An ode to the OED

An ode to the OED

Quite soon after becoming a journalist in 1979 I observed a correlation between those of my colleagues who wrote well and those who bothered to get out of their chairs and look things up in books and cuttings. One of the delights at The Daily Telegraph was the system by which the endless shallow drawers of cuttings folders were arranged. The Berlin Wall came under ‘Fences, miscellaneous’.

Of course, the spelling of a common word could be found in the little dictionary on one’s desk. Getting up was reserved for any examination of a word’s history, just as dead people were sought in the Dictionary of National Biography and the living in Who’s Who on the office shelf. Alan Watkins, the great stylist of the Observer political pages, formulated the useful maxim: ‘Five minutes with Who’s Who are seldom wasted.’

Getting up from one’s chair was destroyed as a measure of professional devotion by the development of online publication. The chief benefits to me of the OED Online are its updating and incremental improvement, and its openness to being searched.

CS Lewis once observed that the modern invention that would be most admired by the medieval mind was the card-index. I think that today Isidore of Seville or Bartholomeus Anglicus would most admire online reference works.

Yet I can’t deny that the strongest memories connected with the OED are physical. After the second edition came out in 1989, I carted the 9 stone 11lb 12oz of the 20 volumes home (from The Spectator’s old offices near Dickens’s house in Doughty Street) in a cab with such elation that I stopped at the fishmonger’s with its front open to Notting Hill Gate to buy some turbot for a celebratory dinner.

Buying a copy of the first edition, the New English Dictionary, entailed more strenuous exertion. I had failed to agree a reduced price at Holleyman and Treacher’s secondhand shop in Brighton. My argument was that the original morocco binding was rubbed. Their argument was that this accounted for the modest price. It didn’t seem modest to me, but the ten fat volumes were bagged and I made my way home by train.

The pedestrian stretches were negotiated in a way analogous to Captain Scott’s traversing of the Antarctic ice. From the depot of bagged volumes I would take two or four bags and stagger for some yards to build up a new depot, then return for more. Like Captain Oates I was some time. But I survived.

It is noteworthy that both the fishmonger and Holleyman and Treacher have closed down. The NED and OED remain. There they sit at home on neighbourly low shelves. It is of great interest to compare entries in the NED with the OED of 1989, now revised in parts.

I find that revised entries online take in new quotations from some of the same books read by volunteers in the 1880s. The fresh quotations are either earlier or illustrate a meaning not teased out in the NED or perhaps rejected as too slangy or dialectal for inclusion in the limited space.

Physically, the NED is a splendid production. The large leaves remain white. The imprint of the type can be felt beneath the fingertip. The binder has gilt the top edge. The worst defect is the fatness of the volumes. The binding still holds, but M is so monstrous that the type block attempts to throw itself down in the direction of the fore-edge, making the spine bulge outwards in reaction.

No wonder, for M, edited by Henry Bradley, contains 99,255 quotations to illustrate its 12,988 words. M came out in July 1908, but W A Craigie had beaten him to publication by 11 months for the letter N. Much of M had been subedited in the 1880s, but Me- to the end had to be ‘laboriously re-subedited’ by James Bartlett between 1899 and 1904.

With 3,484 main words, N was etymologically ‘not a difficult letter’, whereas M contained semantically complicated words such as make, which occupied 11 pages and could have taken up more, if time and space had been available. Bradley, who died five years before the first edition was completed, proudly pointed to the etymological treatment of words such as macaronic, mad-apple, magic-lantern, mammon, minute, mohair, mother, muckender, mutton, and mystery.

Thank you, Mr Bradley. I shall go and look them up now in the OED Online, and I won’t have to stir from my chair.

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