The OED

Cover of "The Oxford English Dictionary (...

Cover via Amazon

If you’re not familiar with those initials, they stand for the Oxford English Dictionary, undoubtedly the most revered dictionary in the English-speaking world.  Not your typical dictionary, it gives not only etymology and spelling but examples of word usage from the first example to more recent ones, including dates of those instances. Researchers began working on it in 1857.

Today on “All Things Considered,” the about-to-retire Chief Editor of the OED, John Simpson, was interviewed. He has been delving into words at the OED for 37 years now and thought it was time to spend his time in areas less apt to change than is language.  In the interview, he was asked if the next revision of the OED would include words that first appeared not on paper but in cyberspace, and the answer was a definitive yes.

In case you think the OED would be a nifty dictionary for your bookshelf, it currently runs to

Cover of "The Professor and the Madman: A...

Cover via Amazon

20 volumes.  Years ago I joined the Book of the Month Club because as a bonus for signing up I could get the OED in two volumes, with four pages of the larger edition on each page. The slipcase contains a drawer with a necessary magnifying glass included.  You can get the OED online, but it is quite pricey.

A wonderful book about the OED and one of its most diligent and fruitful researchers is The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester.  Here is a brief Amazon synopsis:

The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary — and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857; it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

Tell me that doesn’t grab you!  The Professor and the Madman is a compelling book I recommend without reservation.

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April 27, 2013 · 12:55 AM

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