Each year the main street north out of Oxford, England is closed for two days, as the citizens of Oxford and surrounding villages throng to attend St Giles’ Fair, with its amusement rides, fortune-telling, and hotdogs. As usual with Oxford the origins of the fair are almost lost in the mists of time, but in its modern form it dates from around 1830. The Oxford English Dictionary moved into offices on St Giles’ in 1978, and in keeping with the preoccupations of Oxford academia in those days the prevailing question asked in the Dictionary rooms then was whether the street-name St Giles’ should have an apostrophe.
To resolve the problem, one of our top editors was put on the case. He scoured the documentary records, dug up etymologists for opinions, and paged through grammatical manuals. Eventually the answer came back that the apostrophe in St Giles’ did indeed have historical approval, and must be retained. Order was restored to the heavens and the dictionary editors continued with their everyday work.
I had joined the editorial staff of the OED a couple of years before this, in 1976, and the environment I encountered was one of intense scholarly dedication, but also Oxonian introspection. We were working on an update of the big twelve-volume historical dictionary, covering the English language throughout the world, from the earliest times to the present. Our ongoing work was similarly published in massive, imposing, close-printed and almost marmoreal volumes. The work of the dictionary was little changed since the days when its first installments appeared in the 1880s. Scholars shuffled to consult it in their university libraries. Occasionally a member of the public would draw one of its enormous volumes off the shelves of their local town library. But the circle of the OED’s readers was limited, and access to the books was difficult. The work itself was awe-inspiring, but as each year passed it became less relevant to modern society.
Back in the late 19th century and beyond, the evidence upon which the OED’s dictionary entries were based had been collected by what might now be called Friends of the Dictionary, and perhaps also the American Friends of the Dictionary. Some big names were involved: Thomas Hardy was interested in how his Wessex language might be represented; the popular novelist Charlotte Yonge wrote out hundreds of index cards documenting the usage of particular words for the OED’s filing shelves or “pigeonholes.” For the most part, the dictionary’s research-file information was collected by the leisured gentlemen and ladies of Victorian England: country vicars, members of the London clubs, elderly spinsters with time on their hands and an earnest desire to benefit their country, even the inmates of psychiatric hospitals, as Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman comprehensively documents. And they read the classics. They preferred Dickens to Gissing, Thackeray to George Eliot. George Eliot currently stands at only No 86 in the ranking of the OED’s most cited sources, ten places below the 2nd Baron Berners, little-known today (though in truth a major medieval source of English usage).
To tell you the truth, the OED was going nowhere in 1976, when I signed on. We didn’t know that at the time, but the University Press—who controlled its purse strings—couldn’t see how they could restore its relevance. Behind closed doors, discussions raged on about whether the dictionary should be mothballed as soon as the current update had reached Z.
Ta-da would be the right expression to use here, although the OED didn’t decide to include it until 2006. Apparently it was first used in Joseph Moncure March’s narrative poem The Wild Party (1926), a decadent classic banned on its first publication in Boston—though not for including the expression “ta-da.” As I said, ta-da. Enter the Dragon, or at least the Shark, the Admiral, myself and numerous colleagues. All at our different speeds—and even I was not too slow on to this bandwagon—we were developing plans to shift the OED out of the college common-rooms of the 19th century into a present. At the time, the present didn’t involve the Internet (not yet invented for the likes of you and me) but CD-ROMs and magnetic tape. We wanted to open up access to the dictionary by making it more easily available. We also wanted to “democratize” the content—showing that English wasn’t the preserve of the British literary elite, but everybody’s language. But at the same time we wanted to retain the scientific rigor of the dictionary’s editorial approach.
Oxford was changing, too. There were senior academics who were prepared to stick their necks above the parapet to support our plans—who thought it was important that the OED, as the dictionary of record for English—should expand its terms of reference and reach out to a wider public. The University Press voted us funds to start on a new edition of the grand ol’ dictionary, starting from the ground up, comprehensively reviewing each of its entries for the first time since the Victorian era. We tagged all of the existing text for the computer, and hunted out new words and better information on old words with which to enhance the dictionary’s database (we no longer thought of the dictionary primarily as a book). If that meant that we included selfie, then I apologize (to those of you who have told me in no uncertain terms that you don’t like it). Did you know it was coined in Australia around 2002, years before we heard of it in Britain and America? That’s important cultural context for our lives, as are most of the facts that the dictionary tells us. The original OED didn’t include bird-watching (perhaps because neither Milton nor Dickens refer to the activity). But it’s important to know that it was coined in its modern use by environmental bird-watcher Edmund Selous in 1902, to distinguish the new type of observational bird-watchers he supported from the old type of shoot-‘em-and-draw-‘em type, represented by his brother, the then-famous big-game hunter Frederick Selous.
In the old days, dictionary look-up was just that. You went to your dictionary to look up the word in which you were interested, found the information, closed the book, and returned to your everyday life immeasurably better informed. Today, through digital reference works, the net is spread wider. You no longer have to enter the dictionary at a particular word. You can search for all words from baseball that arose in the ’30s, and then contrast them (should you be so inclined) with the equivalent subset of baseball terms from the 1910s. For “baseball” read more or less anything else. You can look at all of the terms for which Charlotte Brontë is currently recorded as the first user (and in doing so, you can scratch you head and puzzle over how on earth she comes to be the first recorded reference for “the Wild West”). You can see your results plotted on charts; you can mail the editors with your own observations. Maybe someday you’ll be able to post your findings on an OED wiki. I’m not sure—I retired a few years ago. But the dictionary is changing with each of its three-monthly updates. Watch it closely, and you’ll see that it’s no longer a tombstone, but a riveting and dynamic cultural index of our times and times past.
John Simpson is the author of the memoir The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary (Basic Books). The former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, where he helped take the dictionary online, he is an emeritus fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford, and writes and researches widely on lexical, literary, and historical issues. He now lives in Gloucestershire, United Kingdom.