Sunday, 27 March 2016

An amusing launch of a very small book about a very large one

At an unusual book launch this week Peter Ashby, a local entrepreneur, read the definition of the word ‘Abbreviator’ from the first volume of a rather special book. It was an early copy of the Oxford English Dictionary which Peter had been given whilst transforming the dictionary into a compact version via microfiche. He had in turn generously given the many volume Dictionary to the nearby Frewen Club and had borrowed back the first volume for the evening.

The definition that he read from the Abbreviator entry was ‘An officer of the court of Rome, draw up the Pope’s briefs’ possibly proving that the ardent compilers of the great Dictionary had a sense of humour – or a blind eye!

Rob Walters, local guide and author, in launching his new book on the history of the Dictionary explained that the great book took nearly seventy years to complete. It was issued in parts by the Oxford University Press which took over publication in 1879 and ‘Abbreviator’ appeared in the very first section to be issued covering A-Ant. This miniscule fraction of the Dictionary was released in 1884 when already five years into a ten year contract. With half the A’s and all of the rest of the letters to do the task seemed ‘mission impossible’.

It was James Murray, a self-educated Scotsman, who nursed, guided and cajoled the Dictionary through its many years of near extinction finally arriving at Volume 3 which took the struggle up to the end of the E’s. It was at this point that the tide turned and the whole country, the University and the Oxford University Press  put their backs behind this grand and entirely uneconomic project. Rob explained that Murray died working on the letter T in 1915 in the full knowledge that his great work would be completed. Robert Bullard, local author of the popular Business Writing Tips read from a job application letter written by Murray which demonstrated the man’s phenomenal knowledge of the languages of the world.

Rob explained that the Dictionary had its true beginnings in 1857, but was not completed until 1928 with the publication of the first edition. However, this was not the end. The voluntary readers who scanned the thousands of books for quotations on which the dictionary was based continued their work through the near seventy years of compilation and so there was a backlog of new words leading to a supplement issued in 1933. And this is the story of the Dictionary’s life – the work never ends as new words are added and old definitions updated. Fortunately updating is much easier nowadays and the third edition of the Dictionary exists entirely on the Internet.

The evening finished with a rousing rendition of the ‘The Dictionary Song” by local musician and composer, Peter Madams, lead singer of the much missed Oxford group Veda Park.

The book is entitled A Concise History of the Oxford English Dictionary and is available from the Visitor Information Centre, the Book House, and Amazon. The launch was held on 21st March at the St Aldates’ Tavern, Oxford.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The story of the Oxford English Dictionary

I have a new book coming out. It is the shortest book that I have written so far and its subject is one of the largest books ever published. It’s all about the birth and development of a dictionary and the title is: A Concise History of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The actual launch is on March 21st in Oxford, but the book is already available on Amazon as a paper and an eBook. Here’s the link via my bookshop where you can find more details and a sample.

The idea for the book emerged from a tour. Last year I began planning a new Oxford guided walk based on the history of the Dictionary and became so fascinated by the story that I decided to write about it. Of course there are already plenty of books on the subject so why write another? Simple – they are all four course dinners and mine is just a snack. So, just as the concise version of the Dictionary reduces twenty hefty volumes of the second edition to one handy book, my book compresses the story of its development into a slim volume that you can read in an hour or two.

To some the topic might seem rather dry. It is not. What enlivens it is the characters involved and the doggedness shown in continuing with the work over so many years when all seemed doomed. Many of those characters were unpaid volunteers who valiantly sought sources for the many thousands of words that are defined in the Dictionary, making its creation comparable to Wikipedia by post.

I hope that my book will satisfy most people, but if you prefer the four course dinner then there is a comprehensive history coming out later in the year from Oxford University Press. It will cost £40 whereas my little snack costs just £3.99 in paper and £2.99 as an eBook: tasty and cheap, complete with pictures of the main characters involved.