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Caught in the Web

An English monument goes digital.

Sep 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 02 • By EDWARD SHORT
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In 1747, eight years before the publication of his pioneering dictionary, Samuel Johnson wrote that his “chief intent” in compiling his great work was “to preserve the purity and ascertain the meaning of the English idiom,” which he characterized as “the exact and pure idea of a grammatical dictionary.” But he also recognized that “in lexicography, as in other arts, naked science is too delicate for the purposes of life.” And it followed from this, “The value of a work must be estimated by its use.” Dictionaries had to present the language as it was, not merely as it should be: “It is not enough that a dictionary delights the critic, unless at the same time it instructs the learner.”

Online Oxford English Dictionary

James Murray in the Scriptorium

James Murray (1837-1915), the self-taught Scot who became the founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, would reaffirm that principle, concurring with the Philological Society that “the literary merit or demerit of any particular writer, like the comparative elegance or inelegance of any given word, is a subject on which the Lexicographer is bound to be almost indifferent.” At the same time, he devoted himself for over 30 years to capturing the dynamic richness of the language. In 1879, he equipped his famous Scriptorium in North Oxford with over a thousand pigeonholes to store the alphabetical slips of readers and assistants from which he compiled the dictionary’s definitions and quotations. And although he did not live to see the completion of the 10-volume New English Dictionary in 1928 (which would become the 12-volume OED in 1933), Murray’s vision has always animated the evolving character of this most authoritative, protean dictionary.  

The new online OED enables readers to access the evolution and use of more than 600,000 words over 1,000 years through three million quotations at the click of a keyboard. It has also woven the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary into its digital design, which serves as an indispensable map of the OED. In bringing the OED into the 21st century the new chief editor, John Simpson, has exhibited something of Murray’s zest and good judgment. He has also shown how well-suited Murray’s method is to digitalization: As he told the Times, “the way that [Murray] structured the dictionary with its series of branches, nested senses, meanings and the way that the quotations are arranged converts very easily on to computer.”

In her wonderful biography of her brilliant grandfather, Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary (1977), Elisabeth Murray recalled how

His life was all of a piece, and varied as were his interests, they can all be traced back to his childhood and youth. .  .  . He never lost his enthusiasm. .  .  . Only this continual feeling of wonder, adventure and delight could have sustained him through the tedious advance, year after year, among the words of the English language.

That the Historical Thesaurus has been added to the online festivities makes browsing all the more amusing. For the adjective vast, for example, readers can now access this dazzling catalogue: huge (1275), infinite (1385), unmeasurable (1386), giant (1480), immense (1490), unportable (1536), enormous (1544), monstrous (1553), gargantuan (1596), Polyphemian (1601), prodigious (1601), gigantical (1604), leviathan (1625), elephantine (1631), Titanical (1642), colossal (1664), Brobdignagian (1728), Patagonian (1786), mammoth (1801), dimensionless (1813), Titan (1851), behemothian (1910), supercolossal (1934), mega (1968), and
humongous (1970).

Apropos English synonyms, C. T. Onions, Murray’s great successor, once wrote, “It has been held by some that a language is at a disadvantage that has such a plethora of epithets as hateful, odious, loathsome, repulsive, offensive, together with disgusting, distasteful, nauseating, sickening, noisome; but the discerning will know what is the right place for all of these”—a truth which the OED’s well-chosen quotations exemplify.

The online Historical Thesaurus is infinitely easier to use than the two-volume print version. There are, for example, 36 different sets of synonyms for proof, each of which is clearly defined and readily accessible, without any delving into labyrinthian indexes. Dyed-in-the-wool print aficionados—or if you like, thoroughgoing, sworn, confirmed, ingrained print aficionados—will doubtless find having to concede this painful, but it is undeniable.

Although serendipity is not as likely with the digital as the print version, the online OED does feature a sidebar listing proximate words. Thus, in the case of vast, readers can view, among other words, vassalage, which the OED illustrates with Macaulay’s History of England (1849): “How our country, from a state of ignominious vassalage, rapidly rose to the place of umpire among European powers.” It was only eight years after Macaulay wrote this that the Philological Society recommended that a new dictionary be compiled. The same Victorian confidence inspired both.

