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Treasure-house of the Language: The Living OED [Hardcover]

Charlotte Brewer
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

9 Nov 2007
The legendary Oxford English Dictionary today contains over 600,000 words and a staggering 2,500,000 quotations to illuminate the meaning and history of those words. A glorious, bursting treasure-house, the OED serves as a guardian of the literary jewels of the past, a testament to the richness of the English language today, and a guarantor of future understanding of the language. In this book, Charlotte Brewer begins her account of the OED at the point where others have stopped, with the publication of the final instalment of the first edition in 1928, and carries it through to the metamorphosis of the dictionary into a twenty-first-century electronic medium. Brewer describes the difficulties of keeping the OED up-to-date over time and recounts the recurring debates over finances, treatment of contentious words, public vs. scholarly expectations, proper sources of quotations, and changing editorial practices. With humour and empathy, she portrays the predilections and personalities of the editors, publishers, and assistants who undertook the Sisyphean task of keeping apace with the modern explosion of vocabulary. Utilizing rich archives in Oxford as well as new electronic resources, the author uncovers a history no less complex and fascinating than the Oxford English Dictionary itself.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (9 Nov 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300124295
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300124293
  • Product Dimensions: 3.3 x 16.4 x 23.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 578,045 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'... Brewer remains admirably level headed. This is a brisk, elegant account of its [OED's] evolution.'
-- Christopher Hawtree, Daily Telegraph, January 5, 2008

About the Author

Charlotte Brewer is a fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, and CUF lecturer in English at Oxford University. She has published extensively on topics related to the Oxford English Dictionary.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Very readable history of OED 19 Jun 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I run OED on the hard drives of my PC and my MacBook Pro, I have made it a rule to look up any word I do not
understand, and some I am not sure of on OED, it can slow up reading for sure, but greatly enhances the educative reading of especially non fiction.
The knowledge, of knowing how this dictionary was formed,its ups and downs, its lexicographers, adds to the pleasure (yes pleasure of reading a dictionary!)of using it.
I do prefer footnotes on each page rather than numerical references and having to turn to the back of the book for this facility. Hence the deduction of one star.
Do not let this deter you from reading this mine of information on the undisputed prime dictionary of the English language.
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Continuation of a Remarkable Story 20 Jan 2008
By Gary M. Olson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book traces the recent history of the Oxford English Dictionary, from the publication of the first edition in 1928 (itself the culmination of decades of work) up to the present work on a third edition to be published entirely on-line. It is a fascinating history, shaped by policies and practices first established for work on the first edition (primarily by the editor James Murray), both lexicographical and business (the latter the Oxford University Press).

The history takes us through the initial Supplement published in 1933, a reduced but existant trickle of work until the 1950s, the production of a second Supplemnt in four volumes between 1957 and 1986, the release of a Second Edition of the complete dictionary in 1989, the brief phase of CD-based releases, and finally the current ambitious program to do a completely revamped and updated Third Edition on line.

Brewer does a masterful job of surveying and commenting on this fascinating period of history. Any project of the scale of the OED will have lots of shortcomings, errors, and biases, and Brewer reflects in detail how these have characterized each of the phases of this history. The ongoing tensions between the desire for "perfect" entries by the lexicographers and the need to publish something by the OUP is a central part of the story. All projections of project timelines have turned out to be hopelessly inaccurate -- including the present Third Edition project. Brewer presents fascinating details (aided by the current electronic resources that allow for searches that reveal interesting patterns) that show how the practices of the principals (editors and their staff, contributors from the general public, publishers)in the social and cultural context of their times (spanning more than a century) have led to numerous peculiar properties of the dictionary. A project begun in Victorian England will of necessity have properties that are alien to our early 21st century world. To their credit, the editors of the Third Edition intend to reflect the values and practices of our contemporary world, though of course whoever writes the history of the OED a century from now will certainly find as many quaint and unusual features as Brewer has found in her history.

This is an altogether remarkable and enjoyable history, and a much-needed addition to the growing collection of histories of the OED itself.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Grand _OED_ after the First Edition 11 April 2008
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
There have been many books about the compilation of the original _Oxford English Dictionary_, and this is as it should be. The monumental work started publishing its A volume in 1888 and finished the Z in 1928, with 15,000 pages defining over 400,000 words. At a banquet to celebrate its conclusion, it was hailed as "unrivalled in completeness and unapproachable in authority; as near infallibility, indeed, as we can hope to get this side of Rome." Millions of people trust that near-infallibility; to say "The _OED_ says..." about a word is to give the strongest of evidence. Yet although the dictionary was finished in 1928, it was not really finished (and never could be), and it was far from error-free. In 1951, a co-editor of the original _OED_, C. T. Onions, wrote that the great work had "hosts of wrong definitions, wrong datings, and wrong crossreferences. The problem is gigantic." How the lexicographers and the Oxford University Press handled the problem of updating and correcting the dictionary by supplements, abridgements, electronic versions, and the current online version is the subject of _Treasure-House of the Language: The Living OED_ (Yale University Press) by Charlotte Brewer. Anyone who uses the _OED_, and anyone with any interest in words and the roles dictionaries play in the use of language, will find stimulating this scholarly history of the _OED_ after its first edition was completed.

Since the dictionary took forty years to print from A to Z, and since English had plenty of new words and new emphases by the time the great task was completed, everyone knew that there would have to be a supplement volume to cover the years when the dictionary was in production, a supplement that would have plenty of entries for the early part of the alphabet and fewer for the later part. This first supplement came out in 1933, and some thought that this would be the end of the _OED_ effort, since such a gargantuan project could not be completely revised, and indeed work on the dictionary did go into hibernation in some ways. However, the readers and contributors who had from the inception of the dictionary sent in slips with examples of words and usage simply continued; they were in the habit of excerpting quotations from everything they read and did not stop. There were, indeed, four more supplements issued, the last one in 1986. This was unwieldy, because if you wanted to be sure about a word, you had to look it up in several different volumes. The need for a second edition was eventually clear, and in 1989 it was published with the help of the electronic storage and retrieval available at the time. These twenty volumes were heralded as a masterpiece, but Brewer explains that it was more than anything a marketing triumph. The second edition had essentially the same content that had gone before, but was a financial step in bringing forth a complete revision.

That revision is in progress. There may be a third edition printed, maybe twenty or thirty years from now, but maybe a print edition will never emerge. Brewer's book ends with a review of the latest version, the _OED Online_, launched in 2000. I can confirm that this really is the best _OED_ ever from a user's view; the subscription fee is daunting, but plenty of libraries can get you on for free, and the website is much more fun to use and browse around than was my old microprint _OED_, the one with the inescapable magnifying glass. Brewer, who does research on the _OED Online_ to investigate the _OED_ itself, explains that in the web format, "_OED_ was poised to escape the tyranny of alphabetization." Searching does not have to go by alphabet, but can be done electronically by dates, suffixes, etymologies, cited authors, and more. Also, there is plenty of space and no worry about how many column inches would be used up by cramming in a new word or new quotation; this is a fundamental difference in how the dictionary is put out. Revised chunks are issued every quarter, the full revision-in-progress including even changing the wording of definitions, replacing "the late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century locutions that now look quaint..." Even in the online age, however, the dictionary-maker's "dull plodding... is still an inextricable part of the lexicographical process." Brewer gives fascinating details about how that process has changed, and stayed the same, over the past century.
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