What Has This Man Started? the World of Dictionaries Is in Turmoil. and There's More Than Pride at Stake. in This Business, Where There's Kudos, There's Money

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Dictionaries in word war" thundered a recent headline. Academic Oxford clashes with auto-didact, populist Collins and Longman, not to mention Chambers and Cassells. NODE, the New Oxford Dictionary of English, is hitting the shelves soon - bigger, wider-ranging, more authoritative and in every way better than any rival. . . But beyond the superlatives, the new dictionary is being kept firmly under wraps. So what's the big secret? In the end, it's only a dictionary, isn't it?

"Is it in the dictionary?" When it comes to the linguistic queries of everyday life - Scrabble, crosswords, editorial pontifications, bar-room argy-bargy - is there a phrase so hopeful, so trusting, so redolent, once answered, of happy relief, whatever the reply? A book consulted, a problem solved. "The dictionary" has been cherished not merely as a reference work, but as a veritable tablet from on high.

The problem is, which exactly is to be "the" dictionary? A century ago Sir James Murray referred to Samuel Johnson's monumental tome of 1755 as an authority "as fixed as the Bible or the Prayer Book". A century on, Sir James' own massive achievement, the OED, has taken its place, at least on this side of the Atlantic.

But the kudos of being "the" dictionary has more than just lexicographical value. There's money in them thar words.

Dictionary-making has always been a commercial endeavour. Its market may not have been seen as exactly "mass" (Thomas Blount advertised his 17th century effort, the Glossographia, as aimed at "the more-knowing Women" and "less-knowing Men", in other words the aspirant new middle classes), but the point was still sales. Johnson himself was commissioned by a "conger" of booksellers, keen to get in on the profits to be made from these increasingly popular volumes. Even the OED, the most academic of the lot, was meant to sell.

Lexicography is a continuum. The language does not reinvent itself every time a dictionary is commissioned, and the idea that one borrowed from one's predecessors did not bother these early compilers. Blount announced, not as an embarrassed confession, but as a puff of self-promotion, "I profess to have done little with my own Pencil; but have extracted the quintessence of Scapula, Minsheu, Cotgrave, Rider, Florio, Thomasius, Dasipodius, and Hexam's Dutch, Dr. Davies Welsh Dictionary, Cowel's Interpreter and other able Authors for so much as tended to my purpose." Blount had eaten up every predecessor, and it can be taken on trust that each of them had done their eating in turn.

Their successors have done the same. What matters is that each successive tome seems different. Otherwise, why would you buy them? Today's lexicographers, writing for the mass market rather than for scholars, tend to flourish statistics: more words, newer words, trendier words - all true enough, but the vast bulk were there in Johnson, just as his core vocabulary could be found in book after book, stretching back over the centuries.

There have always been "dictionary wars". The first of them was waged between Blount and his contemporary Edward Phillips, a nephew of John Milton and author of The New World of Words. It appeared just two years after the Glossographia and Blount was furious.

There had been others. The 16th century saw an enormous leap forward in mass literacy and there were major prizes on offer. Blount offered his thoughts in A World of Errors Discovered in the New World of Words (1673). His indignation still crackles off the page: "Must this then be suffered? A Gentleman for his divertisement writes a Book, and this Book happens to be acceptable to the World, and sell; a Bookseller, not interested in the Copy, instantly employs some Mercenary to jumble up another like Book out of this, with some Alterations and Additions, and give it a new Title; and the first Author's out-done, and his Publisher half undone. …