Thursday, 6 January 2011

O.E.D.: Three Initials Celebrating the Greatest Victory Yet of Literacy

For a bibliomaniac like me, Simon Winchester’s beguiling biography of the Oxford English Dictionary, ”The Meaning of Everything” (Oxford, 2003) is as exciting a read imaginable. It recounts the gathering conviction of the English Philological Society that their great language, just beginning its globalized victory, deserves a new kind of professionalized dictionary.

Its final finish in 1928, 68 years and three weeks after its troubled beginning, was perhaps the greatest single achievement in literary history. “The English establishment of the day might be rightly derided at this remove as having been class-ridden and imperialist,bombastic and blimpish, racist and insouciant—but it marked undeniably also by a sweeping erudition and confidence, and it was peopled by men and women who felt they were able to know all, to understand much,and in consequence to radiate the wisdom of deep learning. It is worth pointing this out simply because it was such people—such remarkable, polymathic, cultured, fascinating, wise and leisured people—who were primarily involved in the creation of the mighty endeavour that the following account celebrates.” (p. xviii.)

On Derby Day 1928, 150 members of the Philological Society(“all of them men, one feels slightly shamed to note today”,p.xix) sat down to a celebratory dinner at the London Office of Assay, where precious metals are measured for their purity and value. It at first was the club of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. The first two copies of the twelve volume dictionary were bestowed on King George V—and Calvin Coolidge, attesting to the common culture of the two English-speaking countries. A total of 227,779,589 letters and numbers, occupying fully 178 miles of type! 414,825 words.

The ecumenical bent of the editors account for the two Russian words, Glasnost and perestroika, unknown before 1989 to join the English glossary, along with so diverse a collection as “sauna, dachshund, omboudsman, waltz, cobra, bwana, ouzo, agitprop, samovar, kraal, boondock, boomerang, colleen, manga, kava, tattoo, poncho, pecan, puma, piranha” (p.18.).

And the search never ends. Take the word “information”. “It has grown urgent and problematic—a signpost seen everywhere, freighted with new meaning and import. We hardly need the lexicographers of the O.E.D. to tell us that, but after all, this is what they live for.” (James Gleick, “The Information Palace,” The New York Review of Books (12/14/2010).) The editors have determined that the word “information” is “exhibiting significant linguistic productivity” a word that “both reflects and embodies major cultural and technological change” therefore a word crying out for their attention. And it got it It! Attention that is.

The word “information” now requires 9,400 words of explication, the length of a novella. Gleich exclaims that the new entry “is a sort of masterpiece—an adventure in cultural history. A century ago ‘information’ didn’t have much resonance. It was a nothing word. ‘An item of training; an instruction.’ Now (as people have been saying for fifty years) we are in the Information Age. Which by the way the OED defines for us in its dry-as-chili-powder prose: ’the era in which the retrieval, management, and transmission of information,esp. by using computer technology, is a principal commercial activity.’”

Michael Profitt, OED managing editor, digs deeper. ”What makes it so distinctive as the fabric of mass communication is the very combination of immateriality and massiveness, its overwhelming diffuseness. It’s also a word that provides a point of imaginative sympathy between OED’s editors and readers.” Which is to say a personal dimension in an intimidatingly complex environment.

Incidentally the word entered our vocab, as near as the lexical gumshoes can say, in the fourteenth century where it had a sinister ring, signifying something like “accusation” or “incrimination”.The earliest citation came from the Rolls of Parliament, to wit, "Thanne were such proclamacions made. . bi suggestion and infornacion of suche that wolde nought her falsnese be knowen to her own lige Lorde.” “For centuries thereafter, informations were filed, or recorded, or laid against people.” As it goes, with words, for ever and ever. And never an Amen! Its meaning began in the Latin verb, informare, to give form to, to shape, to mold. Language is a wonder, No?

Incidentally, you can get the whole new 9400 yards of “Information” in the OED’s latest quarterly revision online, December 2010. And that ain’t all. One Henri Bejoint has newly joined the OED in cyberspace, in “The Lexicography of English” (Oxford, 2010).( See Howard Jackson’s review,”Hard Words” in TLS, October 29, 2010, p.27.)

Computers were first used in the 1970’s to check consistency of definitions in the “Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English”. Samuel Johnson got his definitions and citations from his chosen “authors of the first rank”. OED editor James Murray and his co-workers collected 5 million quotations! Modern lexicographers mostly use a computer corpus of texts to search new words and new meanings. The largest of these corpora is the 2 billion plus Oxford English Corpus, composed of material taken entirely from the internet.

My only first hand lexicographical crisis occurred during the Modern Language Association convention in New York in 1964. I had persuaded a skeptical MLA Executive Committee to let me organize a “jury” of nine(for the Muses) MLA satire specialists to meet after the telecast of “That Was The Week That Was” with the TV cast, next to General David Sarnoff’s office in the RCA Building where we had dined during the broadcast.(Scuttlebutt had it that the RCA boss Sarnoff’s color TV was the only one that worked in America.)

I had invited Philip Gove, editor of Webster III, to the satire panel. Soon into our afterparty, the TV show MC, (now Sir) David Frost got into a free for all with Gove over his descriptive rather prescriptive principle that allowed four letter words to sneak into Webster III! It was not a very humane discourse that ensued, as I was distracted by my feebly unsuccessful attempt to court Nancy Ames, the program’s stunning jazz singer. Some months later while I was summer teaching in London, David invited me for lunch at his club. He broke the ice with a spirited apology for his rampage against Webster III. Having had his vocabulary widened by Philip to encompass the lexically permissive “descriptive” as well as the old fashioned “prescriptive” ranting, Frost warmly allowed that now he “loved Gove”! OED. QED!

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