Friday, December 10, 2010

The Making of the OED

Have you read The Professor and the Madman (Simon Winchester)? What a fabulous book. That is, if you love words and dictionaries, as I do. It’s full title, just to hook you into reading this is: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

When we were culling books prior to downsizing our home, I had hard choices to make. I kept The Professor and the Madman. I may read it again. I may not. But I want to hold onto it because I loved it so much. You know that feeling. Also, I see it as a set with my OED.

I mentioned in yesterday’s blog that the compact version of the OED was my favorite Christmas present from DH. What kind of guy is that, you might ask, who gets his wife a dictionary? The same kind of guy she married when their favorite wedding present was a dictionary!

Maybe we’re weird.

Anyway, the compact OED (about 15” tall and 4” wide) has 9 pages of print on each page and comes with a magnifying glass. Friends, knowing how much I love the dictionary, gave me a fancy magnifying glass worthy of the OED. Love them both! The un-compact version, by the way, is a dictionary spanning 20 volumes.

The OED is remarkable in itself. The original dictionary defined 414,825 words. The intent was to show the development of vocabulary over time. 1,827,306 quotes were gleaned from literature by volunteers to show how the definition the words had developed over time with pejoration, amelioration, or simply multiple meanings. You can trace the etymology not just through language of origin, but the changing meanings over time. It is great fun to read!

What an accomplishment! Professor James Murray spent 40 years of his life on the project that was completed after his death. That factoid gives you a sense of the scope of this work.

The book on the making of the OED was two stories in one. Professor Murray sent out the call across England for volunteers to read literature from as far back as they could up to present day (late 19th century) and write on slips of paper the word and a quote from a book using the word with a different definition than they had found before. All the little slips were sent to a warehouse at Oxford University where they had to be sorted and catalogued. THERE WERE NO COMPUTERS TO HELP WITH THIS! It was an astounding feat.

Just as a note of interest, do you know which English word has the largest number of definitions in the OED? “Set” has 464 definitions. Care to know the rest of the top ten? Run—396; go—368; take—343; stand—334; get—289; turn—288; put—268; fall—264; and, strike—250.

The story of the OED development was gripping enough, but we get a two-fer with the book. One of the volunteers, Dr. W.C. Minor, was especially prolific, so Murray wanted to meet him and involve him more. After being put off time and again by Minor, Murray finally showed up at his residence, an asylum for the criminally insane. With money, things could be different then as now. Minor had a suite of rooms with bookshelves everywhere loaded with rare volumes. Minor had been a surgeon during the American Civil War and that experience probably tipped the scale on sanity. He killed a man in England and was committed. But from that tragedy came the enormous help he provided on the massive OED project.

I could go on, but that would take time away from you finding this book or a copy of the OED and reading for yourself. This is a word lovers duo!

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