Empire of Words

Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED

John Willinsky
Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 268
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    Empire of Words
    Book Description:

    What is the meaning of a word? Most readers turn to the dictionary for authoritative meanings and correct usage. But what is the source of authority in dictionaries? Some dictionaries employ panels of experts to fix meaning and prescribe usage, others rely on derivation through etymology. But perhaps no other dictionary has done more to standardize the English language than the formidable twenty-volumeOxford English Dictionaryin its 1989 second edition. Yet this most Victorian of modern dictionaries derives its meaning by citing the earliest known usage of words and by demonstrating shades of meaning through an awesome database of over five million examples of usage in context. In this fascinating study, John Willinsky challenges the authority of this imperial dictionary, revealing many of its inherent prejudices and questioning the assumptions of its ongoing revision. "Clearly, the OED is no simple record of the language `as she is spoke,'" Willinsky writes. "It is a selective representation reflecting certain elusive ideas about the nature of the English language and people.Empire of Wordsreveals, by statistic and table, incident and anecdote, how serendipitous, judgmental, and telling a task editing a dictionary such as the OED can be."

    Willinsky analyzes the favored citation records from the three editorial periods of the OED's compilation: the Victorian, imperial first edition; the modern supplement; and the contemporary second edition composed on an electronic database. He reveals shifts in linguistic authority: the original edition relied on English literature and, surprisingly, on translations, reference works, and journalism; the modern editions have shifted emphasis to American sources and periodicals while continuing to neglect women, workers, and other English-speaking countries.

    Willinsky's dissection of dictionary entries exposes contradictions and ambiguities in the move from citation to definition. He points out that Shakespeare, the most frequently cited authority in the OED, often confounds the dictionary's simple sense of meaning with his wit and artfulness. He shows us how the most famous four-letter words in the language found their way through a belabored editorial process, sweating and grunting, into the supplement to the OED. Willinsky sheds considerable light on how the OED continues to shape the English language through the sometimes idiosyncratic, often biased selection of citations by hired readers and impassioned friends of the language.

    Anyone who is fascinated with words and language will find Willinsky's tour through the OED a delightful and stimulating experience. No one who reads this book will ever feel quite the same about Murray's web of words.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2135-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-2)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Introduction
    (pp. 3-13)

    In january of 1884, the Clarendon Press at Oxford proudly offered the public a new and rather unusual serial magazine. The first issue consisted of an alphabetical listing of roughly seven thousand English words, beginning withaand ending withantyteme, with each word followed by a definition and by supporting citations from a wide range of literature. The serial was entitledA New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by the Philological Society. The title page noted that the work was “Edited by James A. H. Murray, LL.D., President of the Philological Society, with...

  6. CHAPTER 2 At Trench’s Suggestion, 1858–1878
    (pp. 14-34)

    “The scheme originated,” James Murray explains in the preface to the first fascicle ofA New English Dictionary, “in a resolution of the Philological Society, passed in 1857, at the suggestion of the present Archbishop of Dublin (Dr. Trench).” While little else is said of the parenthetical Dr. Trench in Murray’s 1884 introduction to this new dictionary, no one did more to set the project in motion than the dean of Westminster at the time. While readers now turn to theOEDfor an authority that is largely secular, scholarly, and institutional—Oxonian, in a word— Richard Chevenix Trench’s philological...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Murray’s Editorship, 1879–1915
    (pp. 35-56)

    Following the untimely death of the project’s first editor, Herbert Coleridge, the Philological Society engaged in a protracted search for a publisher who would not only agree to take on theNew English Dictionary, but to support the considerable editorial labor required to bring it to completion. The project of amassing the necessary base of citations struggled along, as it became increasingly apparent that Frederick Furnivall, who was now in charge of the work, was not the one to see a project of this magnitude through. In 1877, during what began to seem like promising negotiations with the delegates of...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Shakespeare’s Dictionary
    (pp. 57-75)

    Well before the Philological Society’sNew English Dictionarywas completed, scholars began turning to the published fascicles in their study of the English language. Otto Jespersen’s history of the English language, published in 1906, took considerable advantage of the partially completed work, but not without pointing out apparent weaknesses in the dictionary, including one that arose from the considerable attention paid to William Shakespeare:

    In turning over the pages of theNew English Dictionary, where every pains has been taken to ascertain the earliest occurrence of each word and of each signification one is struck by the frequency with which...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Citing The Shrew
    (pp. 76-91)

    This chapter turns from the larger literary issues raised by the prevalence of Shakespearean citations in theOEDto the relationship between the line from a play and a definition in the dictionary. It reviews the role played by nine excerpts fromThe Taming of the Shrewwhich are used to support the dictionary’s entries forannoy,basin,bold,crave,diaper,modesty,rid,smack,andsoftly. I have chosen these instances to illustrate different ways in which quotations can support the senses given in an entry. While in a few instances the citation provides the perfect complement to the sense...

