Last week, the editing community lost one of its finest contributors: Katherine Barber died on April 24. Katherine’s works and words were often quoted in Editors Canada discussions, and she was a keynote speaker at the 2015 conference. Author, editor and friend Jennifer Glossop remembers Katherine’s passions.
A blue ballet shoe on a stick — that’s what Katherine Barber used to corral her charges on her Tours en l’air excursions around the cities of Europe. I followed it and her around Vienna, Prague, London, Berlin, Paris, Dresden and others, seeing the sights and going backstage at the great opera houses by day and appreciating all the marvels of ballets performed live on those stages by night. Each ballet was accompanied by her thoroughly researched and loving notes for our further appreciation. Ballet was Katherine’s second passion, after the English language, and she created the tours when her stint as editor-in-chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary distressingly ended. But the two worlds intertwined. Even the name of her tours was a pun — in French of course (she was marvellously multilingual) — on the twirling jump in ballet, a turn in the air.
On my first Tour, I was asked by my fellow travellers how I knew Katherine, since most of them had met her at one of her talks on the English language. I told them that I had not met her before but that she was “revered among editors.” And she was — and is. In addition to her amazing work on CanOx (as editors tend to refer to it, somewhat to her dismay), she was Canada’s Word Lady, regularly pronouncing on all things wordy on radio and television, on the lecture tour, on her Wordlady blog, and authoring funny and irreverent books on our uniquely Canadian English.
More recently, she was a frequent poster on Facebook. There and in her classes, she shared her encyclopedic knowledge with grateful editors. Some of them found themselves the brunt of her particular scorn when they proclaimed that they knew the true meaning and derivation of a word, especially if they were peeving about a “horrible” new twist on a venerable old word. The latter folk were referred to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED — the big one, now online) and informed that such a “desecration” of the language actually went back centuries. Once so chastened, the wise among us learned not to open our traps without first checking the OED.
Katherine may not have been an editor in the ways we are, but she shared traits with many of us. She was a cat-loving Virgo who questioned everything and brought a sharp eye to the finer points of the English language, all the while appreciating its overarching wonders and power. She knew from her ballet lessons and years of viewing performances that it takes hours of practice and a deep knowledge for a dancer’s body to soar and communicate so intensely with the audience. Similarly, she taught us to look deeply within the English language so that with much practice, we could help writers express themselves in well-crafted sentences, flawlessly argued prose and flowing fiction. She made us better editors.
I will miss following that blue ballet shoe and the woman who carried it high above us.
Do you have any stories or memories of Katherine? We invite readers to share them in the comment section below.
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