Sunday, 20 April, 2014

 
Published January 24, 2014
BOOK
Language by the (ever-evolving) book
The Oxford English Dictionary seeks to be of relevance to both traditionalists of the language and new users in an era of Googled searches and texting
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Digital divide: Mr Proffitt, new chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, in his office at Oxford University Press in England. Its current text is far more inclusive with postings from blogs and Twitter as well as more varied sources than in the early days. - PHOTO: NYT

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TO compile a dictionary of nearly every word in the English language was an endeavour typical of Victorian times, complete with white-bearded gentlemen, utter confidence and an endearingly plodding pace. After a quarter-century, the first instalment emerged in 1884. Its contents? "A to Ant."

In our own impatient age, the Oxford English Dictionary is touch-typing towards a third edition, with 619,000 words defined so far, online updates every three months and a perma-gush of digital data to sort through. Greybeards are scarce today at its open-plan office, just earnest editors frowning at flat screens, occasionally whispering to their neighbours. For all the words here, few are spoken aloud.

This hush aside, change is afoot at the OED. For the first time in 20 years, the venerable dictionary has a new chief editor, Michael Proffitt, who assumes responsibility of retaining the vaunted traditions while ensuring relevance in an era of Googled definitions and text talk.

In his first interview since assuming the position in November, Mr Proffitt - a neat 48-year-old in suit and tie who has defined, researched and managed for the OED since 1989 - was respectful of the old ways but equally ready to reconsider the dictionary, characterising it less as the heavy volumes of yore than as a trove of invaluable data.

"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." "As much as I adhere to the OED's public reputation," he said, "I want proof that it is of value to people in terms of practical use." Mr Proffitt advocates links in digitised literature to OED entries; he wants more use by students, whose distinction between "dictionary" and "web search" is increasingly blurred; he is also willing to license OED data to other companies.

The OED has stood apart, partly for authoritative definitions but chiefly for its unmatched historical quotations, which trace usage through time. The first edition, proposed in 1858 with completion expected in 10 years, was only 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.

Potential online converts

But for all the admirable rigour of the OED, nowadays the dictionary is probably more revered than used. Part of the problem is price. A copy of the 20-volume second edition costs US$995, with a one-year digital subscription running US$295 - a hard-sell when so many research tools are free online. (Oxford University Press does offer a less extensive cousin of the OED for nothing online, under the confusingly similar title Oxford Dictionaries.) Although the OED survived the Internet upheavals that devastated other reference works, it has yet to capitalise 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 OED stand firm, but how it manifests has to change, and how it reaches people has to change," said Mr Proffitt, who speaks with a faint Scottish accent and a lexicographer's habit of qualifying his speech with subheadings, historical references, alternate meanings. However, he is hardly the tweedy 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' ").

Raised in Edinburgh, Mr Proffitt moved south to attend the University of Oxford, where he studied English language and literature. After graduation, he floated from job to job for a spell, then spotted a newspaper ad: The OED was hiring. The editors who grilled him in his job interview later confessed that they'd not expected him to stay long.

"But it drew me in," Mr Proffitt said 25 years later, now at the helm of an enterprise sharply different from the one he had joined.

For all the tech talk, certain analogue ways linger at the dictionary, notably in the Quotes Room, a repository of word citations on little slips of paper, many mailed in decades ago by volunteers around the world, the most prolific of whom are identified by their distinctive handwriting and referred to fondly by editors: "That's a Laski," or "This one's from Collier in Australia." In the 19th century, the primary obstacle to composing this envisaged dictionary of "every word occurring in the literature of the language it professes to illustrate" was tracking down suitable quotations, hidden as they were in myriad dusty tomes. Today, the editorial staff of about 70 people - with access to extensive digital archives - contends with the opposite problem: 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 OED.

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".

This prompts a question: If the dictionary merely describes what exists, then why not include every word? When the OED needed to fit into printed volumes, that notion was fantasy. Now, when there is doubt that the third edition will even appear in print, why not use digital space to accommodate everything?

Linguist and writer David Crystal appealed to his peers in a 2012 speech, later published, at the University of Glasgow to create a "superdictionary - the ultimate, unprecedented and, of course, unpublishable (on paper) collection of all the lexical items in a language." This would mean combining major existing dictionaries and adding specialised lexicons, as well as words from global English dialects and new online vocabulary, too. Mr Proffitt was reluctant to place the OED at the forefront of such a project. The dictionary, he said, lacks resources to transform itself this way.

Digitising the dictionary

Simon Winchester, author of two books on the OED, including the 1998 best-seller The Professor and the Madman, expressed mixed feelings about the rapidly digitising dictionary. He hoped, for example, that the third edition would someday come out in print, yet admitted to consulting only the online version now.

"To me, I didn't want the joy of the OED and the authority that it has to be somehow overwhelmed by the searching abilities, the search engines and so forth," he said.

Mr Proffitt, taking charge of the most esteemed record of the most global language, may face criticism however he acts. Some will complain if he brings change, others if he resists it. But years of working with words - meanings shifting, enlarging, vanishing altogether, joined by new coinages - offered a particular perspective.

"It makes you, broadly speaking, more tolerant or calmer or placid," he said, hastening to add: "I don't know whether those words are appropriate. 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."

Here are some quirks of the English language that pundits still grapple with:

OMG: The first recorded appearance of this breathless acronym for "Oh, my God!" comes, surprisingly, in a letter to Winston Churchill.

"1917 J.A.F. Fisher Letter, Sept 9 in Memories (1919) v. 78. I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis - O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) - Shower it on the Admiralty!!

Literally: Word curmudgeons wince when "literally" is used figuratively. Examples of this inversion go back to 1769. Even Mark Twain did it. "1876 'M Twain' Adventures Tom Sawyer ii. 20 And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.

Like: Few words annoy the purist like "like." Plopped into sentences, "like" is a rest stop for the hesitant, and not just tweens. 1778 F Burney "Evelina" II. xxiii. 222 Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship's taking offence.

Unfriend: Facebook was born in 2004. Unfriending began a tad earlier. 1659 T Fuller Letter, P Heylyn in Appeal Injured Innoc. iii, I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.

Whatever: The earliest record of this fashionable retort may not go back centuries. Still, 41 years is older than many of its expert practitioners. "1973 To our Returned Prisoners of War (US Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs) 10 Whatever, equivalent to 'that's what I meant.' " Usually implies boredom with topic or lack of concern for a precise definition of meaning. - NYT