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OED (Oxford English Dictionary)

The most successful dictionary of the English language
Common clues: 20-vol. reference; Ref. staple;
UK lexicon; Multivolume ref. set; Ref. room offering; Brit. lexicon; A-to-zed ref.
Crossword puzzle frequency: 4 times a year
Frequency in English language: 15330 / 86800
News: Chloe Kim is ‘hangry’ — and the Oxford English Dictionary approves
The Oxford English Dictionary, from “The Professor and the Madman”

[Criticizing the OED is extremely difficult because] one is dealing not just with a dictionary but with a national institution” – Roy Harris

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a dictionary published by the Oxford University Press (OUP), and is the most successful dictionary of the English language (not to be confused with the one-volume Oxford Dictionary of English, formerly New Oxford Dictionary of English, of 1998). As of 30 November 2005 OED included about 301,100 main entries, comprising more than 350 million printed characters. Additional to the headwords of main entries, it has 157,000 combinations and derivatives in bold type, and 169,000 phrases and combinations in bold italic type, a total of 616,500 word-forms. It has 137,000 pronunciations, 249,300 etymologies, 577,000 cross-references, and 2,412,400 illustrative quotations. The latest, complete printed edition of the dictionary (Second Edition, 1989) was 20 volumes, comprising 21,730 pages, with 291,500 entries.

Originally, the dictionary was unconnected to the university; it was a project conceived in London, by the Philological Society, when Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, and Frederick Furnivall were dissatisfied with the available English dictionaries.

In June 1857, they formed an "Unregistered Words Committee" for finding unlisted and undefined words not in current dictionaries. But Trench's report, presented in November, was not a simple list of unregistered words; it was a study titled On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries, which he concluded were sevenfold:

  • Incomplete coverage of obsolete words

  • Inconsistent coverage of families of related words

  • Incorrect dates for earliest use of words

  • History of obsolete senses of words often omitted

  • Inadequate distinction between synonyms

  • Insufficient use of good illustrative quotations

  • Space wasted on inappropriate or redundant content.

Trench suggested that a new and truly comprehensive dictionary would do: based upon contributions from many volunteer readers, who would read books, copy passages illustrating actual word uses to quotation slips, and mail them to the editor. In 1858, the Society agreed, in principle, to the project: A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (NED).

In 1933 Oxford University had finally put the Dictionary to rest; all work ended, and the quotation slips went into storage. But of course the English language continued to change, and by the time 20 years had passed, the Dictionary was outdated.

There were three possible ways to update it. The cheapest would have been to leave the existing work alone and simply compile a new supplement, of perhaps one or two volumes; but then anyone looking for a word or sense and unsure of its age would have to look in three different places. The most convenient choice for the user would have been for the entire dictionary to be re-edited and retypeset, with each change included in its proper alphabetical place; but of course this would be most expensive, with perhaps 15 volumes to be produced. The OUP chose a middle approach: combining the new material with the existing supplement to form a larger replacement supplement.

When the print version of the second edition was published in 1989, the response was enthusiastic. The author Anthony Burgess declared it "the greatest publishing event of the century," as quoted by Dan Fisher for the Los Angeles Times (March 25, 1989). TIME dubbed the book "a scholarly Everest," and Richard Boston, writing for the London Guardian (March 24, 1989), called it "one of the wonders of the world."

The planned Third Edition, or OED3, is intended as a nearly complete overhaul of the work. Each word is being examined and revised to improve the accuracy of the definitions, derivations, pronunciations, and historical quotations—a task requiring the efforts of a staff consisting of more than 300 scholars, researchers, readers, and consultants, and projected to cost about $55 million. The end result is expected to double the overall length of the text. The style of the dictionary will also be changing slightly. The original text was more literary, in that most of the quotations were taken from novels, plays, and other literary sources. The new edition, however, will make reference to all manner of printed resources, such as cookbooks, wills, technical manuals, specialist journals, and rock lyrics. The pace of inclusion of new words has been increased as well, to the rate of about 4,000 per year.

While large, the OED is not the world's largest dictionary; the distinction is the Dutch's Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, of similar goals, and completed after twice as long a time.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Oxford English Dictionary"