How to cram the heavens into just a few lines, give axe the ax and make very uncivilised use of the canoe

Lexicography and the OED
October 27, 2000

When in 1879 James Murray commenced the task of editing the New English Dictionary - the original title of the Oxford English Dictionary - he was conscious of the pioneering nature of the work that lay ahead. He needed to put into practice a theoretical model for a dictionary that would redefine English lexicography with its exhaustive treatment of vocabulary and historical approach to individual words. It was an endeavour in which he regarded himself and his assistants as "simply pioneers, pushing our way experimentally through an untrodden forest". Yet because the OED rapidly achieved canonical status, contemporary users tend to forget that its compilation represented a radical departure in dictionary making.

Often drawing on previously unpublished archive material, the 12 individually authored chapters of Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in the Untrodden Forest examine from various lexicographical and linguistic standpoints the ground-breaking work of Murray and his fellow editors in compiling the first edition of the OED . Initial chapters cover the stuttered beginnings of the dictionary, the methodology used in editing the famed word slips, the associations within the editorial team, and the geographically distant relationship between the team and the army of volunteer readers.

The extraordinary story of the collaboration between Murray and the Broadmoor-incarcerated American reader W. C. Minor has been popularised in recent years at the expense of the many other scholars and volunteers who brought the dictionary into being. As if to redress the balance, the chapter "Readers and editors" consigns Minor to a passing mention, focusing instead on another American, Fitzedward Hall, whose contribution as a critical reader of proofs was also consequential. The conclusion that the dictionary attained a remarkable degree of consistency notwithstanding the disparate and diffuse body of editors and readers is echoed elsewhere in the book.

Although the OED has been the subject of scrutiny since the publication of the first fascicle in 1884, it was not until the appearance of the second edition on CD-Rom in 1992 that researchers acquired a tool with which to access certain statistical information. Much of the research connected with this book has been facilitated by this electronic aid, in particular the chapter " OED sources". This investigates the process whereby printed and written works were chosen in which to trawl for words and their illustrative quotations. Analysis of the occurrence of these works and quotations in the first edition reveals an imbalance, supposedly caused by the vagaries of individual readers and the lexicographer's selective use of quotations. The existence of this discrepancy emphasises the need in future editions for a more equitable representation of the literature of the language.

Murray's particular pioneering skill has been identified as the ability "to trace the history of a word in its changing usage from century to century and to write, with the utmost economy of words, definitions which summarise the fruits of profound research". "Sense and definition in the OED " provides an insight into the way Murray rigorously pursued the historical treatment of words by avoiding the "imaginative metaphysics" of earlier lexicographers. It describes also how he developed defining patterns that convey an imperceptible rhythm. Considered to be of great assistance to the dictionary user, this rhythm is exemplified by the definition of "heaven", sense 1: "The expanse in which the sun, moon, and stars are seen, which has the appearance of a vast vault or canopy overarching the earth, on the 'face' or surface of which the clouds seem to lie or float; the sky, the firmament."

The English vocabulary was viewed by Murray as a nucleus of words whose "Anglicity" was unquestioned, surrounded by a periphery labelled as foreign, dialectical, slang, technical and scientific terms. To circumscribe the vocabulary for the lexicon, decisions had to be made concerning the inclusion and exclusion of such peripheral words. "The compass of the vocabulary" reviews Murray's inclusion policies and confirms the dictionary's vast comprehensiveness. Some inconsistencies were unavoidable, as Murray admitted in explaining why he included American but not African words. Although peripheral words were meticulously labelled to designate their unnaturalised status, for modern users of the dictionary, it is often the labels that are peripheral.

One of the most radical tenets of the new philology espoused by Murray held that the function of the lexicographer is not to correct but to record linguistic usage. "I am not a judge of the language - only its historian," he maintained. Yet, as "The standard of usage in the OED " explains, there were instances where his impartiality lapsed, for example his insistence on the preference of "rime" over "rhyme" and "ax" over "axe". But as the author of this chapter points out, lexicographers are a product of their social milieu. So it was that the Victorian Murray felt compelled to define "canoe", sense 1, as "a kind of boat in use among uncivilised nations".

With other chapters covering such aspects as word formation, the representation of pronunciation, the treatment of early English, and the vocabulary of science, Lexicography and the OED justifiably claims to be "the most wide-ranging account yet published of the creation of one of the great canonical works of the 20th century". Despite the many interwoven strands of the subject, editor Lynda Mugglestone has assisted the reader's passage through the text by ensuring minimal overlap of information between chapters. This study is an essential acquisition for lexicographers, language scholars and researchers. Indeed, anyone with a passion for the English language and a basic knowledge of the history of the OED will find much of interest within these pages.

Now that the preparation of the revised third edition of the OED is under way, this book serves as a timely reminder of the pioneering work characteristic of the first edition. The preface states that these lexicographical endeavours and the spirit in which they were undertaken are just as pertinent to the editors of the OED Mark Three. That Murray's exploration of the "untrodden forest" is not simply of historical concern will no doubt be established by future studies.

Richard Boyle is a writer based in Sri Lanka who is researching the etymology of words of Sri Lankan origin in the OED .

Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in the Untrodden Forest

Editor - Lynda Mugglestone
ISBN - 0 19 823784 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 288

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