Published March 30, 2004
It was a foggy London evening, Guy Fawkes Day 1857, when a group of gentlemen sowed the seeds of one of the great literary works of the English language.
The Philological Society met on Nov. 5 — the day the Catholic Fawkes tried to blow up the Parliament building in 1605 — to hear a speech by Richard Chenevix Trench. On that night, perhaps those men who gathered at the London Library, regarded as the finest private collection of books in the world, quietly celebrated the English way of life that was preserved in 1605 and which they hoped to mark, define and commemorate in an audacious project. Trench’s speech was titled “On Some Deficiencies In Our English Dictionaries” and was the genesis of the Oxford English Dictionary, the massive historical record of the English language.
The first all-English dictionary, according to Simon Winchester, who describes the making of the OED in “The Professor and the Madman” and “The Meaning of Everything,” was printed in 1604 and was merely a list of 2,500 hard words, compiled by Robert Cawdrey and printed in octavo format, about the size of a medium-size appointment book. Dictionaries grew over the years but often included only the difficult words, until Samuel Johnson published “A Dictionary of the English Language” in 1755.
Johnson’s early inspiration was the hue and cry by several writers of the day to fix the language, in other words, to establish correct usage. Johnson later railed against the idea, saying in his preface, “… I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify. This argument, of prescriptivism versus descriptivism, continues today. Shall a dictionary only describe words, or shall it prescribe usage?”
The dispute boiled over when Merriam-Webster published “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language” in 1961. Gone were the usage notes, long definitions, and most quotes from classic literature. The short, punchy gloss (a dictionary term for definition) replaced elaborate definitions, and quotations came largely from 20th-century authors. Among the many negative reviews were “Keep Your Old Webster’s” in The Washington Post and “Webster’s Lays An Egg” in The Richmond News Leader. An article in The Detroit News compared the removal of usage notes to a sentry abandoning his post.
As a lover of words, I agree with the people who were upset about the removal of the notes. The Merriam-Webster dictionaries are my favorite dictionaries, for their etymologies; their order of definitions (dictionaries don’t list definitions in the same order — M-W definitions are listed from old to new, whereas American Heritage starts with the most common) and their lexicographical authority that stretches unbroken to Noah Webster’s first American dictionary, published in 1828.
But I want usage guidance, so I turn to Webster’s New World and American Heritage for their usage notes. I use three dictionaries when I write, sometimes even when I write letters or my journal. I also understand it is fruitless to prescribe usage to those who don’t want it. No amount of prescription will halt the use of “literally” in a nonliteral sense or stop “access” and “impact” from being used as verbs. Describe the words for those who want only the spelling and definitions; prescribe them for those who want guidance.
The 18th-century literati wanted to make the English language immutable, a monument to what they considered the zenith of civilization, but Dr. Johnson knew better. A dictionary becomes outdated as it is being published. The only unchanging language is a dead one. So when the Philological Society launched its project, it determined that the OED should be a record of all words, not a critic.
The OED was a massive 70-year undertaking, finally published in 12 volumes in 1928: 414,825 words defined, 1,827,306 quotations. It was republished as 20 volumes in 1989. Word is that the third edition is in the works.
Winchester calls the OED the “unrivaled cornerstone of any good library, an essential work for any reference collection.” “It is an awe-inspiring work, he wrote, the most important reference book ever made, and given the unending importance of the English language, probably the most important that is ever likely to be.”
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