Vol. 11 No. 21 · 9 November 1989

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Dr Charlotte Brewer’s article ‘Thoughts on the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary’ (LRB, 31 August) identifies a number of aspects of the OED which require revision. Many of these aspects are in fact addressed in the preliminary matter of the Second Edition.

It is the duty of Oxford University Press to keep the OED up to date. The Supplement to the OED, published in four volumes between 1972 and 1986, constitutes the pre-eminent set of revisions and amendments to the original OED, covering especially the vocabulary of the 20th century in the United Kingdom, North America, and the other main English-speaking regions of the world. When the Supplement was nearing completion in the early Eighties OUP began to consider various ways in which the Dictionary could be comprehensively revised and updated for the future. There were many factors involved: the enormous amount of scholarly work on pronunciation and etymology which had taken place since the publication of OED1; developments (especially in scientific and technological areas) which had left some of the original definitions outmoded; the need to update the collection of illustrative quotations for items not covered by the Supplement, and to incorporate the many thousands of antedatings discovered by scholars, not least by the Dictionary staff themselves – to mention but a few major areas. It would have been possible to postpone publication until every facet of the revision had been completed. Alternatively, the project could have been divided into phases, with the publication of OED2 somewhere along the path from initial computerisation to complete revision. It was the opinion of Oxford University Press, as an academic publisher, that the needs of the scholarly world, and of all those interested in the minutiae of the language in book form and on computer media, would be best served by the phased approach outlined above. The question then remained, at which stage along the path of revision should OED2 be published.

A complex plan was drawn in which all the computerising, updating and revision tasks were identified and assigned a priority. The first phase of the plan, it was decided, would result in the publication of a second edition of the OED which would contain not only the integrated texts of the original OED and its Supplement but also additional material, in the form of some 5000 new words and senses supplementing the integrated text and covering many of the major lexical developments in the English-speaking world over the past quarter-century. The contents were also to be modified by converting the many thousands of pronunciations from the original notation of Sir James Murray to the standard International Phonetic Alphabet and by making a large number of alterations to the texts of definitions to correct historical and other anomalies in OED 1 which were no longer appropriate in the late 20th century.

Clearly the initial task was to computerise the existing text of the OED and its Supplement, adding structural codes so that the material was readily amenable to integration, alteration and augmentation in the future. This was a radical, innovative task in the world of reference publishing (indeed in the world of publishing as a whole), fraught with uncertainty and risk. This technical undertaking and the parallel and equally onerous editorial activity culminated in the publication last March of the Second Edition of the OED, on schedule and on budget. This phase of the project also allowed us to publish, in conjunction with Tristar Inc., an experimental CD-ROM version of the original OED, thereby giving scholars access to a vast wealth of lexical material through complex search software. Building on the experience gained from this CD-ROM we are now developing, and plan to publish in the early Nineties, an even more ambitious CD-ROM version of the Second Edition of the OED. The remarkable enthusiasm throughout the world for the publication of OED2 has justified the decision of Oxford University Press, and lays a firm foundation for the exciting task of incorporating further revisions which lies in the immediate future. The Second Edition represents a consolidation of everything achieved so far by the OED in the historical lexicography of the English language.

It is difficult to see how to answer Mark Wainwright’s letter (Letters, 28 September) on a comparison of OED2 with Chambers, which must embarrass the publishers of Chambers as much as it does other lexicographers. The dictionaries serve entirely different purposes: to praise Chambers for defining greedy as ‘having voracious appetite’ (OED: ‘having an intense desire or inordinate voracious appetite for food or drink; ravenous, voracious, gluttonous’ and recorded from Beowulf to modern times) is fine, but the comparison should be made with the Concise Oxford (‘having inordinate appetite for food or drink, gluttonous’). But it is futile to trade definitions. The editor of Chambers 20th-Century Dictionary (1901) graciously acknowledged the place of the OED in English lexicography. English lexicography has itself been enjoying a renaissance over the last twenty years, with the OED as its flagship.

J.A. Simpson
Co-Editor, Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford

Blocking Butler

On the evidence of three instances in his letter (Letters, 26 October), one might be excused for thinking that history is a subject of not much importance at the polytechnic of which Christopher Price is director. He includes Lord Hailsham amongst those who engaged in ‘varying degrees of hypocrisy’ during the Profumo affair: has he, one wonders, read the transcript of his television interview of 13 June 1963 and the chapter, ‘Morality and Hypocrisy in Public Life’, in his book of 1975? By exaggerating ‘the political consequences of the Profumo affair’, Price allies himself to the sales publicity for the film Scandal: by August 1963 Labour had a negligible lead over the Conservatives. The pressures on Harold Wilson of which Price complains stemmed less from what Price describes as Tory and security service hypocrisy than from the extreme thesis of a KGB defector, Anatoli Golitsin, regarding Gaitskell’s sudden demise and Wilson’s being ‘a Soviet asset’ (Wilderness of Mirrors, David Martin, 1980). Perhaps more interesting than why Butler was (or allowed himself to be) blocked from the Tory leadership is why Hailsham was. In Alistair Horne’s biography of Harold Macmillan, Macmillan’s letter of September 1965 is quoted, in which he says that Hailsham was ‘far the best’ of the candidates for the succession.

M.R. Meadmore
London W12

Keith’s Review

Readers of Martin Amis’s London Fields may be interested in the following review, which recently came into my hands:

Oi: top of his game innit. Touch of ‘genius’ as such. 180! 2000! Martin, words! Sincerity at the desk. Pen clinicism. Got me down to a tee like. That Nicky, phwhore!, I could murder that. Bull finish, no danger. Yeah cheers mate.

