Language by the Book, As That Book Evolves
【聯合報／By TOM RACHMAN／任中原譯】
OXFORD, England — To compile a dictionary of nearly every word in the English language was an endeavor typical of Victorian times, complete with white-bearded gentlemen, utter confidence and an endearingly plodding pace. After 25 years, the first installment emerged in 1884. Its contents? “A to Ant.” But in this impatient age, the Oxford English Dictionary is touch-typing toward a third edition, with 619,000 words defined so far, online updates every three months and a gush of digital data to sort through.
For the first time in 20 years, the long-respected dictionary has a new chief editor, Michael Proffitt, 48, who assumes the responsibility of retaining traditions while ensuring relevance in an era of Googled definitions and text talk.
Mr. Proffitt was respectful of the old ways but equally ready to reconsider the dictionary .
“My idea about dictionaries is that, in a way, their time has come,” he said. “People need filters much more than they did in the past.” He added, “As much as I adhere to the O.E.D.’s public reputation, I want proof that it is of value to people in terms of practical use.”
Mr. Proffitt advocates links in digitized literature to O.E.D. entries; he wants more use by students, whose distinction between “dictionary” and “web search” is increasingly blurred .
The O.E.D. has stood apart, partly for authoritative definitions but chiefly for its historical quotations, which trace usage through time. The first edition, proposed in 1858 with completion expected in 10 years, was finished 70 years later, in 1928. The second edition came out in 1989, at a length of 21,730 pages. Work on the third started in 1994, with hope of completion in 2005. That was off slightly — by about 32 years, according to the current guess of 2037.
But for all the admirable rigor of the O.E.D., nowadays the dictionary is probably more revered than used. Part of the problem is price. A copy of the 20-volume second edition costs $995, with a one-year digital subscription running $295 — a hard sell when so many research tools are free online.
Although the O.E.D. survived the Internet upheavals that devastated other reference works, it has yet to capitalize fully on the potential online audience. Mr. Proffitt is eager to do so, perhaps with lower prices, certainly with tweaks to the website and less stuffy definitions.
“A lot of the first principles of the O.E.D. stand firm, but how it manifests has to change, and how it reaches people has to change,” said Mr. Proffitt, who is hardly the image of the scholar of old, referring with satisfaction to having drafted the entry for “phat” (“a. Of a person, esp. a woman: sexy, attractive. b. Esp. of music: excellent, admirable; fashionable, ‘cool’ ”).
In the 19th century, the primary obstacle to composing this dictionary of “every word occurring in the literature of the language it professes to illustrate” was tracking down quotations . Today, the staff of about 70 people contends with too much information.
“We can hear everything that’s going on in the world of English for the last 500 years, and it’s deafening,” said the associate editor, Peter Gilliver, who once spent nine months revising definitions for the word “run,” currently the longest single entry in the O.E.D.
Literary texts accounted for most quotations in the early days of the dictionary. But the current text is far more inclusive, with blog and Twitter postings, quotations from gravestones, an inscription in a high school yearbook. The objective is to find the earliest and most illustrative uses of a word, not to grant benediction to anything as “proper English.” Each time commentators rebuke the O.E.D. for admitting teenage slang or marketing jargon, they misunderstand the dictionary, which aims not to define how language should be used, only how it is.
“I don’t know whether those words are appropriate ,” Mr. Proffitt said. “But seeing the historical context often persuades you that what seemed like a hard-and-fast rule is not. And, similarly to the way the language changes, its uses change. The more flexible that people are about language use, then probably the more they thrive.”