- Empire of Words: The Reign of the ‘OED’ by John Willinsky
Princeton, 258 pp, £19.95, November 1994, ISBN 0 691 03719 1
In these columns six years ago, among a chorus of praise for the new, revised Oxford English Dictionary, OED2, Charlotte Brewer entered a dissenting opinion (3 August 1989):
The riches stored in the two previous dictionaries are now much more accessible, and reviewers have already reported how delightful it is to browse through one of the 20 handsome volumes of OED2, and ponder, marvel or cavil at individual words and definitions among the extraordinary wealth of examples recorded on its pages. But what can such sample browsing tell us about the project as a whole, which purports to provide a systematic, reliable and comprehensive history of the English vocabulary? To make an assessment of the dictionary in its entirety, we need to judge its editorial premises and methodology. This boils down to three separate factors, crucial to lexicographical enterprise: the nature of the sources consulted to supply evidence on word usage, the thoroughness and accuracy with which these sources were read, and the use made by the lexicographers of the evidence which the source study provided. Unfortunately, it is surprisingly difficult for the average OED2 user to form an accurate opinion of any of these three factors.
According to Brewer, ‘only one study of OED1 makes any attempt to subject it to thorough-going methodological examination.’ (OED2 is a fusion of the 1933 OED1 and the post-1957 Supplements.) The study to which Brewer refers is a ‘little-known but revelatory book by Jürgen Schäfer on OED documentation’. Brewer endorsed Schäfer’s caveat that ‘the increasing discrepancy between the methods used at that time’ – i.e. when OED was compiled – ‘and those used now for evaluation calls for a detailed analysis of the nature and reliability of the OED documentation itself.’
Schäfer’s call, and Brewer’s echoing of it, are amply answered in Empire of Words. No longer will scholars use OED in the same way that Scrabble players use the Shorter Oxford and Webster, as a Bible on matters linguistic. Nor, one imagines, could a post-Willinsky scholar do what Raymond Williams did in the Fifties and base a major intellectual enterprise on the confident assumption that OED represents ‘a systematic, reliable and comprehensive history of the English vocabulary’ – raw lexical material. In the Foreword of Keywords Williams writes:
One day in the basement of the Public Library at Seaford, where we had gone to live, I looked up ‘culture’, almost casually, in one of the 13 volumes of what we now usually call the OED: the Oxford New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. It was like a shock of recognition. The changes of sense I had been trying to understand had begun in English, it seemed, in the early 19th century. The connections I had sensed with ‘class’ and ‘art’, with ‘industry’ and ‘democracy’, took on, in the language, not only an intellectual but a historical shape. I see those changes today  in much more complex ways. ‘Culture’ itself has now a different though related history. But this was the moment at which an inquiry which had begun into trying to understand several urgent contemporary problems – problems quite literally of understanding my immediate world – achieved a particular shape in trying to understand a tradition. This was the work which, completed in 1956, became my book Culture and Society.
Vol. 17 No. 15 · 3 August 1995
From Wayne Templeton
In his review of John Willinsky’s Empire of Words: The Reign of the ‘OED’ (LRB, 8 June), John Sutherland asserts that no ‘post-Willinsky scholar’ could ‘do what Raymond Williams did in the Fifties and base a major intellectual enterprise on the confident assumption that the OED represents a “systematic, reliable and comprehensive history of the English vocabulary” – raw lexical material’. Sutherland describes Williams as possessing a ‘confident assumption’ concerning the OED. But Williams was at least as explicit as Willinsky evidently is in describing the shortcomings of the OED. He writes that he could summarise its major shortcomings ‘in three ways’.
I have been very aware of the period in which the Dictionary was made: in effect from the 1880s to the Twenties … this has two disadvantages: that in some important words the evidence for developed 20th-century usage is not really available; and that in a number of cases, especially in certain sensitive social and political terms, the presuppositions of orthodox opinion in that period either show through or are not very far beneath the surface … The air of massive impersonality which the Oxford Dictionary communicates is not so impersonal, so purely scholarly, or so free of active social and political values as might be supposed from its occasional use. Indeed, to work closely in it is at times to get a fascinating insight into what can be called the ideology of its editors … Secondly, for all its deep interest in meanings, the Dictionary is primarily philological and etymological; one of the effects of this is that it is much better on range and variation than on connection and interaction … Thirdly, in certain areas I have been reminded very sharply of the change of perspective which has recently occurred in studies of language: for obvious reasons … the written language used to be taken as the real source of authority, with the spoken language as in effect derived from it; whereas now it is much more clearly realised that the real situation is usually the other way round.
