Rolling out New Words, New Worlds

Article excerpt

BACK in high school, my friend Victor resolved to do two things before he graduated. First, looking upon sleep as the great thief of time, he decided to lessen the hours he would spend snoozing by progressively staying up five minutes later each night. The second thing he did was to decide to use his newly harvested time by learning all the words in the dictionary. This seemingly moderate and sensible remedy for a clear defect of our natures, coupled with a high-class educational endeavor, came crashing to an end when Victor's philistine mother forcibly intervened somewhere around 4 hours and the entry axolotl.

The thought of Victor, zombie-like by year's end but casually dropping words like cichoraceous and synclastic, has a certain charm to it. Yet, since what he set out to master was not the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) but a more ordinary dictionary, maybe it was just as well the experiment failed.

We have to begin by discarding the idea that the OED is, like all other dictionaries, mostly good for getting the definition down and getting the spelling right. For those noble but mundane tasks, almost any decent dictionary will suffice. To learn that "philistine" means "a person lacking in or hostile to culture," you can consult any dictionary. But to see the word in all its nuanced and historical fullness - to learn that philistine was originally used to describe not the uncultured but the debauched, the drunken, or those generally regarded as the enemy, "e.g. bailiffs, literary critics, etc.," puts Victor's firm but saintly mother in a totally new light.

So, given what we usually think of as a dictionary - the book on the student's desk, the worn text on the secretary's shelf - to call the OED a dictionary is almost a mistake. Not only is it physically different (20 volumes; 21,728 pages; 138 pounds; half a million entries; 2.5 million quotations), but it is qualitatively different as well. Not just a book of words, it comes close to being the collected literary and intellectual history of the whole English- speaking world.

The scholarship required to produce this prodigy is almost beyond imagining. Started in earnest in 1879, it took five years of research and compilation to reach only the word "ant." By 1928, the first edition (15,448 pages) was complete. Now, over a century after its start, we have a second edition. These 20 volumes take the first edition, add to it the various supplements that have been issued since 1928, and include thousands of new entries as well.

Despite the immensity of its scholarship, it would be wrong to see the OED simply as a tool for professional scholars. …