The Magazine

Caught in the Web

An English monument goes digital.

Sep 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 02 • By EDWARD SHORT
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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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