In other words, as Willinsky notes twenty years later, the OED excludes ‘the vernacular, the dialects of business’, and so on. It is, notes Williams, a narrowly-focused, ideologically driven work, and its value to scholars, for these and other reasons, is limited. ‘Few inquiries into particular words end with the great Dictionary’s account, but even fewer could start with any confidence if it were not there.’
Surrey, British Columbia
Vol. 17 No. 16 · 24 August 1995
From John Simpson
John Sutherland’s review of Professor Willinsky’s Empire of Words; The Reign of the OED (LRB, 8 June) is perceptive in its discussion of the financing and management of long-term scholarly projects. But the reader may be left with the view that Willinsky ‘s own conclusions about the Oxford English Dictionary as a cultural icon should be accepted unchallenged. The problem with being a national institution is that people respond not to the institution itself, but to the idea of institutional authority, which is a very different thing. The OED is an excellent case in point. It is a book which records our language: the meanings of words, their history, their derivation. But meaning is an imprecise concept: dictionaries attempt an approximation of meaning according to the evidence available to the lexicographers and their ability to decipher it. The history of any word is also, in an absolute sense, insecure: the evidence simply is not available to document any word comprehensively. Derivation is an inexact science: for any root word there comes a point in its history at which we have to say that we have no idea why or from whence it evolved as it did.
But the eager reader has been led to expect certainties, in religion, in science, in medicine, and in almost any sphere of life. Although it is a commonplace that succeeding generations overturn the certainties of their predecessors, still the myth of certainty remains. The need to invest authority can be seen everywhere, as can the opposing need in others to topple the established authorities, either gratuitously or to replace them with a new temporary orthodoxy. It would be a disaster if this were to endanger work which is valuable. Criticism achieves a certain authority by the very fact of being in print, but may itself be as Hawed as the work it attempts to describe. The documentation of the English language in the OED is valuable: there is no other work which attempts the same tremendous goal, or which gets so close to achieving it. Authority is relative: errors should be corrected, imbalances eradicated, better information incorporated. But the sporadic undermining of a valuable record is dangerous, when the purposes of scholarship are better served by collaborative assistance. If a definition could be improved, then the scholar should submit an improvement; if new documentation is discovered, then this should be presented; if a point of policy is questioned, a better alternative should be proposed. We are fortunate that the Oxford University Press has shouldered the burden of revising the OED: in many ways the success of the enterprise depends on the contributions of those who are prepared to regard authority as relative.
Chief Editor, OED
Vol. 17 No. 17 · 7 September 1995
From L.B. McKenzie
Professor Sutherland, in his review of John Willinsky’s Empire of Words: The Reign of the ‘OED’ (LRB, 8 June), informs us that ‘no longer will scholars use OED in the same way that Scrabble players use the Shorter Oxford and Webster, as a Bible on matters linguistic.’ I do not know about Webster and the US, and I would not quibble about the Shorter Oxford as a Bible on matters linguistic but, according to the information inside the cover of my copy of the 1993 edition of Chambers Dictionary, it is the official reference dictionary for the UK National Scrabble Championship. Chambers is, therefore, the Bible for Scrabble players.
West Pennant Hills, New South Wales
Vol. 17 No. 18 · 21 September 1995
From Nicolas Walter
John Simpson complains that the attempt ‘to topple the established authorities’ can be disastrous if it endangers valuable work and that ‘the sporadic undermining of a valuable record is dangerous’ (Letters, 24 August). But the attempt to prop up a national institution such as the OED also has dangers, since the defence is itself open to obvious attack. In my own experience, the OED is far from satisfactory, and the new edition is more unsatisfactory than ever. Several scholars have publicly pointed out errors and omissions, and I have found all sorts of serious mistakes in my own areas of interest – mainly social and political thought. Moreover these are not just incidental but essential to the way the work has been done. For example, technical terms in anarchist and pacifist discourse have been traced back not to the specialist publications where they first appeared but to general periodicals where they appeared some time later. One search I made – into the term ‘libertarian’ – had the embarrassing conclusion of finding an article by myself in the Listener of 1969 cited, although it merely followed established usage.