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April 05, 2005

The OED is a wiki

The Oxford English Dictionary through its many editions is still the primary authority on the English Language.  Its definitions of over half a million words are cited in law courts and high school papers alike.  The original 178 miles of handset type have now been reprinted on a modern press and there are both CD and online versions.  The book is criticized for being sexist, racist, and imperialist – it was, after all Victorian.  And long, long before the invention of the WorldWideWeb and wikipedia – this great work was done by a group of loosely collaborating volunteers.

Simon Winchester’s THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN is the story of perhaps the strangest and certainly one of the most prolific of those volunteers.  Dr. William Chester Minor, the madman of the title, did all of his contributing to the OED from his cell at the Asylum for the Criminally Insane, Broadmoor in Crowthorne, England.  He was sent there after being judged innocent by reason of insanity of a murder which there is no doubt that he committed.

Minor was an American from a prominent New England family, a Yale graduate, and former surgeon-captain from the US Army who had served in the horror of the Civil War.  His status and money got him a two room cell which he lined with books.  He also had the privilege of owning a penknife to cut the pages of first editions; he eventually used it to surgically remove his penis.  When he wasn’t fleeing the demons who crept out from beneath the floorboards to force him to commit unspeakably unnatural acts, he was the foremost of the thousands of volunteers who submitted millions of quotations for use in the dictionary.

The OED could not have existed without these volunteers.  Its goal was not only to define every word in the English Language but also to give every meaning each word has had since it first appeared in written English.  There is usually a literary quote of the word in context for each century the word has been in written use; fast changing words require more quotes.  The volunteers’ self-imposed task was, as a group, to read all the books ever written in English and submit quotations containing all the words in all those books.  Requests were published in literary journals for help with particularly difficult words.  This is distributed processing at its best!

The quotes were assembled and edited at the Scriptorium in Oxford.  James Augustus Henry Murray, the co-protagonist of the book, presided over this great work until his death during the compiling of the letter “t”.  At first Murray thought his correspondent Minor was an eccentric country doctor.  However, years into the project, Murray learned why Minor never visited London.  The two became close friends and the professor visited the madman many times at his asylum.

The editors of the OED realize that language is living and dynamic.  Earlier dictionaries attempted to “fix” a language at some point in time and prevent further change.  The Academie Francaise was established in 1634 and its “Forty Immortals” are still trying to hold back change.  English has gained in power and expressiveness because it is dynamic.  The OED not only chronicles historical changes in the meanings of a word but also continues right to the present to reflect contemporary changes and new words.  Modern technology, of course, enables much faster updating than Murray would ever have imagined – but he would have liked and approved of the facility.

This short book about a long book is a joy to read; I’m not quite sure why.  A book about language should be well written and this one is.  The esoterica is fun if you love language.  The story is weirdly captivating.

Of course, the OED is not literally a wiki and Simon Winchester, the author of The Professor and The Madman, never said it was.  I am solely responsible for this exaggeration.   Murray and his assistants exercised strict editorial control.  The Internet word “wiki” comes from the Hawaiian word wikiwiki meaning super fast.  wikipedia  allows open user editing and the idea is that the open contribution and editing model leads to very fast accumulation of information.  Because of intense editing and communication by snail mail (which was faster then than it is now) not to mention manual typesetting, the first edition of the OED took seventy-one years from conception to publication of the last volume.

An open question for those of us who get most of our information from the Web is the lack of authority (this is me musing and not Simon Winchester).  Who says an article in wikipedia is correct?  The first information we find when we Google could well be wrong.  But even the editors of the OED and Oxford University, which sponsored this authoritative work, realized that authority has its limits.  The magnitude of the work required collaboration by amateurs; definitions are never fixed; and, ultimately, the meaning of each word was decided by how published authors used the word in context.  There is something very modern about this classic work.

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