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A Browser’s Paradise: The New Shorter OED

The sixth edition of the abridged Oxford English Dictionary is a work of heroic distillation.

By 9.20.07

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Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
Sixth Edition.
(Oxford University Press. 2 volumes. 3,742 pages. $175)

In her delightful biography of her grandfather, James Murray, the great founding editor of the OED, Caught in the Web of Words (1977), Elisabeth Murray included a photograph of the great man seated in the middle of his huge family, looking every inch the contented Victorian paterfamilias. Of course, his contentment was not unalloyed. In a letter written in 1908, when he was 71 and nowhere near completing his great work, Murray confided to one of his sons that "The greatest sacrifice the Dictionary entailed upon me...was the sacrifice of the constant companionship of my children..."

What this philoprogenitive man would have made of The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED), the first of his lexicographical grandchildren, is an interesting question. The first edition was only published in 1933, eighteen years after his death. Now, nearly 75 years later, the sixth edition has been released. From all that we know of the lexicographer -- his recognition of the true scope of the language, as well as his readiness to be innovative in presenting its riches -- it is clear that Murray would have rejoiced in any abridgement that brings so many of the glories of the full edition within the compass of two volumes.

Overseen by editor-at-large Jesse Sheidlower, the 6th edition manages to abridge the current 20-volume OED into 500,000 definitions covering every word or phrase in use since 1700, amounting to a full third of the OED. Putting aside any other reservations, the current edition must be accounted a work of heroic distillation.

Nevertheless, fans of the OED and of earlier editions of the SOED will be puzzled by Sheidlower's decision to replace approximate dates for the entry of words into the language with ranges of dates. By jettisoning dates, the new edition compromises the distinctly historical approach of the OED.

The value of those dates (however approximate) was driven home to me recently when I reviewed Michael Alexander's brilliant new book, Medievalism (Yale University Press), a good deal of which pivots on the fact that the word medieval only came into the language in 1827. Now, if one looks the word up in the current SOED, the entry only cites the word as having entered the language in the early 19th century -- not the same thing.

Another questionable feature of this new edition is the choice of new writers for the illustrations of words. In choosing to cite such people as Spike Lee, Dan Brown, Charles Bukowski and Susan Faludi -- surely a "rum lot," as Evelyn Waugh might say -- Sheidlower makes clear his fondness for pop culture. Many of the new words underscore this, "wow factor," "pimp (up)," "supervillain," and "splitsville" being just a few of the fatuous neologisms added here.

One advantage of the 6th edition is that it comes with a CD-ROM that allows the reader to search definitions, hear the pronunciation of words, and see which authors illustrate which words. After downloading the CD, the reader can also access entries from the SOED simply by highlighting and copying a word of text.

The CD format is a browser's paradise. For example, one can see the relative number of words illustrated by different authors. Shakespeare illustrates 1786, Addison 78, Fanny Burney 53, Trollope 78, Jean Rhys 50, Katherine Anne Porter 43, and Julian Barnes 67. (Jean Rhys illustrates moo: "The cows here moo at me.") It is odd that there are no citations from A.J. Liebling -- by any measure a master of English prose. Elizabeth Bowen has 352 illustrations compared to Jane Austen's 78. For some tastes, Bowen's style might seem fussy, static, ostentatiously elaborate. Yet the SOED exhibits a writer who could be remarkably exemplary. "The... writing desk... yawned open, too overflowing to close." "This conversation we're having now... seems to me the apogee of bad taste." "This evening's fiasco has been definitive: I think it better our acquaintance should close." "The chintz... advertised its original delicacy by being... always a little soiled." "Two rather alone people." All of these show not only what a witty but what a precise writer Bowen was.

An unscientific survey conducted with the help of this amusing feature confirmed my sense that the best exemplars of English tend to be women. Proof? Try this from Beryl Bainbridge for desiccated. "She was so desiccated by age that a smile might have broken her into little pieces." Or this from Molly Keane for ripen. "The stones seemed to ripen in the hot sunshine." There is something neatly evocative from Willa Cather for tincture. "Drinking raw alcohol, tinctured with oil of cinnamon." Ivy Compton-Burnett is cited for ferment. "It is good to speak of things openly. Then nothing can ferment and fester underneath..." Sybille Bedford provides a characteristically witty illustration for proverbial. "A foreigner, a divorcee, and of course the proverbial woman old enough to be his mother." Mary Kingsley, the intrepid explorer of West Africa, nicely illustrates scrappy. "My classical knowledge is scrappy." Speaking of West Africa, Zadie Smith has a good entry for pum-pum, a new word courtesy of West Africa. "He got a face like a donkey's pum-pum."

In this and many other well-chosen illustrations, the editors show with what exactitude and flair English can be written. Despite its incidental shortcomings, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary remains the most reliable and certainly the most capacious of abridged dictionaries. Now with the CD-ROM thrown in, it is also the most convenient.

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About the Author

Edward Short is completing work on a study of John Henry Newman and his contemporaries, which will be published by Continuum.