David Madore's WebLog: The Oxford English Dictionary

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The Oxford English Dictionary

As I mentioned yesterday, I was convinced by a friend of mine into buying what is probably the world's largest printed book, the compact edition (in one volume) of the Oxford English Dictionary, which reproduces the full text of the twenty-volume edition, at a 1:9 ratio (that's 1:3 in either direction), on some 2386 pages. Naturally, it is quite unreadable — even for someone as near-sighted as I am — without a magnifying glass (which is provided with the volume itself, and is of good quality), so it is very inconvenient to use, but I simply don't have the space to store the twenty-volume set, so I have to live with this (and yes, I considered the possibility of getting a CD edition — see below).

With its 231100 main entries, this dictionary is quite unique: certainly no other English dictionary comes even close; in comparison, the (Nouveau) Littré and the Trésor de la langue française, two famous French dictionaries, each boast about one sixth of that number, and the Dictionnaire de l'Académie, which is half finished (I mean the ninth edition), has a little over 30000: I'm not sure whether this is because French indeed has far fewer words than English (something which is certainly true to some extent, especially if we count dialectal and regional words) or because the OED includes words long since fallen into disuse; the Große Duden, on the other hand, probably has a similar number of words, but considering how German words are built, that's cheating[#]. The OED can almost be used as a French dictionary, in fact, because practically every French word you can think of has been used at some point in English, so it is there; and it has more bizarre words than that: mador, for example (essentially a Latin word) is recorded with a meaning of sweat. Also remarkable is the OED's attempt to record the first known use of each word. I remember reading Isaac Asimov's description of how honored he was for being credited with the invention of robotics. I wonder[#2] if there are any hapax legomena in it (they woulnd't be hapax any longer, of course); since every word Shakespeare wrote is in the OED, I suspect there must be one or two among them. On the other hand, the OED does not contain the word minimalistic which, as a friend of mine argues, is definitely a valid English word and for which there is ample evidence of its use.

Needless to say, I would have much preferred getting an electronic version. However, the CD edition they sell is for Windows only (they don't even have a Mac version — whereas I note that the Duden sells even a Linux version of their CD!) and the online edition must be paid for yearly, which is not an acceptable condition. I do not know what relation Oxford University Press (the publishers of the Dictionary) bear to the University of Oxford, but I think it would be the University's duty, if it legally can, to put the Dictionary in the public domain: for the English language does not belong to any person or institution, and the University have no business making money on its back; and certainly the amount of work that went into that dictionary is tremendous, but it's part of the whole point of being a University that they should make their works publicly available. Instead we have to settle for the Collaborative International Dictionary of English.

[#] Heck, just with all the numbers from eins to neunhundertneunundneunzigtausendneunhundertneunundneunzig, even I know at least one million German words!

[#2] Actually they do: nortelry for example (meaning education, occurring only once, under Chaucer's quill). Worse: they have some words which are oudama legomena, such as palumbine, belonging to the pigeon (in the same way that canine means belonging to the dog).

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