Oxford English Dictionary
[ Issue 17 ]

Emily Bronto is definitely one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s many fans

Bikwil honours the Oxford English Dictionary

Oxford English Dictionary

Harlish Goop continues his outline of the Oxford English Dictionary saga, this time looking at the micrographic version and the one on CD-Rom.

The benefits of computerisation of a dictionary as big as the OED, with its 292 thousand entries, are obvious

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop

Since they were published, my pieces on James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary (Bikwil Issues 8-9 and 14, 1998 July & September and 1999 July) have elicited sundry positive observations from our readers and restrained clamour for further articles on the OED.

Accordingly, let me discharge an undertaking I gave in the first article, and add some more to the ongoing saga of the OED in respect of its presentation in more contemporary formats.

First a chronology:

1857: First ideas for New English Dictionary at Philological
Society of London
1884-1928: NED Fascicles 1-128 published by Oxford University Press
1928: Re-issue of NED (10 vols)
1933: Corrected re-issue (12 vols) as Oxford English Dictionary
1933: Publication of Supplement (one vol)
1972-86: Replacement Supplement (four vols)
1984: Policies formulated regarding 2nd Ed.
1989: Publication of 2nd Ed. (20 Vols)
1991: Micrographic version of 2nd Ed. published (one vol)
1992: 2nd Ed. published on CD-Rom
1993: Revision begun for 3rd Ed.
2010: Current estimated publication date of 3rd Ed.

Let’s talk a bit about the 1991 micrographic version.

Impossible to read without the supplied magnifying glass (and mighty troublesome with it), the “compact” edition has had limited acceptance. Its main selling point is its price advantage over the full-size 2nd Ed. I once had a squiz at it in a shop, but quickly decided that I’d get a headache using it on a regular basis.

Other Sydneysiders, however, have made it their bible. I have it on good authority, for example, that not so long ago no less prominent a figure than a certain Professor of English, now retired from a major Australian university (well, in that capacity, anyhow), could often be observed peering through the reading glass at a personal copy of the photo-reduced OED.

All, one assumes, with no adverse impact on the eyesight.

Squiz, incidentally, according to the OED itself, is antipodean slang deriving from quiz, “prob. blended with squint”. “Squint”, yeah — oh, thrice accursed lens!

But then . . . but then . . . in 1992 OUP issued the work in an even more reduced format.

When in 1984 plans were being laid for the Second Edition, a decision had been taken that would have far-reaching implications for the OED, namely that all material (including all entries of the First Edition) be keyed electronically.

The benefits of computerisation of a dictionary as big as the OED, with its 292 thousand entries, are obvious.

They include more convenient entry compilation (and, more particularly, revision), more flexible and simpler searching opportunities, not only for spelling, pronunciation, meaning or etymology, but also for dated usage as embodied in its two and a half million quotations — to say nothing of the space saving offered by a slim disc weighing a few grams.

Despite its initially prohibitive price, the CD-Rom version has from the start been an incontestable success — so much so that the OED team today still use some of the media praise of 1992 for advertising purposes. Originally selling in 1989 for around $A2,000, it was out of reach of all but libraries and a handful of dedicated language scholars.

Since then, however, a new, less academic, market has emerged, prompting a decision in 1996 to cut the price in half. This has given the opportunity for personal ownership to such diverse types as freelance journalists, authors, translators, crossword fiends, and writers of magazine columns on language.

Yes, the truth must out.

I bought my own copy in 1997, when I found it on special in a Barnes and Noble mail order catalogue. I upped my Mastercard limit, bit the bullet of lexicographical indebtedness and haven’t regretted the expense one bit. I use it every day for something, and my awe-struck admiration for James Murray and his successors just grows and grows.

Admittedly, a few standard features of Windows and Macintosh software are missing from current version, though for me this in no way detracts from its usefulness. No need to fret, anyhow, for I understand that within a couple of years a completely fresh edition will become available that will be compatible with MS Office and have many other welcome new features.

Here a few recent prices for the courageous dictionary explorers among you:

Compact OED, 2nd ed., one photo-reduced vol. in slip case with
reading glass: $A595 (Dymocks)
2nd ed., on CD-Rom (PC or Mac): $A950 (Dymocks)
2nd ed., 20 vols: $US995 (retail price) — Oz price around $A3,000 —
in March 1999 A&R was selling it for less than $1,900

I have little doubt that prices will come down as the publication of the Third Edition draws nearer.

Speaking of which, here’s a digest of what’s happening as OUP move towards OED3. According to my latest information, the approved budget is £34m, while the permanent staff comprises 42 editors plus 50 research assistants, keyboarders, proofreaders, etc. As well, there are over 200 specialist language consultants on call.

On that perhaps unexpected figure of £34m, incidentally, I should point out that no edition of the OED has ever come in under its estimated budget. Furthermore, OUP has never in its history made a profit from the Dictionary. Given these unfavourable commercial circumstances (such being the lot of so many University Presses), we must be profoundly grateful to them for their continuing commitment.

In addition to the preparation of entries for new words (an ongoing endeavour, of course, for any team of lexicographers), current work chiefly consists of revision of each and every word — the first full revision since 1928 — to improve accuracy in definition, etymology, pronunciation, quotations, etc. At last count, for example, more than one in four revised definitions have been expanded substantially with data on earlier usage.

Indeed, antedating, as it is called, is a vital part of the Oxford Dictionary revision process. Likewise postdating and interdating. Hence the growing Appeals Lists, which contain words or phrases (often colloquial) for which only incomplete evidence so far exists, and for which the OED team are seeking further documented instances.

Some diverting examples on recent Lists include:

cark it (pre-1977 evidence?)
grandkid (pre-1948 evidence?)
have a problem with = “object to” (pre-1989 evidence?)
have been, i.e. to the toilet, e.g. “Have you been?” (any evidence?)
off-switch (pre-1897 evidence?)
orphan in reference to things, not people (interdate 1697- 1936?)
perfect timing (pre-1976?)
shitload (pre-1972 evidence?)
something for the weekend, i.e. a condom (pre-1990?)

Plans are also afoot to make future editions of the OED available on-line via the Internet from March 2000. In this way users will have access to the latest information on every word/meaning/usage as soon as it is added to the database. No doubt this will incur a fee.

“All very exhilarating,” you are asking, “but what we Bikwil readers want to know is this: does having his own OED put Mr. Harlish Goop in seventh heaven? Is a single concise CD-Rom superior to 20 handsomely bound volumes? More to the point, has he paid it off yet?”

Always bearing in mind that I will love till I die the look of books on the shelf, their feel in the hand, their smell, new or old, I have succumbed to the temptation of answering the first question by reminding you of a piece of dialogue near the very end of the 1973 movie The Sting.

You’ll recall that from the start Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) has warned Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) that no revenge for the murder of Hooker’s friend by Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) is ever going to bring full satisfaction. Nevertheless they and their con-game buddies go ahead with their elaborate operation to make a bankrupt fool of Lonnegan, and they succeed.

As all evidence of the sting is being packed up and removed, Gondorff says to Hooker, “You beat him”. To which, after a pause, Hooker replies,

“You’re right. It’s not enough . . . [smile] . . . it’s close.”

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