Even while celebrating its 75th anniversary, the OED is aware that it is impossible to finish making a dictionary of a living language
It is actually quite impossible to finish making a dictionary. As Dr Johnson understood — toiling on his own dictionary in the 18th century — to write one of the English language means facing “the boundless chaos of living speech”. It is no wonder, therefore, that the world’s greatest endeavour in lexicography, the Oxford English Dictionary, is celebrating this year the 75th anniversary of a milestone in its evolution. The final instalment of its First Edition was published in April, 1928. On June 6 that year, the formal completion of this 10-volume work was celebrated at a dinner in the presence of the prime minister. It was then called the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, and documented over 400,000 words and phrases. Seventy years earlier, the Philological Society of London decided to make a “completely new” English dictionary, giving itself five years to do so. When the deadline arrived, the editor and his team had only reached the word “ant”, and after drastic rescheduling, the First Edition came out in 1928. Hence the dinner, followed by the unnerving realization that this was just the beginning of a process which would have to be as endlessly innovative as the English language itself.
The OED remains committed to its “historical principles”, to being the accepted authority on the evolution of the English language over the last millennium, and on English as it is spoken all over the world today. It continues to do this by studying the meaning, etymology, spelling and pronunciation of over half a million words, and then working out the means of capturing their changes, initially on paper, and now electronically. This involves the ceaseless reading of poems, novels, diaries, textbooks, newspapers, periodicals, film and radio scripts, wills, inventories, account books, medieval dictionaries and databases, to name only a tiny bit of the ocean of words that the researchers must plumb. The chief joy and usefulness of the OED is therefore still the illustrative quotations, taking one back to the earliest recorded evidence of the use of a word. The poet, W.H. Auden, not only completely wore out one set through constant use and so had to buy another, but he also insisted on sitting on a couple of volumes, placed on his chair, at dinner every evening. In the 20-volume Second Edition of 1989 — weighing more than 60 kilogrammes and gathering 2,436,600 quotations — the most frequently quoted author is Shakespeare, and the most frequently quoted work is Hamlet.
But the OED remains uneasy with its authoritative status. Its chief editor, Mr John Simpson, prefaces the Third Edition by trying to dispel the myths that have gathered around it. First, it does not, and can never, contain every word, and every meaning of every word, which has ever formed part of the English language. Second, it is no more the task of a modern dictionary to standardize and set rules for the use of a living and various language. Mr Simpson knows — as did his weary Augustan precursor — that “no dictionary of a living tongue ever can be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away”.