The Most Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language
February 1, 2022
Lord of the Rings. Les Miserables. Gone With The Wind. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Each of these books took six or more years to be written with the Lord of the Rings trilogy taking JRR Tolkien 16 years.
But in the world of publishing, there was one project which was conceived 23 years before the first pages were published: The Oxford English Dictionary. Also known as OED.
The OED is THE definitive authority on the English language, providing an etymology on the origins of every English word. The idea was conceived in 1857 but the first ‘fascicle’* was not published until February 1, 1884.
The Infallible Wikipedia shares:
“The dictionary began as a Philological Society project of a small group of intellectuals in London (and unconnected to Oxford University): Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, and Frederick Furnivall, who were dissatisfied with the existing English dictionaries. The society expressed interest in compiling a new dictionary as early as 1844, but it was not until June 1857 that they began by forming an “Unregistered Words Committee” to search for words that were unlisted or poorly defined in current dictionaries. In November, Trench’s report was not a list of unregistered words; instead, it was the study On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries, which identified seven distinct shortcomings in contemporary dictionaries:
· Incomplete coverage of obsolete words
· Inconsistent coverage of families of related words
· Incorrect dates for earliest use of words
· History of obsolete senses of words often omitted
· Inadequate distinction among synonyms
· Insufficient use of good illustrative quotations
· Space wasted on inappropriate or redundant content.
The society ultimately realized that the number of unlisted words would be far more than the number of words in the English dictionaries of the 19th century, and shifted their idea from covering only words that were not already in English dictionaries to a larger project. Trench suggested that a new, truly comprehensive dictionary was needed. On 7 January 1858, the society formally adopted the idea of a comprehensive new dictionary.”
There is much more to the story and it took another 44 years for the work to be completed. The last fascicle, which ranged from the words Wand to Wise, was the 125th installment. The complete dictionary – in bound volumes – soon followed.
Interestingly, Tolkien worked on the OED and even wrote a parody based on some of the editors who he called ‘The Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford’ in the story Farmer Giles of Ham.
The OED is not, of course, the only dictionary in the world. But even today it is considered the gold standard.
From the time I could read, I have been fascinated with dictionaries. Currently I have 11 books on my shelves with the word ‘dictionary’ in their titles. These include not only standard dictionaries, but also The Boston Dictionary, Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, and The Dictionary of Clichés.
My most prized dictionary, however, is a Funk & Wagnalls College Standard Dictionary. From 1925.
It is still in amazingly good shape, its edges now bound with 1960’s era brown electrical tape. This particular dictionary was a part of my childhood as it belonged to my maternal grandmother and was kept in the family cabin at Rimrock Lake. I suspect it was an early addition to my grandparent’s summer escape place and arrived about the same time as the Scrabble game.
My grandmother and mother loved to play Scrabble together. I can see them, in my mind’s eye, puzzling over their letters to arrive at the word with the most points. But if one or the other challenged the other’s word, the 1925 dictionary would come off the shelf. It was the final authority.
When the cabin was sold two years ago, I was the lucky one who was privileged to add this family heirloom to my collection.
Every once in a while I will randomly read a page of a dictionary, looking for new and unfamiliar words. But, perhaps the most entertaining thing about perusing an old dictionary is to find words which existed then but have come to mean something different today.
I give you, as an example, the word ‘Computer’.
Dictionary.com provides this as the first definition: a programmable electronic device designed to accept data, perform prescribed mathematical and logical operations at high speed, and display the results of these operations. Mainframes, desktop and laptop computers, tablets, and smartphones are some of the different types of computers.
But the 1925 F&W dictionary definition is ‘One who computes; particularly one who makes astronomical or other special calculations.’ There was no computer machine to be found in 1925!
I postulate that there is never a reason to be bored. In fact, just now my attention drifted a bit from the task at hand and I found myself reading words from the aforementioned 1925 dictionary. Have you ever heard of a Hackmatack? It sounds like something which would happen to your email if the wrong person found your password.
But, no, it is an actual word, a noun, of native American origins which means ‘The American larch; Tamarack.’ From now on I’m calling the Tamarack the Hackmatack. Or perhaps I will incorporate it into my world and use it randomly when the mood strikes. I wonder what other awesome and amazing words I can learn today?
A couple of links:
*Fascicle: a section of a book or set of books being published in installments as separate pamphlets or volumes.
A friend and I used to spend a couple of hours reading the dictionary. We would start with one word which. Invariably lead to looking at another would from the definition of the first word and so forth. Fond memories of my friend.
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