Samuel Johnson once said a dictionary should aim to “not form, but register” the language. Indeed, a dictionary should “not teach men how they should think,” he continued, “but relate how they have hitherto expressed their thoughts.”
We tend to think of our dictionaries as tools of instruction; as books that set the standard, with a certain air of the definitive, for how our words ought properly to be used. But that was never the intention. The great lexicographers understood that the ideal campaign of a worthy dictionary was descriptive, not prescriptive. It would simply record what we’ve already agreed upon socially. It would, like the English language, live and breathe and change.
Language changes more quickly than ever. Its mutations spread at broadband speeds, as usage adapts in an instant to the changing demands we place on it. New words emerge overnight and become common currency almost as soon as they’re uttered; old words fall into swift and seemingly permanent obsolescence, discarded as the world develops and our needs evolve. In the face of such advancement, a nimble and responsive dictionary is more essential than ever. It isn’t a relic. It’s a cultural imperative.
Of all dictionaries, none looms more imposingly than the Oxford English Dictionary, or the OED. It stands as a monument — the great colossus of Victorian scholarship and human endeavour. It seems rather definitive, in its scope and erudition, its breadth of research and hard-won wisdom. But as its history and evolution make apparent, the OED remains a testament most of all to the dictionary’s endless sensitivity to change.
“The OED, more so than any other dictionary, encompasses the entire history of the modern English language,” writes Ammon Shea, in the introduction to his laborious undertaking Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. “By doing so it also encompasses all of English’s glories and foibles, the grand concepts and whimsical conceits that make our language what it is today.”
The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the one Shea read, published in 1989, contains more than 59 million words, spread across 20 volumes, in text so small that when you bought a copy, once upon a time, booksellers threw in a magnifying glass. The sheer size of the OED made Shea’s exhaustive account a “thinking person’s CliffsNotes to the greatest dictionary in the world,” an equally daunting and irresistible venture.
Of course, Shea’s conceit is interesting precisely because the OED was never meant to be read all the way through. It was never intended to be consumed, page by page, from beginning to end. Works of reference are designed for consultation: You pick up the phone book or the encyclopedia or the farmer’s almanac because you want to locate some specific article of information, swiftly retrieved before the volume is returned to its place on the shelf.
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