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Thursday, 31 January 2013
Home arrow Writers and the dictionary arrow Literary issues arrow Treasure-house
The role of the OED as 'treasure-house' is something that the OED's publisher, Oxford University Press, has delighted in publicly embracing. In announcing the completion of the first edition in 1928, the Press claimed, 'it is a Dictionary not of our English, but of all English: the English of Chaucer, of the Bible, and of Shakespeare is unfolded in it with the same wealth of illustration as is devoted to the most modern authors' (The Periodical, 15 February 1928, p. 1). In one of the publicity brochures released for the second edition of 1989, OUP reproduced a series of small portraits of twelve sources for the OED, calling them, rather fancifully, '"Contributors" to the OED': Chaucer and Shakespeare, John Locke and John Wesley; Johnson and Noah Webster - these apparently included on account of the influence of their dictionaries' influence on OED­; Austen; Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce.

Evidently, none of these writers actively contributed; they are merely cited - in very varying proportions (c. 33,300 times for Shakespeare; 227 for Woolf) - by the lexicographers; although Hardy certainly used and read the OED, and possibly James Joyce too (Woolf's active use of OED, if it occurred, has yet to be demonstrated; she mentions only the Concise Oxford Dictionary. On Hardy, Joyce, and Woolf see respectively Taylor 1993, Deane 1998, Fowler 2002; on Webster see Brewer 2008).

Over the page, the brochure states that the OED is 'at once a history of thought and of our civilization'; it is 'the supreme treasure-house of the riches of the English language'. But whose 'thought', and whose 'civilization'? As with Johnson's dictionary, OED's treasures, in the form of quotation sources, were selected according to certain culturally determined tastes and values. It is a partial record, though none the less valuable, and loved by its readers, for that.

Burchfield enormously increased quotations from scientific, technical, and non-literary sources in the OED (Brewer 2007b: chapters 6 and 7). But he still believed that recording the language of great writers was central to the Dictionary's character, and quoted liberally from writers he identified as such. This legacy of pervasive quotation from literary sources is a tricky one for the current OED lexicographers, engaged on the third edition, to deal with. While they will not wish to renege on this most cherished aspect of their Dictionary, it is not obviously consonant with their aim to present an impartial linguistic record (so far as such a thing is possible) of past and present usage. It is too early to be sure, as yet, what form their policy will take. They have expanded their range of sources even further than Burchfield (see pages at OED3); nevertheless citation from certain literary sources (e.g. Dryden and Dickens, heavily quoted in OED1, but also Virginia Woolf) has significantly increased rather than declined.

Source: this page is based on material in Brewer 2007b. See our pages elsewhere on this site of the public perception of literature, and therefore the OED, as a treasure-house (Literature and the nation, Initial results: literary sources, and the previous page).

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 04 March 2009 )
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