Flipping through a dictionary one day as a child, Robert Pontisso came across the tongue-tripper “lexicography” and had a good chuckle. “I couldn’t picture writing dictionaries as an occupation. I remember thinking that it was a joke, that there couldn’t be such a word,” says Pontisso, now 35 and a lexicographer at Oxford University Press Canada.
After graduating with a double major in English and philosophy, Pontisso (BA 1991 St. Michael’s) spotted a posting at U of T’s Career Centre for the job that had earlier struck him as so outlandish. But this time he knew he had found his calling. “I dragged my friend over, pointed to the ad and said, ‘Look, that’s me.'”
When Pontisso started working at Oxford’s Toronto office in 1993, he joined the team that produced the first Canadian Oxford Dictionary (the second edition is due out this summer). It was a perfect fit, he says, because his childhood love of books had evolved into a fascination with Canadian words and turns of phrase. Since then he has also co-edited the Oxford Canadian Spelling reference book. “For some people, using ‘center’ or ‘color’ is simply un-Canadian,” he says, though his own views on language and national identity are far less doctrinaire.
In fact, Pontisso has little patience for rigid grammarians. Yet when new acquaintances discover what he does for a living, many expect him to point out their linguistic faults. Another occupational hazard is that he is expected to be a Scrabble master, and he’s anything but. “Maybe it’s that I try too hard to find big, exciting words, but I’ve definitely lost more games than I’ve won,” he laughs. “When people beat me they get the biggest thrill, and I hear about it over and over again.
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