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Always on the Ball

Lexicographer Christine Parker Ammer ’52 is never at a loss for words

When it comes to idioms, Christine Parker Ammer is the top banana in the field. She is never in a position where the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing—nor out in left field when an idiom is in order.  

Ammer is the author of more than three dozen books, primarily about words and their origins, the latest being the second edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Her adult life has been a lexicographer’s dream, infused with clichés, expressions, terms, and figures of speech. She has been in this ballpark since the 1950s when she left her first job for Radio Free Europe in Munich, answering an ad in the The New York Times for someone to research a new encyclopedia edited by Albert Morehead, the bridge (as in the card game) editor of the Times.

“I worked for a year. I was in the As mostly because that is where you start, right?” said Ammer, but then the project stalled. Still, she was hooked on words and soon kept her hand in the game by editing an encyclopedia for Parents Magazine.

From there, she stayed on a roll with Harper’s Dictionary of Music, Dictionary of Business and Economics, The A to Z of Investing, Raining Cats and Dogs and Other Beastly Expressions—enough research to have a card file to reckon with, in fact dozens of shoeboxes worth.

She did write a non-dictionary book about women in American music, but a leopard cannot change its spots, and she went back to the dictionaries, mostly explaining clichés, idioms, and the like.

“I have always been fascinated with how people talk and how they write,” said Ammer, who lives in Lexington, Mass. Her late husband Dean was an economics professor at Northeastern University. She is not an elitist, though. In fact, she even approves of clichés in their place.

“They are the fast food of language,” said Ammer. “I don’t think you should use clichés in formal language, but they are the vernacular. It is how we speak.”

For about 20 years, Ammer wrote a column for Military History Quarterly, titled “Fighting Words,” focusing on words from warfare, such as “the mother of all ...” 

Ammer said she was basically to the manner born for her kind of writing. She was born in Vienna and grew up in New York before first going to Denison and then transferring to Swarthmore. “I loved the place, especially the honors seminars. People always were talking about ideas and you learned something from everyone,” she said.

A few years ago, said Ammer, she tried something new, a memoir-writing course. “I tried to make stories and was having a terrible time,” she said. “My children will just have to remember me by my dictionary-writing.”

One of her sons, David, and his wife, Nell Duke, are both Swarthmore ’93 grads. David is a professional classical trumpeter, and Nell is a professor of literacy at the University of Michigan. “They have followed both my passions—music and words—so I am happy, and my other son, John, and his wife are economists, so my husband loved that,” she said. Her daughter, Karen, lives in California and is helping to raise service dogs.

Ammer still collects expressions she has not seen before, and even TV (like “Yadda, Yadda, Yadda” from Seinfeld) has proven a gold mine.

“I never had a graduate degree, but I am proud of what I have done,” she said. And that is no cliché.