Status: Wait List

Watch Your Language!

How do words in English work, change, and die?

Spring 2024
Monday Afternoon
Moderators: Bobbie Reitt, Cathy Riessman



Our goal is to better understand the contradictory ways our language has worked to both suppress and encourage the expression of ideas, feelings, facts, actions, principles, and beliefs, and to gain a new respect for the power of words.


We’ll spend our first two weeks with a delightful novel about work in the Oxford “Scriptorium” where late 19th-century lexicographers labored to create the first comprehensive historical dictionary of English (the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED). In the following eight weeks we’ll explore our language in all its quirky richness. Why do some words flourish while others die? Why are some words forbidden in some settings? What “bad” words were ignored for the OED and other dictionaries, and why? We will examine slang, euphemisms, and dialects. We will learn how to access the OED online, via the Boston Public Library. We will explore the fraught territory of words having to do with gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. We will look at words that identify or label the class of their speakers. We will grow as we “watch our language”.

ROLE OF PARTICIPANTS: Each participant will take responsibility for leading a discussion of a section of the novel or reporting on one of the topics from the list provided by the moderators. We will be glad to consider other topics suggested by participants.

Required reading is a novel: Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words, available in paperback. Suggested supplementary readings include dictionaries of slang, euphemism (for forbidden words), phrases and fables, or idioms, as well as guides to the OED and American unabridged dictionaries, plus news articles about our current language. A detailed list will be provided by the moderators online and by email.

ABOUT THE MODERATOR: Bobbie Reitt is a retired book editor of nonfiction–scientific and academic books and medical textbooks. She has led more that 15 seminars in FCLIR. Cathy Riessman is a retired professor of sociology and social work and has published works in language and health.