Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED

Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED

Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED

Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED

Synopsis

What is the meaning of a word? Most readers turn to the dictionary for authoritative meanings and correct usage. But what is the source of authority in dictionaries? Some dictionaries employ panels of experts to fix meaning and prescribe usage, others rely on derivation through etymology. But perhaps no other dictionary has done more to standardize the English language than the formidable twenty-volume "Oxford English Dictionary in its 1989 second edition. Yet this most Victorian of modern dictionaries derives its meaning by citing the earliest known usage of words and by demonstrating shades of meaning through an awesome database of over five million examples of usage in context. In this fascinating study, John Willinsky challenges the authority of this imperial dictionary, revealing many of its inherent prejudices and questioning the assumptions of its ongoing revision. "Clearly, the OED is no simple record of the language as she is spoke, '" Willinsky writes. "It is a selective representation reflecting certain elusive ideas about the nature of the English language and people. "Empire of Words reveals, by statistic and table, incid

Excerpt

“THE SCHEME originated,” James Murray explains in the preface to the first fascicle of A New English Dictionary, “in a resolution of the Philological Society, passed in 1857, at the suggestion of the present Archbishop of Dublin (Dr. Trench).” While little else is said of the parenthetical Dr. Trench in Murray's 1884 introduction to this new dictionary, no one did more to set the project in motion than the dean of Westminster at the time. While readers now turn to the OED for an authority that is largely secular, scholarly, and institutional—Oxonian, in a word— Richard Chevenix Trench's philological interests were inspired by new levels of rigor in continental scholarship even as he was intent on doing God's work with the English language and nation. Trench first laid out the ideals of a scientific lexicography to which Murray would, beginning some two decades later, devote the remainder of his life, refining it and bringing it to fruition, if not entirely in the form that Trench had in mind. Taken together, their work represents its own form of a shifting authorization across the century's continuum of spiritual and scientific interests in language. The project was made possible in the first instance by Trench's vision of an English philology that through his learning could maintain distinct connections with these two poles. Out of his vision of a new English dictionary that would systematically capture the history and character of a people, the Society was eventually able to mobilize well over a thousand contributing readers in a project supervised by six senior editors over a period of seventy years.

When Richard Trench put forward his suggestion in 1857, he had belonged to the Philological Society for less than a year. He was fifty years of age and had established himself as that sort of Victorian cleric who was both scholar and poet, with a wide variety of books to his name. He had originally been, his biographer notes, the sort of retiring and learned churchman favored by the era, a “man of scholarly tastes and habits who was quite willing to serve for long periods in a country parish, perfecting his knowledge and engaging in literary pursuits” (Bromley, 1959, p. 133). But having proven his intellectual mettle from within this pastoral retreat, Trench decided to cut a more public figure by taking up the post of professor of theology at King's College, London, in 1847. Within . . .

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