John Sutherland

  • 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 [1976] 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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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