Saturday, May 31, 2008

Lexicographical Longing

When I was 19, my father gave me an Oxford English Dictionary, the 1971 compact edition with the 1987 supplement. Citations for every English word since the eighth century were crammed into three bulky volumes of minuscule print. I hallucinated before the speckled onion-skin pages until I discovered that the dictionary came with a magnifying glass.
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That Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically, I realize now, represented real magnanimity on the part of Oxford University Press. Until then, the O.E.D. could run to 13 volumes, suitable only for an antiquarian with plentiful shelf space and a feather duster. The compact dictionary, which people like my dad received free from the Book-of-the-Month Club, made showoff etymology accessible, affordable and even stashable for the first time in modest American rec rooms and dens. (“Rec room,” the online O.E.D. tells us, first appeared in 1962, in the Dictionary of Sailors’ Slang.)

Before the cooling in the ’90s of America’s passion for colossal encyclopedia sets (bought from door-to-door salesmen), and well before the advent of massless Wikipedia.org and Dictionary.com, the navy blue compact O.E.D. was part of the standard d├ęcor of a bookish middle-class life. I was overjoyed to have one of my own. Furthermore, my other totemic college books — “Speculum of the Other Woman,” “Reading Black, Reading Feminist” and “Sexuality in the Field of Vision” — could go out of style, maybe; the O.E.D. was forever. Wasn’t it?

No.

The future is here, and the immortal O.E.D., the one that lives in bound pages last published micrographically in 1991, is obsolete — at least according to the folks who publish it. As of now, Oxford University Press has no official plans to publish a new print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Let’s go back. As lexicography geeks know well, Oxford’s magnum opus appeared in 10 volumes in 1928, after some 70 years of work by generations of editors and about 2,000 volunteers. (The volunteers displayed much the same gratis fanaticism of today’s Wikipedians.) A supplement with new words appeared in 1933, with additional supplements showing up at regular intervals between 1972 and 1986; in 1989 the whole dictionary was published anew in 20 volumes that collated the ’33 edition and its supplements. Since virtually the day that that last biggie was published, Oxford University Press has been overhauling and revising entries in the dictionary and adding many more. (Oh, “mullet,” “carbo-load,” “six-pack,” “hazmat,” “pole dancing,” “doh!” — what would we do without you?)

But these revisions are now suspended in cyberspace. The lexicographers are uploading their work to the O.E.D. online. Their revisions sit cheek-by-jowl with old entries, some of which haven’t been touched in 150 years. A chicken in the online O.E.D. is therefore “the young of the domestic fowl; its flesh,” which seems poetic and factually not bad but also ambiguous and barely idiomatic in the 21st century. (Whose home, for one, is intended by that “domestic”?)

For some reason, the prospect of a Web-only O.E.D. made me nervous. Talking on the phone with Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary, I fished for reassurance. “Um, are you even just going to print out the new dictionary, like on your laser printer or at Kinko’s or something? Just to have a hard copy?” I asked.

“I’m not sure we have printed it out,” he replied coolly. “In any case, we’ve only finished from volume ‘M’ to ‘quit shilling.’ We have about 20 years’ more work to do revising and adding entries. Who knows what will happen with technology in 20 years? We certainly don’t.”

