February 7: Oxford English Dictionary Day

Today is the birthday of James A. H. Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).  Born in Denholm, Scotland in 1837, Murray was a self-educated scholar, especially interested in philology — the study of written language and the evolution of language.  After he published a book on Scottish dialects in 1868 and became an active member of the British Philological Society, he was invited to become part of a monumental project that would consume the rest of his life.

James-Murray.jpgDespite the fact that some English dictionaries existed prior to the 19th-century, no truly comprehensive dictionary of the English language had yet been published.  In an age of imperialism, England was ascending as a world power, and with this ascension English was becoming a global language.  The British wanted a dictionary that matched its new status as a world power, a dictionary that included a complete inventory of its words, along with complete definitions and a biography of every word, including the date of each word’s birth.

To accomplish this monumental task, Murray needed help.  Gathering quotations from published sources to illustrate each word would require an army of readers.  Long before the internet, Murray used crowdsourcing to get the job done.  To advertise for volunteers, he created a pamphlet called, “An Appeal to the English-Speaking and English-Reading Public in Great Britain, America and the British Colonies to read books and make extracts for the Philological Society’s New English Dictionary.”  Murray distributed his pamphlet to newspapers, bookshops, and libraries.  When volunteers responded to Murray’s call, he provided them with slips of paper upon which to record their quotations along with a standard format for citing each one.  Readers sent their slips to Oxford, specifically to Murray’s office which he called the “Scriptorium.”  There Murray and his charges filed each slip alphabetically, creating an archive from which to research and document each definition.

Murray worked tirelessly as editor from 1879-1915, but unfortunately he never lived to see the complete OED.  The original plan was to produce a four-volume dictionary in ten years, but the complete project took 44 years.  When completed in 1928, the OED encompassed twelve-volumes, containing 414,825 headwords and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. (1).

Of course the expansion of the English language never ends.  Today, however, with the help of the internet the process of compiling and updating the OED has become much less labor intensive.

One reason why a comprehensive dictionary like the OED is so valuable, is that it allows writers to correctly employ the words they use. The English lexicon is larger than any other language.  This is a blessing for writers, but sometimes the sheer the volume of words leads to confusion between words that are similar.  This sometimes leads to hilarious malapropisms, the error of saying one word when you need another.  The term comes from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s character Mrs. Malaprop, who appears in his play The Rivals.  The following are a couple of examples of Mrs. Malaprop’s slips of the tongue:

Illiterate [obliterate] him, I say, quite from your memory.

He can tell you the perpendiculars [particulars].

A good dictionary allows writers to check a word’s correct spelling, but also a word’s correct definition.  There are hundreds of homophones in English –words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same, such as eight and ate or there and their.  There are also other words that, although they are not homophones, are close enough in spelling, pronunciation, or meaning that they are frequently confused.  A good dictionary is an excellent source for clearing up this confusion.

Today’s Challenge:  Clearing Up the Confusion

What are some English words that so close in meaning, spelling, or pronunciation, that they are often confused?  Select a pair of these words, and research the definitions of the two words.  Write a paragraph that clearly explains the distinction between the two words based on their meanings and on how they are used in writing:

anxious/eager

biography/autobiography

cement/concrete

disinterested/uninterested

entomology/entymology

fortuitous/fortunate

gamut/gauntlet

historic/historical

intricate/integral

languish/luxuriate

mean/median

op-ed/editorial

paramount/tantamount

quote/quotation

rationale/rationalization

sanguine/sanguinary

tragedy/travesty

we/us

Xmas/Christmas

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  A word in a dictionary is very much like a car in a mammoth motorshow — full of potential but temporarily inactive. -Anthony Burgess

1-Winchester, Simon.  The Meaning of Everything:  The History of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Oxford University Press, 2003:  234.