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Free Truman Burbank!
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I Thee Web
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For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.
August 12, 1998
In 1933, shortly after having completed the first edition of their colossal and groundbreaking ten-volume reference work, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary memorably described the nature of the language they had been attempting to document. "That vast aggregate of words and phrases which constitutes the vocabulary of English-speaking people," they wrote,
presents, to the mind that endeavours to grasp it as a definite whole, the aspect of one of those nebulous masses familiar to the astronomer in which a clear and unmistakable nucleus shades off on all sides, through zones of decreasing brightness, to a dim marginal film that seems to end nowhere, but to lose itself imperceptibly in the surrounding darkness.... So the English vocabulary contains a nucleus or central mass of many thousand words whose 'Anglicity' is unquestioned ... they are the common words of the language. But they are linked on every side with other words which are less and less entitled to this appellation, and which pertain ever more and more distinctly to the domain of local dialect, of the slang and cant of 'sets' and classes, of the peculiar technicalities of trades and processes, of the scientific terminology common to all civilized nations, and of the actual languages of other lands and peoples. And there is absolutely no defining line in any direction: the circle of the English language has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference.
The inevitable result of trying to circumscribe such a nucleus and its attendant glow, the editors admitted, was that "any adequate dictionary of English must be one of the larger books of the world."
That characterization remains apt, as a visit to any public library's reference room will attest. Just how long the OED will remain a "book," however, is an open question; a century from now the idea of trying to contain a rapidly evolving language on the printed page may seem hopelessly quaint. The OED's editors have recognized this likelihood and are now heavily invested in converting their print edition into a state-of-the-art digital reference work that will better reflect the multidimensional and dynamic nature of English. (Our earlier review of the Encyclopaedia Britannica Web site reveals that the OED's editors are not unique in their use of the center-circumference analogy, and our review of PlumbDesign's Visual Thesaurus shows how liberating the digital medium can be in aiding the understanding of how words and ideas are related.)
The editors of the OED have made available online a preview of the shape of things to come. A guided tour of the site gives a sense of just how extensive the future OED will be -- in addition to the dictionary itself, a major revision to the text of which is currently also underway, there will also be fully searchable editions of different versions of the Bible and of many of Shakespeare's works, among other things. One can also view sample definitions from the dictionary, some of which change daily on the site, and these show how completely interlinked and cross-referenced all entries will be.
Access to the whole test version of the electronic OED is not currently available to the general public -- and when the dictionary is finally ready it most certainly won't be accessible free of charge -- but the current online preview offers a glimpse of something truly remarkable taking place. The digital revolution is highly unlikely ever to spell the demise of portable publications like the newspaper, the magazine, and the single-volume book, but it seems increasingly likely that it will mean the end of massive printed reference works as we have known them for the past century or so -- arbitrarily limited to an alphabetical layout, exorbitantly expensive, out of date even before they're in print, and impossible to curl up with in bed. What these works will become is still anybody's guess, but the updated version of the OED -- and its new definition of the word "dictionary" -- will probably offer some clues.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.