At a panel discussion yesterday celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Oxford English Dictionary, Yale Law School Associate Librarian Fred Shapiro labeled the OED — considered the ultimate authority on the English language — the “greatest humanistic project in the world.”
The panel, organized by University Library Communications Coordinator Geoffrey Little and co-sponsored by the Yale Library and Oxford University Press, drew about 100 people to the Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcoan auditorium. Panelists included Shapiro; Simon Winchester, author of “The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary” and “The Professor and the Madman”; Ammon Shea, author of “Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages”; and OED Editor-at-Large Jesse Sheidlower.
The OED is a “historical dictionary” that not only defines words but also provides literary citations showcasing the words’ usage, Sheidlower said. The OED includes definitions for about 200,000 fewer words than Merriam-Webster but is much longer because each definition includes examples found in literature.
At the discussion, Shapiro said his involvement with the OED began early in life.
“I was 24 years old,” he said. “I couldn’t deal with the fact that the OED wasn’t perfect.”
Shapiro, a Harvard Law student at the time, used the Lexis database in his law library to find word usages earlier than those in the OED. He frequently notified the OED’s editors of his findings, until they responded with a letter of their own.
“The editor finally stepped in and said, ‘We would appreciate if you’d please stop,’ ” Shapiro remembered.
Winchester, who spoke next, provided background on the history of the OED.
He said the first time English words were formally defined in a dictionary was in 1604, in Robert Cawdrey’s “A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Usual English Words.”
Cawdrey, an English schoolmaster, invented the modern dictionary “so the people who moved through society could make intelligent-sounding conversation,” Winchester said. “Everyone wanted to keep one of these books in their inside pockets.”
By the end of the century, “the dictionary had become an established part of English cultural life,” Winchester said. “They would have the Bible, they would have Shakespeare and then they would have the dictionary.”
Samuel Johnson published his own dictionary in 1755 — one that, according to Winchester, left much to be desired in its definitions. Some were entirely made up. “Johnson seems to get ‘sex’ into as many definitions as possible,” Winchester said.
In 1857, the London Library Philological Society, influenced by Richard Trench, set up an “unregistered words committee” that, according to Winchester, meant they would “have to read everything that has already been written.”
This committee’s work essentially became the first OED, which holds 415,000 definitions. Each word was listed on an index card, along with a quotation illustrating the meaning, date and quotation source. In 1928, the first edition of the OED — 10 volumes long — was completed and published.
Shea, who has enjoyed reading dictionaries since age 10, was third. “People think of reading the dictionary as the literary equivalent of eating a candle,” he said.
Yet he pointed out the humor in reading dictionaries, in entries such as ‘unbepissed,’ the state of not being urinated upon.
Although Shea has already read the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionaries, the OED, he said, “was unquestionably the greatest story I have ever read.”
He now appreciates knowing the words for the smell of rain when it first falls on the ground (petrichor) and the French-derived term for a satisfying meal (bouffage). He said he finds these distinctions “utterly delightful.”
Sheidlower, an expert on American slang and author of “The F-Word,” is currently leading the complete revision of the OED, which contains many entries that have not been updated since its first publication. The groundwork for this third edition of the OED was laid in the 1990s. In 2000, the third edition began to be published in OED Online, starting with words beginning with the letter “m.”
“That way we get to “z” faster,” Sheidlower joked.
His team has now made its way to “r” but has no exact date for when the project is supposed to be finished.
After the panelists delivered their speeches, audience members had a chance to participate in the symposium. Questions included whether the OED deletes words (it doesn’t) and the panel’s thoughts on the Web-user created urbandictionary.com (considered “low quality” by Sheidlower).
Amy Rodriguez ’12, who asked about urbandictionary, said she attended the panel because of her love of linguistics.
“There can be a lot that’s fun about dictionaries,” she said. “When we look at urbandictionary, we can trace where our additions have popped up.”
Although many were in attendance, few were students.
“I felt conspicuously young,” Erica Rothman ’12 said. “I think that’s a problem.” She said the University could have done a better job of attracting students to the panel.
“Knowing about dictionaries is so relevant,” Rothman said. “It’s going unnoticed by students.”
Spouses and English majors Cynthia Hirni and Robert Raines ’50 DIV ’53 said they enjoyed listening to the panelists.
“We love the OED,” Hirni said. “I was fascinated by the diversity of [the panelists’] approaches. I loved their humor.”
The OED has been affiliated with Yale for much of its history. William Chester Minor 1863, the subject of “The Professor and the Madman,” was a convicted murderer who contributed significantly to the first edition of the OED while in jail.
Yale was one of the first institutions to subscribe to OED Online, and the Yale and Oxford University presses co-published “Caught in the Web of Words” about original OED editor James Murray, written by the subject’s granddaughter, K.M. Elisabeth Murray. The OED also employs a library researcher in New Haven, Jane Garry, because of the University libraries’ expansive holdings.