I recently popped along to the Gresham College in Holborn for one of their free lunchtime lectures, and I learnt two things. Firstly, that they have an overflow basement for when the main hall is full – and that the Oxford English Dictionary took a lot longer to write than I could have ever have expected.

I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to how the dictionary was written – presuming it to be some corporate production. I learnt though that the original idea for what later became the OED is actually 150 years old this year – having started in 1859. However, the first part of the dictionary wasn’t completed until 1928 – and even today we are still using what is known as the 2nd Edition of the dictionary.

Interestingly, the Oxford University Press are now working on a 3rd Edition, which is not expected to be finished until at least 2015. Impressive that a commercial organisation can take such a long-term view of a single publication.

The history of the OED is recounted elsewhere in more detail, but I was interested to learn that the initial process involved scholars and volunteers filling in a short slip of paper with the word, and an accompanying quotation. Some 5 million paper slips were collected and then edited down by hand to about 2 million quotes which were then used in the dictionary to provide the context for the meanings of words.

Interestingly, it was the short, common words, like what or verbs like take or put or set, that were the most difficult – in fact set was famous for taking 40 days to digest: the word ended up occupying over 18 large folio pages in the printed dictionary, extending to 154 main divisions and many many sub-divisions.

What did come out of the lecture though was how a dictionary can be limited by the sources used by the editors. Dr Johnson’s original dictionary relied for half of its words on just seven sources, being mainly Shakespeare, Milton the Bible, and others. The first OED also tended to veer towards the classics and 19th century literature. The 3rd Edition of the OED is looking to correct this and take its supporting quotations from a far wider range of sources, including technical and scientific documents.

As the dictionary was still being produced – and was selective about its sources – when the Coronation of King Edward VII was delayed due to appendicitis and people turned to this new dictionary to find out what that was, they wouldn’t have been able to find out – as the word wasn’t in there! Slightly embarrassing.

Another aspect which was touched on was the issue of political correctness, and how words are defined in the OED – for example, should quotations which we today consider racist and unacceptable be included in the OED? The answer generally being “yes” – as the OED needs to provide the context for words to explain how they might have been used in the past without making judgments on them.

A good example, which showed up the social opinions of the time of the 1st Edition, was the definition of that most innocent of vessels – the canoe. It was defined as “used generally of any rude craft in which uncivilized people go upon the water” – adding to the insult that not only do “savages generally use paddles instead of oars.”, but that “in civilized use’ it is ‘a small light boat or skiff propelled by paddling’”

Fortunately, my well-thumbed copy of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary published in 1969 had been updated with a more suitable meaning.

Also, lots of words about which the editors felt uncomfortable were included, but on different terms: they weren’t given quotations, or they were even defined in Latin. The lecturer recounted a  joke about Dr Johnson, when congratulated by a couple of ladies on the absence of rude words from his dictionary, who replied to them how pleased he was that they were pleased, but of course, in order to know that his dictionary was blameless, the dear ladies must have gone through the volumes actually looking for such rude words!

Whilst the full dictionary runs to about twenty-three volumes, most people tend to own a shorter version, such as my own copy of the Pocket Edition (which certainly does NOT fit into any pocket I have seen). As such, it can lead to some interesting correspondence, as happened recently in The Economist when a reader wrote in one week to complain that the writer of the Bagehot column was using language which she felt was obscure and couldn’t be found in her copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary.

A respondent replied: “SIR – I do not mean to be curt at all, but I would like to suggest for those who have difficulty comprehending Bagehot to invest in a dictionary without the word “concise” embedded in the title.”

Considering that the full dictionary is 23 volumes in size, I think relying on a “concise” version is quite forgiveable.

The lecture was actually quite funny as well, with a lot of anecdotes liberally dropped around the place – and a video of the lecture can be viewed online.

Gresham College hold free lectures throughout the year both at lunchtime and occasionally in the evenings, and are worth keeping an eye on for interesting topics.

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