Subtle Coolness · chrono index · alpha index

The Oxford English Dictionary

by William Jackson on 2006-06-12

Dear Cherry,

I completed reading The Professor and the Madman today. It was an excellent book. It changed the way I think about dictionaries and their use.

First, while I was still reading it, I looked up information about the OED online. I found out that I could subscribe to access the online version for $295 per year. Wow. Then I realized that my university would probably have a subscription already, so I investigated.

Sure enough, I can access the OED online through my universityʼs library website. This made me very happy. As in, as long as I am affiliated with the University of Texas, I will never use any other online dictionary again. Ever.

Second, my perception of the purpose of a dictionary has fundamentally changed. I am reminded of some things I wrote recently regarding ‘florescent’ and ‘fluorescent’, for example. I used to think that it was the dictionaryʼs job to ‘fix’ the language — to define the rules of engagement, as it were. I was under the impression that if one used a word in violation of its stated definition, one used the word incorrectly. Period.

Now I understand: the dictionary is not scripture; it is merely history. While it does its best to accurately describe what a word means, its primary purpose is to accurately describe what a word meant. The dictionary is a book of history. It preserves, as best as possible, the history of a language.

The English language is not set. It is a living, evolving thing. It is not ‘fixed’, and is there any sane way to ‘fix’ it? I submit that there is not.