  10. CHAPTER 6 A Victorian Canon: The Authors
    (pp. 92-112)

    In moving with this and subsequent chapters into a mildly statistical treatment ofThe Oxford English Dictionary, I take my lead from James Murray. However much he was a man of words and meanings, he took decided pride in measures of magnitude with this dictionary. This excerpt from his “Report on the Dictionary” to the 1881 Annual Meeting of the Philological Society is not atypical:

    The weight of the 817,625 slips, thin paper as they are, is close upon 15 cwt., and the cost of their postage to Readers and back again, £54 , 10s.; that, laid end to end,...

  11. CHAPTER 7 A Victorian Canon: The Titles
    (pp. 113-127)

    In spite of the impression that one might gain from the last chapter, the notable and named author is not everything inThe Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary’s entries are filled out, not only by excerpts from little-known journalists, historians, scholars, editors, translators, but by the anonymous citations of encyclopedias, periodicals, early English texts, and collective translations of the Bible. Examining the titles that have been most often cited in theOEDhas a way of setting the contributions of these obscure and anonymous writers alongside the authors ofThe Faerie QueenandParadise Lost.The substantial citation of reference...

  12. CHAPTER 8 A Supplement to The Oxford English Dictionary, 1957–1986
    (pp. 128-144)

    One measure of the change and continuity that marks this great lexicographical project is told by the stories of the editors, James Murray and Robert Burchfield. As theSupplement’s chief architect, Robert Burchfield does not call to mind Jude the Obscure, as the Thomas Hardy character whom James Murray somewhat resembles in his difficulties of getting on at Oxford in the early years. Burchfield, a New Zealander by birth, is from considerably farther away than Murray, and yet his work on the dictionary was to be far more a part of this beautiful but difficult university town. Burchfield arrived at...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Modern Citation
    (pp. 145-161)

    On New Year’s Day, 1918, Ezra Pound had occasion to write a letter to Harriet Monroe, editor ofPoetry, a magazine to which he had been contributing for a number of years. At one point in this rambling letter, Pound takes up the theme of the folk song: “I liked your comment p. 89, Nov. no. Naturally pleased to see the folk song idea smacked again. Even an eminent London Musical critic has recently got on a platform and said ‘all folk songs have authors and the authors are individuals.’ The blessing of the ‘folk’ song is solely in that...

  14. CHAPTER 10 The Second Edition, 1984–1989
    (pp. 162-175)

    A modest but significant indication that the second edition ofThe Oxford English Dictionaryrepresents a new era of dictionary publishing occurs on the dictionary’s title page. It states that the work has been “prepared,” rather than edited, by John Simpson and Edmund Weiner. Using newly developed electronic tools, Simpson and Weiner fashioned a seamless union of the originalOEDedited by James Murray’s editorial team and Robert Burchfield’s extensiveSupplement. In addition to the integration of the two texts, “new vocabulary has been added,” the introduction explains, “certain important general revisions, and numerous local corrections have been made.” The...

  15. CHAPTER 11 The Sense of Omission
    (pp. 176-189)

    “There is no document of civilization,” Walter Benjamin has written, “which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (1968, p. 256). As is commonly known, the origins of the Greek termbarbariclie in what the Greeks found foreign and rude, as in a language other than their own. The barbaric falls beyond the bounds of that familiarity which is taken as civilization. By extension, thebarbarian, as theOEDspecifies among its “historical” definitions, is “one outside the pale of Christian civilization” (2.c.). Marking what falls outside the pale of civilized speech is the work of...

  16. CHAPTER 12 A Source of Authority
    (pp. 190-208)

    England has a long history of calls for an academy to govern its language, but they have all come to naught in the face of what might be taken as the spirit of English liberty. It had been Philip Sidney’s proud Elizabethan claim that “nay truly, [English] hath that praise that it wanteth not grammar,” pointing to how it was free of Latinate rules and strictures (1970, p. 85). Still, a century later, Daniel Defoe decided that only if a rule-issuing academy were established, “I dare say the true Glory of our English stile wou’d appear” (1961, p. 59). Proposals...

  17. Appendix of Tables
    (pp. 209-222)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 223-238)
  19. References
    (pp. 239-250)
  20. Index
    (pp. 251-258)