The Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary is an impressive work. In its current edition, it is roughly 22000 pages, in twenty sizable hardcover volumes, and tips the scales at 130 pounds. What makes the OED, as it is commonly called, so much different than other dictionaries? Why does it hold such a revered spot in the academic world in general, and in the field of language study specifically?

What makes it unique is the amazing level of detail available for each entry. The OED traces each word or phrase back to the earliest known usage in print, and provides authoritative quotations from throughout the history of literature displaying the evolution of the word throughout its usage. Unlike standard dictionaries, which primarily provide etymologies, pronunciations, and meanings, the OED places each word in its cultural and linguistic context, which explains why and how the word means what it means.

The compilation of the dictionary was conceived in 1857, and work continued for over 20 years before Oxford University agreed to publish the work, which would take another 50 years to be completed. The totality of events and obstacles during this 70-year period are too broad for me to go into detail here, but Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman does an admirable job of explaining the project, while providing a fascinating account of the lives of several of its key contributors. His follow-up work, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary is one I have not yet enjoyed, but is a more complete history of the OED project in general. It was released on the 75th anniversary of the dictionary’s first edition. The third edition is currently in the works.

That such massive amounts of time, money, and sheer physical and mental effort were expended in the interest of cataloging, codifying, and preserving the English language is, to me, extremely encouraging. It displays a pride in our intellectuality that was very apparent in the era in which the project began, a pride to which I believe we must cling fiercely, even as we continue to be tossed about on the vast seas of ‘the information age’.

Because of computers, today an incomprehensibly large volume of information is at our fingertips, but the vast majority of this bears no authority, has no basis in reality, or is relayed in such an informal or incoherent manner that it warrants little attention. The OED, and literary and historical works in general, must continue to be produced and studied, not only for the enjoyment which comes from investing in one’s own betterment, but for the preservation of our intellectual traditions, traditions that are today being threatened.

This is what reading books, and selling books, has always meant to me. And with that, I am off to fight the good fight.


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