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The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is more important than ever, but maybe it's time to rethink the presentation
on 28 January 2012
There is now no reason why the full-sized Oxford English Dictionary should ever be printed again, the online version being so much enlarged and offering so many new ways to study the history and use of words. But every decade or two there needs to be put out a snapshot of all this material in a concise working form, and that is exactly and uniquely what the Shorter OED is designed to do. And a printed edition still has a place, for me anyway: I haven't used the CD-Rom Shorter OED, but I find that the full-sized OED Online (from my limited experience, owing to the cost of subscribing) is still best suited to special searches, and not as friendly as print for browsing - at least for the way in reality you can switch imperceptibly from one type of use to the other, from specific query to moving semi-randomly between entries and finding unexpected connections.
The Shorter OED is the fullest printed dictionary available, with a very deep coverage of obsolete and dialect words, and follows the same historical arrangement of senses as in the big version, with a fair sampling of the illustrative quotations. But it has the advantage of being restricted to MODERN English: that means it gives the complete history of every word and sense in use since 1700, and most since the sixteenth century, leaving out the material now better covered by the new specialist dictionaries of Old and Middle English. (It's an awkward historical accident that leaves the full OED lumbered with this material.)
But it seems to me that the current presentation doesn't quite fit this new job as the premier printed dictionary: it now seems just a little too concise. Since the SOED can't possibly compete in practical use with the latest single-volume 'desk' dictionaries (like the Collins English Dictionary or the Oxford Dictionary of English, which include encyclopedic entries), and since it is already split across two hefty volumes, maybe there would be nothing lost in adding a third volume for a 50% expansion - or 25% if a smaller (lighter!) format was adopted. The SOED's only purpose now is the more 'leisurely' or 'impractical' use, and for this the richness of the text needs to be improved, in particular with more illustrative quotations from earlier periods.
Even sticking to the current presentation, though, the ETYMOLOGIES are one thing that I feel SURE needs improvement, and which I find actually (just a little) irritating. They are given (as is traditionally done) inside square brackets, but this edition then adds the word 'ORIGIN' inside the first bracket - a 'belt and suspenders' approach that wastes a lot of space. As does the printing of language names unabbreviated. This perhaps makes the etymologies easier to read, but it's not as if abbreviations don't appear elsewhere in the dictionary entries, and some etymologies are dense with them. For clarity in the etymologies it would be far more useful to open up the style of expression, which tends to be too concise, even cryptic - so that at times it can be difficult to extract information unambiguously (something which the expansive approach to language names just highlights, since the content itself is categorically NOT expansive). The greater use of abbreviations could even allow extra substantial matter to be included without taking up any more space - things like more variant historical spellings, more focus on shifts of meaning in addition to those of form, and willingness to describe the most likely speculations for difficult words (entries too often saying only 'origin unknown'). The SOED's etymologies are sadly uninspiring when compared to the beautifully written etymologies in, for example, the Webster's College Dictionary. A pronunciation guide appears at the bottom of each page - why not print a table of abbreviations and symbols on the endpapers?
P.S. As of 2015 I can strongly recommend the Android mobile app for the dictionary, an amazing product. It offers multicolour print that's bold, clear and large, and you can move about in it freely: just tap on a word that interests you in one entry and you are carried straight to ITS entry, with your history recorded. It makes the print edition very uninviting - two volumes 3KG each with tiny font and large pages.