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Thursday, 31 January 2013
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The World and the OED
In the case of the OED, the comprehensive list of words is itself hugely impressive. The collection of (nearly) all recorded words in the English language implies an enumeration of all known things or concepts. This effect is enhanced by the enormous number of illustrative quotations (nearly 2.5 million in OED2), drawn in many cases from great works of literature, history and philosophy written between 1150 and the late 20th century. As has often been observed, the quotations give the work the character of a commonplace book stored with knowledge and wisdom, providing access to literary masterpieces which have played a defining role in English-speaking culture.

One of the most significant functions of the quotations in OED, therefore, is the impression they give to the reader that this multi-volume reference work represents both the world itself, and more particularly the life and culture of the nation (in much the same way as does that other great Victorian undertaking, the Dictionary of National Biography). This is an impression often recorded by users of the OED, whether in the past or more recently.

In 1889, a reviewer of the first volume of the OED (letters A and B) wrote that, as in the Encyclopedia Britannica (ninth edition) and the Dictionary of National Biography (vols 1-17), which he was also reviewing,
everything is to be found here, but one feels that human faculties are inadequate to penetrate the details of so vast a collection. (Reeve 1889: 350)
A later reviewer, of the 1933 re-issue of the OED, began his article,
A dictionary, Anatole France has said, is the universe in alphabetical order,[1]
while a correspondent to the Oxford University Press (writing of the Shorter OED, the abridgement of OED first published in 1933) thought
the world seems spread before one and the dictionary's breadth of view seems to be commensurate with reality...here there is no author's arbitrary handling of the material of life to irk the reader.[2]
An associated way of responding to the OED is quoted in the Third Edition of the OED itself (i.e. the ongoing current revision, which is being published online), as one of the illustrative quotations for the term 'O.E.D.' - an engaging example of self-referentiality:
the O.E.D. is the collective unconscious of English speakers, he would say, for all our ideas and feelings are to be found there, in the endless recombinations of our words
(the quotation comes from the New Yorker magazine of 27 March 1995 (p. 59), where the remark is attributed to the poet James Merrill.)[3]

The title of Simon Winchester's recent book on the history of the OED, The Meaning of Everything, also exploits the apparent equivalence between the world and the OED, and the belief that the OED is in some way a faithful reflection of English-speaking culture is found in the prefatory matter to the Third Edition:
Far more than a convenient place to look up words and their origins, the Oxford English Dictionary is an irreplaceable part of English culture. It not only provides an important record of the evolution of our language, but also documents the continuing development of our society. (http://www.oed.com/public/oedhistory/history-of-the-oed#future [accessed 11 March 2011])
The significant characteristic of all these remarks or phrases is the unproblematic congruence they assume between the OED and the outside world - or with the English language in its uncensored, unselected entirety.

[1] Osborn 1933: 781. We have been unable to trace the source of the quotation from Anatole France (we thank Elizabeth Knowles of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations for her suggestions). Please contact us if you can help.
[2] Egbert E. Smart, 13 December 1937 (OED archives, in file labelled OED REVISION BOX 1936-41. Material from the OED archives is quoted by permission from the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press).
[3] Many thanks to Robert C. Ross for drawing our attention to this quotation (21 Jan, 2008). The term OED was first included in the Dictionary in the third volume of Burchfield's Supplement, published in 1982.
Last Updated ( Friday, 11 March 2011 )
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