Jeez. I don’t either. I don’t even know what a “quit shilling” is. But while The New York Times and other newspapers have refrained from rash decisions about their print editions, the Oxford English Dictionary — staid, right? — has already shaken off the shackles of print and said cheerio (“a parting exclamation of encouragement”) to books! The stab I felt was sharper than nostalgia. It was fear. I subscribed in a hurry to OED.com. After all, as book-positive as I pretend to be, I haven’t consulted the 1971 compact or the 1987 supplement in years. When I need a definition, I use the dumb dictionary that came with my Mac operating system. (“Just this once,” I tell myself as I do with guilty Wikipedia look-ups.) When I need a spelling, I’m alerted by spell-check to both the error and the solution. People I know tell me they use online dictionaries chiefly to find synonyms. (Another word for that kind of dictionary might be “thesaurus.”)
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But there’s another virtue to a dictionary, online or otherwise: guidance in the finer points of usage. Subtly alerting readers to which words might suit them, and which they shouldn’t try at home, is not only in the original charter for the O.E.D.; it is also a service with new relevance for people who use e-mail, blogs and message boards. On the Internet, idioms, dialects, jargons and languages from around the world collide. Corresponding with people of varying degrees of literacy in competing dialects of disparate languages means that we must commit most of our linguistic resources to getting up to speed in the rapidly evolving lingua franca. That’s only reasonable; we’re like new immigrants to polyglot neighborhoods. But so much chatting in the Babel-like public sphere means we can let our commitment to maintaining our particular vocabulary go slack.

I learned this the hard way. While blogging about an online video for The Times in November, I wanted to use the expression “rotflmao” — an abbreviation that I thought meant “extremely funny.” To be sure I had the letters right, I consulted the Urban Dictionary, an online wordbook to which users post definitions of slang. There I found this definition for “rotflmao”: “A chat-room abbreviation used mainly by imbeciles, usually in response to something mildly, often very mildly, amusing. People who use this type of shorthand should be avoided like the Spanish flu.”

Aha. Not what I expected, but a good turn anyway: an account of how the word now comes across. A good dictionary must convey something crucial about the words you’re driven to look up: whether, that is, you’ll seem cool or jerky or pretentious or out of step or ignorant or bananas when you take certain locutions into your own hands. In the heavily text-based media that require people constantly to type words to one another, it’s your diction by which you’re judged, rather than your accent, your appearance, your bearing or your handwriting, as in other eras.

I asked Sheidlower if the O.E.D. ever hinted to readers that a word is cool or jerky. “We certainly indicate if a word is ‘racially offensive’ or ‘coarsely vulgar,’ ” he said. Otherwise, the O.E.D. has a whole system for gently protecting users from imbecility. “That’s what the usage quotations are for,” Sheidlower explained. Those quotations, which give examples of how a word has been used over time, are a hallmark of the O.E.D. (the online edition contains nearly three million of them). If the people who have used your chosen word are Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence and Mobb Deep, you should at least know you’re in their company when you start typing.

Dictionary.com, the popular online dictionary that draws from a range of American dictionaries, offers a much more limited selection of usage quotations. When I looked up “lenity” on Dictionary.com, I found four citations with the word. One was from Shakespeare, undated, and the other three appeared between 1998 and 2000. Of those, fully two instances of “lenity” had come from the pen of Richard Posner, the judge and legal theorist. My takeaway? “Lenity,” whatever it means, is, above all, “a word used by Richard Posner at the very end of the 20th century.” If you still feel like using it, by all means, it’s yours.

POINTS OF ENTRY

This Week's Recommendations

MY WORD: For iGoogle — an extrasharp way to curate and arrange your home page — consider taking on the handy widget called Web Definitions. In a flash, it combs through a dizzying range of lexicographical material and returns thorough definitions so efficiently that you’re tempted to try to stump it. Get it through ‘‘add stuff’’ on iGoogle.

DICTIONARY DRAMA: Known best for the rollicking ‘‘Professor and the Madman,’’ the best seller about an odd alliance at the O.E.D., Simon Winchester is our era’s great admirer of the English book to define all English books. In ‘‘The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary,’’ Winchester chronicles the whole megalomaniacal effort to contain what he calls ‘‘the English language’s capacity for foxy and relentlessly slippery flexibility.’’

NO MORE LUGGING: Oxford gave us the modern dictionary; now it gives us the modern lexicographical Web site — if a subscriber-only site can still be described as ‘‘modern.’’ Fortunately, there are some free features and options to test it out. If you’re smitten, $300 a year, or $30 a month, will get you unrivaled elegant and stylish entries. Geek out at OED.com.

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