The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0779 Wednesday, 28 November 2007
From: Michael Luskin <
Date: Monday, 26 Nov 2007 10:07:10 EST
Subject: The OED from the Times
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Published: November 26, 2007
In his 1755 dictionary Samuel Johnson defined the lexicographer as "a
writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in
tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."
Unfortunately Johnson was uncharacteristically wrong. A lexicographer,
if any good, is hardly a drudge, and if bad, is hardly harmless.
Nor, for that matter, are dictionaries "written" anymore. They are
"compiled," a word that, according to the newly published Sixth Edition
of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the Latin,
compilare, meaning to plunder or plagiarize.
Of that, this two-volume dictionary may be partly guilty, since it is
partly plundered. The mother lode ("a principal or rich source") is, of
course, the great 1928 first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary,
which defined 414,000 words in 15,490 pages. That dictionary, like this,
its latest spinoff ("a byproduct or an incidental development from a
larger project"), was created "on historical principles." This means
that it not only defined the words but also cited their earliest known
uses, drawn from what the first volume of that first edition, published
in 1888, called "all the great English writers of all ages."
Much has changed since then, when Walter Scott - now a literary wraith -
was the dictionary's second most-quoted English writer after
Shakespeare. And the new Shorter Oxford provides a telling example of
those changes, reflecting, and partly anticipating, the transformations
unfolding in the unabridged third edition of the O.E.D. (as the project
is called). That new O.E.D. began in 2000 with the letter M, and, as of
September 2007, reached the word purposive, each successive change made
available for the dictionary's online subscribers. (See oed.com.)
The first edition grew out of a different conceptual universe. James
Murray, its remarkable editor, said in 1900 that the O.E.D. was
"permeated" with "the scientific method of the century." Charlotte
Brewer points out in a valuable forthcoming book, "Treasure-House of the
Language: The Living OED" (Yale), that meant illuminating the evolution
of English, chronicling the origins of its linguistic species and
surveying their habitats. Historical quotations were as crucial as
This also meant that from the very start the dictionary's creators were
engaged in a debate. Would this dictionary, with its display cases of
literary specimens, demonstrate the natural history of English,
constructing a "treasure-house of the language," as Ms. Brewer's title
puts it? Or would it show something more like an open-air menagerie
pulsing with ever-changing life, admitting even the newest words and
meanings? Was the dictionary to be prescriptive, showing how language
should be used, or descriptive, reflecting how it actually was used?
The first edition tended to prove the inadequacy of the first position.
Murray, for example, refused to include the word appendicitis,
criticizing ugly Latinizations of words by the medical profession.
Aesthetics, however, did not prevent the word from entering popular
awareness in 1902 when Edward VII had to postpone his coronation because
of that diagnosis.
The sheer length of time it took to produce the first edition - 40 years
of cataclysmic history unfolded between the appearance of its first
volume and the publication of the last - demonstrated just how mercurial
the language was and how difficult to codify. The O.E.D. was antique
before its completion, requiring an immediate supplement that
incorporated words from radium to robot.
The second supplement required four volumes and 29 years, and was
completed in 1986; its changes were then folded into the original
O.E.D., creating a 20-volume second edition in 1989 (available on a $295
CD-ROM). The continually evolving third edition is being overseen by
John Simpson and more than 70 lexicographers. In the meantime this
Shorter O.E.D. ($175, including a CD-ROM), with about 600,000
definitions, is a remarkable resource, but it also offers some glimpses
of the issues being faced.
For included here are 2,500 new entries that treat language more as
living menagerie than as natural history museum. Along with restless leg
syndrome and flatline come more questionable entries, where use becomes
the main criterion for inclusion.
"Generic," for example, has given birth to a verb that makes even
appendicitis seem attractive: "genericize." Bureaucratic identifications
make the cut, however local and obscure: "P45" is defined as a
certificate given to an employee in Britain and Ireland "at the end of a
period of employment, providing details of his or her tax code."
But once description trumps prescription and currency eclipses
timelessness, it becomes difficult to capture the slippery shifts in
tone and fashion that accompany new words. "Ghetto fabulous" is defined
here as "pertaining to or favoring an ostentatious style of dress
associated with the hip-hop subculture," though its use now is broader
and sometimes more ambiguous. And "ghetto blaster" should probably be
marked obs. (for obsolete).
But the biggest difficulties are in the "historical principles," which
seem to have become historical themselves - held over from the past,
only to be jettisoned when inconvenient. This is clearest in the use of
quotations. Of course the first O.E.D. was skewed in its choices,
reflecting few writers of the 18th century, and offering a selection not
fully representative of the language's powers. But now the O.E.D. does
not even pretend to offer "all the great English writers of all ages."
Diversity becomes a greater priority. The Shorter dictionary has 1,300
new quotations from writers like Susan Faludi, Spike Lee, Isaac Bashevis
Singer and Zadie Smith, and the editors emphasize their broad
demographic intentions. This can be illuminating. I like, for example,
the Shorter's definition for "mook" ("a stupid or incompetent person")
with an illustration from Mr. Lee, "Who are you gonna listen to, me or
that mook?" But in that case, there is also too little information: Only
cross-references lead the reader to guess that the word evolved out of a
And while it may be fine, in the old O.E.D., to cite authors like
Shakespeare or Tennyson by first initial and last name, once the
floodgates are opened, undated identifications become bewildering.
A. Cohen, for example, turns out to be the writer Arthur Cohen. But in
what way does his quotation, "He could make no promises," illuminate the
evolution of the language or masterly use of the word promise?
Similarly, the word smile is illustrated by a quotation from The Japan
Times: "A smile creases his ...face." There is no distinction in these
examples other than the lexicographers' desire to certify their broad
representation of sources. To what linguistic end?
Does it matter, for example, that the word entrust is entrusted with a
quote from L. Bruce - "I was entrusted with the unromantic job of
weeding" - even if the L. in question is Lenny? As for a more obscure
word, like enubilate, it might have been made as clear as its meaning
("make clear") by providing some appropriate examples. For that you must
turn to the unabridged O.E.D., where a 1903 citation from The Saturday
Review establishes an enchantingly ornate context: "Maeterlinck is
gradually enubilating himself from those enchanting mists in which first
Of course this Shorter is necessarily a snapshot - a glimpse of a very
great dictionary grappling with its tradition and ambitions, offering
much that fascinates, along with much that vexes or perplexes. For more
detail look at Ms. Brewer's book, or at her illuminating Web site
(oed.hertford.ox.ac.uk), in which the O.E.D.'s third edition is being
By the time that edition is complete, perhaps decades hence, it may
never even be printed. The Internet is now the O.E.D.'s perfect home -
as revisable and seemingly beyond codification as language itself. But
the new O.E.D. also seems tempted by the unbounded possibility of that
infinite revision, as if the very idea of a "treasure-house of the
language" were somewhat quaint. And to that one can only respond with an
exclamation that has just made it into the O.E.D.'s third edition:
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the
opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the
editor assumes no responsibility for them.