Tuesday, November 07, 2006

But what does it all mean?

I quite enjoyed the New York Times Magazine feature on the OED.
The O.E.D. is unlike any other dictionary, in any language. Not simply because it is the biggest and the best, though it is. Not just because it is the supreme authority. (It wears that role reluctantly: it does not presume, or deign, to say that any particular usage or spelling is correct or incorrect; it aims merely to capture the language people use.) No, what makes the O.E.D. unique is a quality for which it can only strive: completeness. It wants every word, all the lingo: idioms and euphemisms, sacred or profane, dead or alive, the King’s English or the street’s. The O.E.D. is meant to be a perfect record, perfect repository, perfect mirror of the entire language.
Employees are hard at work on the third edition of the dictionary. The third edition! (The first edition was presented in 1928, the second in 1989.) And it's not expected to be done for a couple of decades.

The New Yorker's Nov. 6 edition has a piece I've not yet read on Noah Webster that sounds promising:
There's an equally odd and charming piece by Jill Lepore about the lexicographer Noah Webster, a man who worked alone, unnumbed, for twenty years, literally turning circles inside the hole of his doughnut-shaped desk, consulting volumes of dictionaries of some twenty languages. I would guess he was not much good at meetings.

''Outside his family," Lepore writes, ''nearly everyone who knew him found him insufferable, and strangers who thought they admired him usually didn't: they'd mistaken him for another Webster. (If he had published an autobiography, it would have been called I Am Not Daniel!)''

When Webster first floated the proposal for a dictionary of the American, rather than English, language in 1820, he was drubbed by the critics, who thought the Americanisms were vulgarisms, ''a disgusting collection of idiotic words" (such as ''wigwam" and ''lengthy.'')

By the time the dictionary was published, populism was on the rise-- and with it the love of the words of the common man--so the book became revered.

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