The Oxford English Dictionary: A Time-Binding Marvel

By Levinson, Martin H. | et Cetera, October 2011 | Go to article overview

The Oxford English Dictionary: A Time-Binding Marvel

Levinson, Martin H., et Cetera

THme-binding: the characteristic human ability to transmit information, using language and other symbols, across time; the potential for individuals to learn from their own and other people's experiences; the potential for each generation to start off from where the last generation left off; the potential to become aware of this ability; this allows for the formation of cultures and the ability to study cultures, etc.1

Alfred Korzybski published Science and Sanity, his magnum opus that introduced general semantics to the world, in 1933. That same year another important literary work emerged, a twelve-volume (plus one volume Supplement) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), that concentrated more particularly on word meanings. The OED, whose first editor was appointed in 1859 when the lexicon was known as A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, has gone on to become the premiere dictionary of the English language, a "living document" that has been growing and changing for over 150 years.

This article will map the historical roots of the OED, how it came into being, and what its present and future looks like.

A Brief History of English Lexicography: From the Middle Ages to the Mid-Nineteenth Century

The first reference books for English-speaking people were bilingual glossaries that supplied English equivalents for Latin or French words. In the Middle Ages, difficult English words were also sometimes glossed. Most early lexicographers were schoolmasters who assembled glossaries or dictionaries as teaching aids for their students, as little else was obtainable.

Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabetical! ... (the complete title of this work fills the entire title page), which was published in 1604, is generally considered to be the first monolingual English dictionary.2 It contained 2,500 vocabulary entries and incorporated almost 90 percent of the words of Edmund Coote's English Schoolmaster, a grammar, prayer book, and word list with brief definitions published in 1596. That Coote's dictionary had so many "borrowed" terms is understandable as the history of English lexicography is full of recurring and successful acts of copying.

A Table Alphabeticall dealt with "hard vsuall English wordes . . . gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskillful persons."3 Seventeenth-century lexicographers thought that women, because they received less schooling than men, were more apt to need assistance in decoding "hard" words.

In the early eighteenth century, some dictionaries began to go beyond the hard-words tradition and include the meanings of all sorts of words. John Kersey, regarded by famed linguist and general semanticist Allen Walker Read as the first professional lexicographer,4 was the editor of such a lexicon, The New English Dictionary (1702), which included commonplace terms of daily language like about, and, any, arm, etc. Kersey's dictionary was the first to attempt systematic coverage of familiar words in addition to arcane ones.

Nathan Bailey's An Unusual Etymological Dictionary (1721) continued to push English lexicography forward by giving great attention to the etymological roots of words. Containing roughly 40,000 entries, An Unusual Etymological Dictionary represented language as it was used and included taboo terms. Bailey's etymological dictionaries, whose thirty editions spanned the years 1721-1802, were immensely popular during the 18th century and were the chief competitors to Samuel Johnson's prodigious word list.

In 1747, Samuel Johnson sent the Earl of Chesterfield his plan to put together a dictionary that would survey the total English language and show the history of every word. Nine years later Johnson published his Dictionary, a book that surveyed only some of the English language; specifically 42,773 entries that were so well denned with so many illustrious quotations (over 114,000 of them that were drawn from every area of literature) that it stood as the most authoritative dictionary in English for well over a hundred years. …

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