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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.

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