Only Words: For More Than a Century, the Oxford English Dictionary Has Dominated Language Lovers' Bookshelves. Now It Is Online, and a New Edition May Never See Book Covers Again. in the Digital Age, Will the OED Remain a Cultural Cornerstone?

Article excerpt

I CONSULT THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY almost every day. The binding on my first edition, the last installment of which was published in 1928, is disintegrating. Shreds of vellum flutter onto desk or carpet every time I open one of the 12 massive volumes, which can weigh as much as 15 pounds. Because I'm researching the history of the OED, I need to compare the first edition with the second. But truth be told, I also have a sentimental attachment to these cream-colored pages, stained by age and use, with the complex yet clear patterning of each element in an entry (headword, pronunciation, etymology, definition, quotations), which James Murray, the first chief editor of the OED, designed to be "eloquent to the eye."

Bibliophilic considerations aside, however, the OED Online is my dictionary of choice. This remarkable resource displays both the second edition of the OED, published with great fanfare in 20 volumes in 1989, and the gradually accumulating third edition, begun in 2000 and due to be completed some decades hence. The great value of the OED's third edition is that it is the first revision ever undertaken of this vast dictionary. The 1989 edition merely spliced the first edition with supplements produced during the previous two decades, but it did not venture to revisit the outdated Victorian and Edwardian scholarship of its elderly parent. That makes OED3, as aficionados call it, the hottest English-language lexicographical product around.

But could the online edition spell the end of the OED as we know it? Earlier this year the OED's U.S. editor told The New York Times Magazine, "We have about 20 years' more work to do revising and adding entries. Who knows what will happen with technology in 20 years? We certainly don't." Bibliophiles and technophobes greeted this remark with intense anxiety, speculating that the OED's publisher, Oxford University Press, would never issue a printed edition of the OED again.

At first, I wondered whether the sackcloth and ashes were warranted. True, books do furnish a room, and the 20 volumes of the second edition of the OED fulfill tiffs purpose admirably. (The photographic reductions of the OED with which many dictionary lovers are familiar--two volumes for the first edition and three for the second, accompanied by a magnifying glass--aren't on the same scale, but still look quite handsome on the shelf.) The fact is, however, that the OED Online is the last word in space saving and portability, as well as lexicography. And it is now so much easier to look up words. Instead of determining which of the 20 volumes you need, pulling the heavy tome off the shelf, finding an uncluttered and sturdy surface on which to lay it, and fumbling through the pages for the right entry, you can tap the keyboard and skip blithely from one end of the alphabet to the other in the blink of an eye, finding 10 words in the time it used to take to track down one.


So why all the hand-wringing about the loss of this unwieldy behemoth? Is it the sheer physical substance of this great work, the size and heft of it, that makes the prospect of its disappearance into the ether a cause for alarm? That's part of the answer, not least because the OED's history is one of agonizingly slow emergence into physical form. Reviewing the second edition in 1989, the novelist William Golding cast his mind back to its heroic and idealistic origins: "In the high days of Queen Victoria a dictionary was conceived, not to say dared, which matched her iron bridges, her vast ships and engines." A characteristically Victorian project, the OED set out to encompass the entirety of the English language, recording within its pages every single word. Of course, the editors had to relinquish this ideal fairly quickly. Such a thing was as impossible then as it would be now, even with all the electronic aids we have to hand. The vocabulary of English, as of all languages, appears to be infinitely variable. …


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