Monday, February 1, 2010

Happy Birthday, OED

The most amazing dictionary in the world. I used to have the two-volume set that contained all 20 volumes of the original and came in a slip case with a little drawer on top where was stored the magnifying glass so you could read the near microscopic print. I read or heard one time that there's actually a guy who read the entire 20-volume OED. Now there's a truly monumental feat for you. There's a purportedly real good book out on the partnership between one of the original editors of the OED in the 19th century and a guy who was in prison, but also apparently was a wizard at lexicography. I remember giving a copy of this book to my mom for her birthday a couple of years ago, but damned if I can remember title or author. Fairly typical of my memory these days. If anybody out there knows the title of this book, please drop a note and tell me.

Here's what "Writer's Almanac" had to say today about the OED:

It was on this day in 1884 that the first part of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. It covered from "A" to "Ant."

The Philological Society of London had conceived the idea for a new dictionary almost 30 years earlier, back in 1857, and then in 1879 they worked out an agreement with Oxford University Press to publish their ambitious project. The Society felt that the English dictionaries that existed at the time were "incomplete and deficient," and they wished to write a new dictionary that would take into account the way the English language had developed from Anglo-Saxon times.

The dictionary, they proposed, would take 10 years to complete, fill four volumes, and amount to 6,400 pages. They were halfway (five years) into the project when they published the first volume on this day in 1884, and they'd only completed from "A" to "Ant." In the end, the dictionary took 70 years (not 10) to complete, and it filled 10 volumes (not four) and it was 15,490 pages, more than twice as long as they'd originally estimated to their publisher. The last volume of the first edition of the dictionary was published in 1928. It defined more than 400,000 word forms, and it used 1,861,200 quotations to help illustrate these definitions.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a Supplement to the OED was published in four volumes. And then, in 1989, a big Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. It's the one you're most likely to find in a library today. Its 21,730 pages fill up 20 volumes, and it weighs nearly 140 pounds. There are more than 615,000 definitions for words in this edition, which also contains 2,436,600 quotations.

The longest entry in the 1989 edition is the word "set" in its verb form: There are more than 430 listed ways the verb "set" is used. The entry for the verb "set" is 60,000 words long, the equivalent of a modestly sized novel. The Bible is quoted more than any other work in the Oxford English Dictionary, and Shakespeare is quoted more than any other single author. Of Shakespeare's works, Hamlet is quoted the most — there about 1,600 quotations from Hamlet alone in the OED.

In 1992, a CD-ROM version of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. Now the dictionary is online, where it's constantly under revision.

Many of the facts found in this entry about the Oxford English Dictionary — and more information about it -— can be found on the OED's own site: http://www.oed.com/about/
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