a second colour, red. It did present problems - not least by having to explain in a caption, from time to time, what the colours were in a picture which depended on them for its effect.There's a good example on p. 398 of the first edition, where the colours in chimp communication symbols are missing - compare p. 402 of the second edition.

But CEL had done so well that the market for an English-language equivalent seemed assured, and the press was confident that a full-colour book would be viable. And once you have colour at your disposal, throughout a book, you would be a fool not to make as much use of it as possible. That is why CEEL has so many more illustrations than CEL, and why there are so many full-page illustrations. Black-and-white reproductions often fail to convey the relevant information, especially in historical texts. I remember going through my whole undergraduate career wondering what a page of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle really looked like.

So I was keen to get going on CEEL, and worked up a prospectus and some sample spreads in early 1990. Then other things got in the way (in the form of the Cambridge Concise Encyclopedia, which was at an advanced stage of preparation at the time, and the Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia, which was in its earliest stages of planning), and it didn't prove possible to get on with CEEL until the middle of 1992. These editorial projects meant that CEEL could be only a half-time commitment, more or less, and it took me a good two years before the book was complete.

The book was written 'left-to-right'. I started on page 1 and worked through until the end. At the same time, the spreads, as they were completed, were sent to the press for typesetting, so that the pictures could be sized and the text trimmed as we went along. We had learned from the CEL experience that this was likely to be a more efficient production process - and so it proved to be. But from an authorial point of view, it was trickier. It meant that the content of each page, and the sequence of pages, had to be worked out very precisely in advance. There would be no opportunity to revise the earlier pages at a later stage. It was an unusual experience - to be writing page 150, for instance, while page 1 was in proof and being indexed - and it was a challenge for the in-house production controller to keep up with where everything was. But it worked.

The cover was an interesting experience. It took ages to get right. The 'face' was made of papier mache. The first model looked like a frightening alien. They wanted something placid and not off-puutting, so they tried again. Then it looked too male. Then too female. Eventually they got the right balance. The design was all done before the days of computer typesetting: you could do the whole thing on screen today. In the mid-80s it all had to be done for real and by hand. Each of those letter-bands running across the page was a cardboard cut-out. everything had to be placed precisely so that the photograph worked. It was all done in a studio in Cambridge. The various bits and pieces were precariously balanced on milk-crates!

And then the wheel turned full circle. In 1997 appeared the second edition of CEL. And what is the main difference between the two editions? The use of colour. The appearance of colourful CEEL had immediately made the second-colour CEL seem dull, by comparison. It had been almost a decade since the first edition, and the subject had moved on. So when the decision was made to have a new edition, I was at last offered the full colour I had originally hoped for. All the pictures had to be researched again, of course (every one - it took a year), but the result was most rewarding - and at last the maps look right. Those early green ideas - to adapt a linguistic catch-phrase of the 1960s - are now most colourful, and are no longer sleeping furiously.

The second edition of CEEL wasn't as complex. The main change was the addition of the Internet material. But how to show that on the front cover? The publisher wanted a redesign to include something modern and teccie. I didn't want to lose my Starship Enterprise, which was there to cock a snook at split infinitives. The solution? If you look carefully, you will see it on the screen of the mobile phone.

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