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Charlotte Brewer

Charlotte Brewer is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and is writing a book on Piers Plowman.

Good enough for Jesus

Charlotte Brewer, 25 January 1990

The second edition of The State of the Language, published ten years on from the first, contains 53 essays and nine poems, each by a different author. The dust-jackets of both editions are almost wholly taken up, front and back, with a well-spaced parade of contributing writers’ names, and this provides a visual counterpart to something that emerges very clearly from the essays themselves: the ‘state of the language’ is a notional concept, impossible to separate out from the myriad (famous) voices who contribute to it.

The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary merges the original Oxford English Dictionary (OED1), published between 1884 and 1928, with the recent (1972-1986) four-volume Supplement, to produce an extremely handsome and typographically seamless whole. The editors of OED1 set out to give a full historical account of all the words ever used in the English language; the editor of the Supplement, R.W. Burchfield, aimed to update OED with comprehensive evidence on 20th-century words and senses. So OED2, which combines these two dictionaries, makes a substantial claim to lexical authority. OED2 contains over half a million definitions, including 5000 which entered the lexicographers’ files after the relevant volume of the Supplement appeared. The new edition also switches to the International Phonetic Alphabet for representing pronunciation. How successful has the project been, and how useful is this publication?

Letter

OED2

31 August 1989

I think Mark Wainwright’s letter (Letters, 28 September) confirms my point. A dictionary that announces itself as ‘the Second Edition of the most authoritative and comprehensive dictionary of English in the world’, and claims to provide ‘the first up-to-date coverage of words and meanings in one alphabetical sequence since the original edition was completed in 1928’, might...

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