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Posts Tagged ‘Oxford English Dictionary

“There’s no such thing as an unabridged dictionary”*…

 

For OED’s editors, this world is both exhilarating and, one senses, mildly overwhelming. The digital era has enabled Oxford lexicographers to run dragnets deeper and deeper through the language, but it has also threatened to capsize the operation. When you’re making a historical dictionary and are required to check each and every resource, then recheck those resources when, say, a corpus of handwritten 17th-century letters comes on stream, the problem of keeping the dictionary up to date expands to even more nightmarish proportions. Adding to that dictionary to accommodate new words – themselves visible in greater numbers than ever before, mutating ever-faster – increases the nightmare exponentially. “In the early years of digital, we were a little out of control,” Peter Gilliver told me. “It’s never-ending,” one OED lexicographer agreed. “You can feel like you’re falling into the wormhole.”

Adding to the challenge is a story that has become wearily familiar: while more people are consulting dictionary-like resources than ever, almost no one wants to shell out. Sales of hard-copy dictionaries have collapsed, far more calamitously than in other sectors. (OUP refused to give me figures, citing “commercial sensitivities”. “I don’t think you’ll get any publisher to fess up about this,” Michael Rundell told me.) While reference publishers amalgamate or go to the wall, information giants such as Google and Apple get fat by using our own search terms to sell us stuff. If you can get a definition by holding your thumb over a word on your smartphone, why bother picking up a book?…

As Andrew Dickson explains, for centuries lexicographers have attempted to capture the entire English language. Technology might soon turn this dream into reality – but will it spell the end for dictionaries?  The fascinating story of the Oxford English Dictionary‘s ongoing attempt to outrun that fate: “Inside the OED: can the world’s biggest dictionary survive the internet?

* Jack Lynch, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English, from Shakespeare to South Park

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As we look it up, we might send carefully-defined birthday greetings to Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek; he was born on this date in 1827.  A linguist, he created  A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages.  But his great project (jointly executed with his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd) was “The Bleek and Lloyd Archive of ǀxam and !kun texts”– a shortened form of which eventually reached press as Specimens of Bushman Folklore (on which Laurens van der Post drew heavily for his book, The Heart of the Hunter and for his BBC series The Lost World of the Kalahari).

 source

Happy International Women’s Day!

Written by LW

March 8, 2018 at 1:01 am

All Reith Now!…

Bertrand Russell delivering the first Reith Lecture

The Reith Lectures were inaugurated by the BBC in 1948 to honor the contributions of its first Director General, John Reith (more formally known by the end of his career as “John Charles Walsham Reith, 1st Baron Reith”).

Lord Reith had operated on the principle that broadcasting should be a public service that enriches the intellectual and cultural life of the nation. In that spirit the BBC invites a leading figure to deliver a series of radio lectures each year– the aim being “to advance public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest.”

And so, over the last 63 years, British listeners have been treated to Arnold Toynbee on “The World and the West,” Robert Oppenheimer on “Science and Common Understanding,” John Searle on “Minds, Brains, and Science,” John Keegan on “War in Our World,” Marina Warner on “Managing Monsters”… and dozens more extraordinary minds explaining and provoking.

As of a few weeks ago the BBC has made the entire audio library of Reith Lectures available online, from Bertrand Russell’s kick-off through 2010’s Martin Rees on “Scientific Horizons.”

Hallelujah!

[TotH to @brainpicker for the link]

As we listen and learn, we might recall that it was on this date in 1908 that “SOS” (. . . _ _ _ . . .) became the global standard radio distress signal.  While it was officially replaced in 1999 by the Global Maritime Distress Safety System, SOS is still recognized as a visual distress signal.

SOS has traditionally be “translated” (expanded) to mean “save our ship,” “save our souls,” “send out succor,” or other such pleas.  But while these may be helpful mnemonics, SOS is not an abbreviation or acronym.  Rather, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the letters were chosen simply because they are easily transmitted in Morse code.

click image above, or here

“Devise, wit; write, pen; for I am for whole volumes in folio”*…

source

The ever-illuminating Jason Kottke dips into Statistical Reasoning for Everyday Life (Bennett, Briggs, and Triola; Addison Wesley Longman; Second Edition, 2002) for a measure of Shakespeare’s vocabulary.  Using a method recounted here, the authors concluded:

This means that in addition the 31,534 words that Shakespeare knew and used, there were approximately 35,000 words that he knew but didn’t use. Thus, we can estimate that Shakespeare knew approximately 66,534 words.