When it comes to that astringent genre, the style guide, there are only three books worth reading: H. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Sir Ernest Gowers’s The Complete Plain Words, and the OED. And the OED is the best of the lot. Dip into the quotations and you will see why. For hobble, defined as “an awkward or perplexing situation from which extrication is difficult,” the OED cites George Washington: “I think you Wise men of the East, have got yourselves in a hobble.” Winston Churchill offers this salvo for pharisaicalness: “I must put pen to paper to ask you what you think of Coolidge’s Armistice Speech. Its coldness, smugness, self-sufficiency, boastfulness, Pharisaicalness & cant make me boil & freeze alternately.” Robert Louis Stevenson observes of Queer Street: “The more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask.” And for perseverance, Edmund Burke supplies this quotation, which epitomizes the entire history of the OED: “There is nothing which will not yield to perseverance and method.”

The online version has many new features, giving readers the ability to browse categories of words in terms of subject, usage, region, and language of origin. Thus, readers can browse words related to such subjects as arts, crafts and trades, law, military, philosophy, politics, religion, and technology. They can look at groups of words in terms of their usage, whether allusive, colloquial, slang, ironic, poetic, or literary. For example, the slang phrase to make a hole in the water, meaning “to commit suicide by drowning,” is nicely illustrated by Dickens in Our Mutual Friend (1865): “This is the drunken old chap .  .  . wot had offered .  .  . to make a hole in the water for a quartern of rum stood aforehand, and kept to his word for the first and last time in his life.”

Readers can also focus on words in terms of their geographical derivation, including Britain, North America, Australasia, the Caribbean, India, or Southeast Asia. And access groups of words listed by their linguistic origin. Thus, under European languages, readers can browse words having Germanic (10,830), Italic (64,155), Greek (8,238), and Celtic (587) origins. From this it is clear how considerable a contribution Latin and Greek made to our vocabulary, though a readiness to naturalize all foreign words into its magpie vocabulary has always been characteristic of English. Indeed, as Onions once quipped, “it was the salvation of English that it became a Romance language.”

Proof of this can be seen in the inveteracy with which English appropriates French words. In the Great War the English Tommy turned the French estaminet into stay-a-minute and Il n’y a plus (there is none left) into napoo, an all-purpose word meaning finished, gone, done for. Verve is an example of one of those French words that English simply pinched outright without bothering to change. The OED nicely illustrates it with something out of Ouida: “There isn’t one half the verve among you new people there was in my young time”—a sentiment which oldies might wish to reconsider now that the young have produced this brilliant online OED.  

Ouida also calls to mind the considerable contributions that individual writers have made to English vocabulary, though it is interesting that the OED’s greatest source for quotations is not Shakespeare but the Times, which is credited with 37,375. Still, Shakespeare ranks second with 33,174 and Sir Walter Scott third with 17,005. Every reader will enjoy ransacking the sources to see how their favorite authors rank: Chaucer, Milton, Tennyson, Carlyle, Macaulay, Pope, Defoe, Samuel Johnson, Thackeray, Swift, and Ben Jonson all figure among the top 50. Dryden ranks 12th with 9,276, just two above Dickens with 9,213 quotations. Dryden’s strong showing confirms Johnson’s estimate of the poet, about whom he wrote in Lives of the Poets (1779): “To him we owe .  .  . the refinement of our language, and much of the correctness of our sentiments. By him we were taught sapere & fari, to think naturally and express forcibly.”

What finally makes the online OED so special is its incomparable convenience, a fact that would have pleased Murray, who was perpetually preoccupied with finding space not only for the dictionary, which was originally projected to span only four volumes and 6,400 pages, but for his assistants and himself in the cramped Scriptorium. In meshing the OED with the Historical Thesaurus of the OED, and making them available online in so seamlessly resourceful a format, the Oxford University Press has achieved what John Ruskin once called “the two great objects of utility and splendour.”

Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries.

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