More Random Thoughts from Oxford

Greetings from Oxford! Sadly, today is my last full day here. Tomorrow I return to the real world, and what a jolt it will be.

Yesterday, we walked to the offices of the Oxford University Press, printer of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the definitive historical dictionary of the English language. And before you roll your eyes at the utter geekiness of this foray, let me say, the work that goes into the dictionary is extraordinary, and next behind the University,the Oxford University Press is the largest employer in Oxford.

It took 100 years from the time the idea was formed to the actual printing of the first edition of the OED, which included ten volumes. The second edition, which was released in the 1980’s, grew to twenty volumes. Now, the OED is undergoing its first complete revision in its history. From A-Z and soup to nuts, the learned employees of the OED are looking at the etymology, the uses, the definitions, and the quotes they use as recorded evidence of a word, and revising them. It is an enormous endeavor.

But not only are they revising, they are adding new words to the lexicon. For instance, would it surprise you to learn that words like “boy toy”  and “bling” are now in the OED? There are currently 615,000 words, because once a word is added, it is never removed, even if it is now obsolete.

The OED is no longer available in print, but rather online, which makes updating it more efficient and much more cost effective than traditional printing. Once every quarter, new words are added and old words are updated, making the OED a living document and a reflection of our times.

For more on the creation of the OED, you can read Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything and The Professor and the Mad Man.