A constant topic (and, for others, perhaps a similar irritant) is our interest in words, where they come from, how they are used, and how they change.

That means we are frequently referring to the Oxford English Dictionary as the court of final arbitration.

Today the New York Times has a background piece (by-lined to Tom Rachman):

Language by the Book, but the Book Is Evolving

O.E.D.’s New Chief Editor Speaks of Its Future

It comes, inevitably, with the usual digs about things Olde Worlde English:

To compile a dictionary of nearly every word in the English language was an endeavor typical of Victorian times, complete with white-bearded gentlemen, utter confidence and an endearingly plodding pace. After a quarter-century, the first installment emerged in 1884. Its contents? “A to Ant.”

There are the equally-usual notes of admiration:

The O.E.D. has stood apart, partly for authoritative definitions but chiefly for its unmatched historical quotations, which trace usage through time. The first edition, proposed in 1858 with completion expected in 10 years, was only finished 70 years later, in 1928. The second edition came out in 1989, at a length of 21,730 pages. Work on the third started in 1994, with hope of completion in 2005. That was off slightly — by about 32 years, according to the current guess of 2037.

 Even that has to be qualified and balanced by monetary considerations:

But for all the admirable rigor of the O.E.D., nowadays the dictionary is probably more revered than used. Part of the problem is price. A copy of the 20-volume second edition costs $995, with a one-year digital subscription running $295 — a hard sell when so many research tools are free online. (Oxford University Press does offer a less extensive cousin of the O.E.D. for nothing online, under the confusingly similar title Oxford Dictionaries.)

 oup_logoThat glissades into speculation of how the OED can evolve through the Internet, “perhaps with lower prices, certainly with tweaks to the website and less stuffy definitions”. Which is very odd. For there is this wonderful scheme whereby UK public libraries subscribe to Oxford Reference Guides Online.

Way to go!

After that, The NYTimes piece excels itself, illustrating “that many infamous terms of today are older than expected”, finding unfriend in an OED citation from 1659, and this stunner:

1917   J. A. F. Fisher Let. 9 Sept. in Memories (1919) v. 78,   I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis—O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)—Shower it on the Admiralty!!

The recipient of that, from Admiral of the Fleet John Arbuthnot “Jacky” Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher, was … a certain W.S.Churchill. With two exclamatories (a term known to the OED only as an adjective, but — hey! — there’s a first time for everything).


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Filed under History, New York Times, Oxford English Dictionary, Quotations, reading

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