Don's diary

May 29, 1998


Must get up. Haystacks of work. Better idea. Do a wallaby, Australian slang for climbing back into the same cosy hole you have just clambered out of. Read through the 28 applications for the News International scheme. Six lucky students get a chance to do a month's placement with NI newspapers. We cut the entries down to half at Oxford, then NI makes the final choice. So much of this student journalism is lettuce-crisp and owl-eyed observant. How are we going to agree on a short-list?


Need not get up. No wind, so no windsurfing, alas. But I am not too unhappy. Whizzing through several newspapers, marker pen in hand, even counts as work now that I teach a course on language and the media! p.m. Panic! Where did the weekend go? Still got lectures to polish, conference paper to write up, books to review, graduate student work to read, new journals to skim.


Thirty-six new email messages, about half that number of snail-mail items. Scrabble through the heaps like a demented rabbit, trying to get fast to the bottom. Email, why do people in Prague urgently want a title for a paper I am giving in September? Snail-mail's not all bad, advance copy of a new (4th edition) of my book The Articulate Mammal, and a Japanese translation of my latest book, The Language Web. In the afternoon, a dreary, but partly important, meeting - try and glance through a journal during the agenda items that do not concern me.


Checking on overheads and handouts for lectures, seeing graduate students, discussing disputed grades for exams, answering emails and phone calls. At least the view from my office window is splendiferous. I think yet again how lucky I am to be at Worcester, a college that is both friendly and beautiful. I hope they chop back the ivy round my window soon, it is creeping over the panes, and I will truly be an "ivy-covered professor", as in that old song. But must stop gazing out, must get down to the heap on my desk. How embarrassing it would be to rival that mythical don who lost an open umbrella among his papers. Those student references are urgent, so are next term's lecture intentions, so are book requests for the library. Evening. Finally finish the manuscript that sent me to sleep yesterday, and write a report on it.


Phone rings just as I leave to lecture. The caller, a stranger from outside the university, asks if I know the origins of the term "closet queen". "Sorry, no. Have you checked in a slang dictionary?" I ask. Why do so many people assume I am a lexicographer, a writer of dictionaries? The title professor of language and communication makes me the first port of call, it seems, for almost any question about words. Will I get to my lecture on time? It is in the English faculty building, the other side of Oxford. My legs whizz round like windmills as I pedal against a stiff breeze. Just make it!

Today I discuss change of meaning, how listeners know that speakers who refer to "absolute disasters" are more likely to be talking about a lost football match or burnt potatoes than a crashed plane. Back in my office, I double-check overhead projectors and handouts for tomorrow's lecture, scribble letters, whizz through graduate student work, write reports on exam essays, then make another attack on the heap on my desk. Finally, I spend my evening in the way many non-Oxford people think I spend all my evenings: having dinner in hall, which for me is only an occasional treat. Mostly, I am too busy. Tonight, I have invited a retired professor. I put on my gown, one of the few occasions when I need to wear it. At dinner, I admire how elegantly Worcester handles its guest nights, ending with an old-style "dessert" of fruit, nuts, port and more. I am baffled by how many people assume I do this every day! When do they think I write lectures and books?


I get a buzz out of giving my lecture, I love tackling fresh topics, trying to sort them in a new way from the norm. Today's lecture is on linguistic approaches to literary style, which also I try to link in with newspaper language.

Maybe I can work it into another book: planning books is like watching clouds swirl which gradually take shape. After the lecture, I give up on the idea of getting to a library, that would take too long. But first I have another serious go at the heap on my desk, especially the new mail, emails and student work which have crept up on me in the course of the week, like the tide coming in.


Help! That conference paper deadline, will I make it? I will let my answer-phone take the calls, I will not look at my email, or my snail mail, I will shut my outer door, I will stop dreaming about new books I might write.

Jean Aitchison, Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication at the University of Oxford, and a professorial fellow at Worcester College.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments