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October 15th, 2008

Happy 80th, OED!

by Barbara Wallraff

Greetings from Oxford, in Merrie Olde England, where I’m attending a celebration in honor of the 80th anniversary of the Oxford English Dictionary. As you might imagine, this isn’t a “Let’s party!” kind of event. Two days’ worth of talks and tours and coffees and panel discussions are scheduled. I’m in heaven.

The OED is, of course, that huge, multi-volume reference that some of us got to know from a book club’s miniature edition, complete with a magnifying glass. Its creation was the ridiculously ambitious project at the heart of “The Professor and the Madman,”the bestseller from a few years ago, which has been optioned for a movie. I call the effort “ridiculously ambitious” because if you count from when work on the OED began, instead of when the final volume of the first edition was published, the dictionary isn’t a mere 80 years old but 151. That’s right: The first edition was 71 years in the making.

Although I’ve come to love the OED, it used to confuse and disappoint me. That was when I thought of it as just a more long-winded version of other dictionaries, like Merriam-Webster’s and the American Heritage. The OED’s greatest strength is its coverage of the history of English. It may not be the best place to puzzle out, for instance, whether the current exclamation “Sweet!” is sincere or sarcastic (can be either). But there’s no better resource if you’re wondering where “sweet” came from (Teutonic languages), how long it has been part of our language (more than a thousand years) and how it has been used over time (a long story). No, I don’t suppose many of us do need to know these things. But, judging from the mail I get, a lot of people find them at least interesting.

The OED surely will have future anniversary celebrations, though there’s no telling whether it will be published in printed volumes ever again. The editors began work on the OED Online in 1993, a few years after the 20-volume second edition came out, and since then, the advantages to publishing online have only become clearer. For instance, the editors no longer need to worry about how much space is available on the page, so they can add valuable information that was previously left out. (Believe it or not, there’s a lot of it.) When they discover errors, they can correct them immediately. When they learn of important new words or meanings, they can add these immediately too. The online information can be searched in countless ways -- for words that end in “-eet,” for words that come from Teutonic languages, for words that Shakespeare used, etc.

If you don’t absolutely need to know about words but are interested in them anyway, and if you have a computer with an Internet connection, you may find a different advantage to be the most valuable of all. Namely, your public library may have a subscription to the OED Online, and if so, you may be able to look things up in it at home whenever you want, instead of having to trek to a library branch to answer a casual question. See if your library card gives you access to the OED Online. If it does -- now, that’s what I call sweet!

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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