Linguist Richard Lederer observes (as cited in in this piece) that Shakespeare hadn’t begun to reach the bottom of the barrel:  there are currently over 600,000 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary (and in Shakespeare’s time things were especially fluid– as witnessed by the Bard’s own fevered invention of new words and phrases).

Still, Shakespeare’s facility is easier to appreciate in context when we recognize that the average English speaker has a vocabulary of (only) 10,000 to 20,000 words, and, as Lederer observes, actually uses only a fraction of that (the rest being recognition or recall vocabulary).

* Love’s Labour’s Lost I,ii

As we reach for our copies of Word Power, we might wish a glittering birthday to Anita Loos, who was born on this date in 1888. A writer from childhood, she sold a movie idea to D.W Griffiths at Biograph while she was still in her teens– and began a career through which she wrote plays, movies, stories/novels, magazine articles, and finally memoirs.

She’s probably best remembered for her 1925 novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Loos claimed to have written the spoof, which she started on a long train ride, as an entertainment for her friend H. L. Mencken (who reputedly had a fondness for Lorelei Lee-like blonds).  In any case, the book was an international bestseller, printed in 14 languages and in over 85 editions. It was a hit on Broadway in 1949, then adapted again into a movie musical in 1953– the Howard Hawks classic in which Marilyn Monroe reminds us that “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

Loos with fellow writer (and sometime husband) John Emerson
by Edward Steichen for Vanity Fair, July 1928

Staying current with the past…

click here to download a pdf of the article

The New York Times Sunday Magazine (or “The Magazine Section,” as it was originally known) has been in continuous publication since 1896.  David Friedman, a professional photographer and proprietor of the lovely blog Ironic Sans, has introduced a new service, Sunday Magazine, in which he promises to reach back every week exactly one hundred years to

…dole out a few of my favorite articles from each week on a new blog: SundayMagazine.org. I have a couple weeks’ worth of posts up, and the next two months’ worth already in the hopper. They range from historically interesting to downright bizarre. I hope that you’ll see it as a new source of reading material. Some of the articles are short, and some are as long as 4,000 words crammed on one broadsheet.

Read it and reap!

As we search (in vain) for the antique crossword puzzles, we might recall that it was on this date in 1755 that Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in London.  [Readers will recall that Dr. J has made numerous appearances in (R)D, e.g., on his birthday, and in a nod to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s wonderful “word a day” service.]

Johnson’s dictionary wasn’t the first English dictionary; over the previous 150 years more than twenty dictionaries had been published in England, the oldest of these being a Latin-English “wordbook” by Sir Thomas Elyot published in 1538.  But in 1746 a group of London booksellers, dissatisfied with the dictionaries available, contracted Johnson to write one– a feat he promised to complete in three years.  It took him nine.  Still, he did so single-handedly, with clerical assistance only in copying out the illustrative quotations that he had marked in books.

It was, of course, an epoch-making accomplishment.  Until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary, 173 years later, Johnson’s held sway as the preeminent English dictionary.  As Walter Jackson Bate observed, the Dictionary “easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who labored under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time.”

Title page (from the second edition) of the Dictionary


The Sincerest Form of Flattery…

Sarah Johnson, a reference librarian at Eastern Illinois University, and keeper of Reading the Past, began to notice some striking similarities in the cover art of books she was reviewing.  She began to collect examples, and viola– Reusable Cover Art, from whence, the example above.

Click through for many other striking (and often, amusingly ironic) resemblances– and all the way to the bottom of the gallery for a nifty set of links to even more.

(Thanks to reader NM)

As we contemplate Shepard Fairey’s predicament, we might recall that it was on this date in 1884 that the first edition of The Oxford English Dictionary was published.   Edited by James Murray (“The Professor” in Simon Winchester’s wonderful The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary), it was originally a project of the Philological Society of London, devoted to cataloging the English words that had evaded inclusion in then-current dictionaries.  The first edition had the benefit of 27 years of work, by dozens of contributors; it sold 4,000 copies.

James Murray in the Scriptorium, the home of the OED,
on Banbury Road in Oxford (source)

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