I gather the review was rejected by the Sun Literary Supplement as being ‘overly on the highbrow side’. But I mean, if Keith doesn’t know, who does? Straight from the horse’s mouf innit.

Colin McGinn


Paul Foot is an excellent investigative reporter, but the numerous factual errors contained in his review of William St Clair’s The Godwins and the Shelleys (LRB, 28 September) shows that a rigorous approach deserts him when it comes to tackling literary criticism and history.

Godwin was not writing Political Justice ‘by 1789’ as Mr Foot says, for he only began it in September 1791. It was in the autumn of this year too that he met Mary Wollstonecraft for the first time and not, as Mr Foot states, in 1792. It is understandable how Godwin could have misspelt her unusual name when recording it in his diary along with those of others he had met at Joseph Johnson’s table that November evening. But one wonders what Godwin’s friend Thomas Holcraft has done to deserve having his name misspelt (twice) as Holcraft. We are then told that when another friend of Godwin’s, the leading LCS theorist Joseph Gerrald, was convicted for sedition, he was ‘promptly despatched to Botany Bay, where he died within a year’. Gerrald certainly was transported and did die within a year of his arrival at Botany Bay, but his ‘despatch’ from England was hardly ‘prompt’. Convicted in March 1794, he spent over a year in Newgate prison being visited by and giving dinners for visitors such as Godwin, Horne Tooke, Amelia Alderson and Thelwall, before being finally transported in May 1795. Mr Foot says that from 1797 onwards Godwin found himself ‘deserted by former allies and benefactors, James Mackintosh, Thomas Wedgewood, Samuel Parr’. Two out of three correct, here. If Foot cares to consult page 271 of St Clair’s book, he will find that, far from deserting him, Tom Wedgewood was still gladly lending Godwin money in 1804, indeed, asking him to consider him as his friend ‘in every honourable sense of the word’. To conclude this list of factual errors, it is interesting to note how when he comes to Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams, we find Mr Foot promoting the character of Falkland from the status of squire to that of ‘Lord’. One wonders whether this has its source in the ultraleftist tendency to lump all ‘tyrants’ together.

This tendency certainly comes to dominate the second half of the review, which is devoted to defending the redness of Paul Foot’s beloved Red Shelley against what he conceives to be St Clair’s ‘Whiggish’ disapproval of his hero. Unfortunately, such defensiveness brings with it blunders that complement only too well the solecisms of the first half. To take just two of these, which occur when Mr Foot seeks to defend Shelley against St Clair’s assertions that the poet was a ‘spoilt young man’, and that he ‘never liked history’. We are told that he was not spoilt because he was ‘cut off from his family’s fortune as soon as he was expelled from Oxford’. Yet a few sentences further on Mr Foot informs us that Shelley was generous, especially to Godwin, ‘to whom he gave thousands of pounds for nothing’. How can a man without a fortune give away thousands of pounds? But it is with Mr Foot’s riposte to the charge concerning Shelley’s alleged dislike of history where I believe we find the effects of his ideological stance most neatly encapsulated. Shelley’s pamphlet ‘A Philosophical View of Reform’, Mr Foot’s argument runs, ‘starts with a brilliant short history of the world and its culture which could hardly have come from a history-hater’. Really? It seems to me like pretty good confirmation of St Clair’s point.

Maurice Hindle
London N1

We are bound to note that Mr Hindle misspells the name Wedgwood (twice).

Editors, ‘London Review’

Alternative Medicine

We at After Dark (an Open Media production for Channel Four) noticed with interest Patrick Curry’s letter on alternative medicine (Letters, 12 October). He refers to a recent late-night television show and I suspect he means an edition of After Dark. However, for the record, our programme ‘Alternative Medicine’ was not broadcast all that recently (it went out on 3 September last year, over a year ago) and although Jonathan Miller was present, as was a French scientist, ‘John Maddox, the fearsome editor of Nature’, was not on the programme; nor is Mr Curry’s statement that there was only one working scientist present an accurate reflection of the composition of that night’s programme.

Sebastian Cody
London W12


Roy MacGregor-Hastie (Letters, 12 October) claims that ‘only a dolt’ would believe a girl wearing a lapel badge reading ‘I am a virgin’. This seems a rather over-confident assertion. Could we perhaps poll LRB readers on this one? Women who have sported such a badge should tell us what they intended by it, while men should report whether they reacted doltishly or not. Best of all, perhaps there is a reader who, while wearing such a badge, encountered Professor MacGregor-Hastie. What, if anything, occurred?

Bruno Nightingale
London SE22


Having been away for some months, I have only just seen C.K. Stead’s letter (Letters, 22 June) about some of his books being attributed (by a computer programme plus an ignoramus) to Christina Stead. I can cite a comparable but pleasanter experience. According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, I am the author of Persuasion.

Alistair Elliot
Newcastle upon Tyne

‘Feminist Perspectives’

We were of course delighted to see a review of Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy in the London Review of 14 September. British readers might like to know that the book is also published by Macmillan and available in this country.

Morwenna Griffiths, Margaret Whitford
Oxford, London

Blaming teachers

I am surprised that someone who comes from Birmingham, as Christopher Upward does (Letters, 12 October), can ponder a spelling system based on pronunciation. Between ‘plonk’ in the West-Midlands and ‘plenk’ down here, at least ‘plank’ has the virtue of being neutral. Perhaps I should add that I spent my first 19 years in Wolverhampton.

David Mills
London W1

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