Tweaking the OED.

A NY Times interview with Michael Proffitt, the new chief editor of the OED, is well worth reading if you are interested in lexicographers and want a sense of where this one might be steering the greatest lexicographic enterprise in the world. I must admit these bits made me twitch:

“As much as I adhere to the O.E.D.’s public reputation,” he said, “I want proof that it is of value to people in terms of practical use.”
. . .
Although the O.E.D. survived the Internet upheavals that devastated other reference works, it has yet to capitalize fully on the potential online audience. Mr. Proffitt is eager to do so, perhaps with lower prices, certainly with tweaks to the website and less stuffy definitions.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with practical use and a decrease in stuffiness per se, but I am uncomfortably reminded (as I said in this Wordorigins thread) of libraries that get rid of all books over ten years old (if they’re not getting rid of physical books altogether, because digital is so much cooler). By all means bring the OED into the present, but don’t even think of lowering its standards in the name of alleged practicality or fear of stuffiness. (Thanks for the link, Eric!)

Comments

  1. Odd, but “stuffiness” never struck me as a general feature of the definitions. Some are, let’s say, a little less than P.C., but the writers of OED1 (also 2) had a certain style, and a quirkiness too, which I think are a large part of why so many of us cherish it so.
    I don’t worry about a lowering of standards, but I am a bit nervous that shifting standards (admittedly, to the prevailing standards of modern lexicography) may result in a work of less relevance to the kind of uses I like to make of the thing (though ymmv). Quotation sourcing and treatment is a particular worry for me (whereas the revised etymologies are basically all vastly superior), but then again I don’t see any practicable alternatives.

  2. Quotation sourcing and treatment is a particular worry for me (whereas the revised etymologies are basically all vastly superior), but then again I don’t see any practicable alternatives.

    Could you expand on the quotation worries? (I am certainly in agreement about the etymologies.)

  3. The main thing is that it seems pointless to fool around with definition stuffiness and the website when price is so obviously THE main factor keeping the online audience down. I’m not going to pretend that I know enough about their business to pronounce on what they should or shouldn’t do, but if their prices were, say, half what they are now, I would have subscribed years ago. As it is they’re just too high for me to justify as a non-essential expense, and they haven’t made any money from me at all. I don’t think I am the only person out there who makes do with the Shorter OED but would gladly pay a non-impoverishing fee to looky-loo at more quotations, etymology, etc.

  4. I don’t think I am the only person out there who makes do with the Shorter OED but would gladly pay a non-impoverishing fee to looky-loo at more quotations, etymology, etc.

    Of course not. I looked on longingly for years until my dad realized he could get a Princeton Library card — and access through the library — because he had an office in Princeton. The idea that people even thinking of plunking down hundreds of dollars for access to a dictionary are finally gonna do it because the entries are now somehow less stuffy is, you’re right, laughable.

  5. John Burgess says:

    Yes, the cost is the main barrier, I think. I bought an OED-on CD ten or twelve years ago when it was somewhat reasonable in price. That version, unfortunately, didn’t work with later versions of Windows, so I faced the choice of upgrading my PC or keeping my OED.

    I’m still a potential customer, but I’m not an institutional customer who can just write off any old expense for reference books. I think the OED could make a ton of money if they decided to go for volume sales.

  6. I like the way you people think, and I hope the OED is listening.

  7. For about $30 I bought and downloaded the AHD at least 10 years ago. It coughed and hissed and spit when I went to Windows 7 a while back, but an email to the folks at AHD quickly resolved the matter. I’ve almost never looked at my hard copy since.

    Access to the OED would be nice, but I can’t justify the cost of a subscription as I don’t need it as a work tool. I don’t know how the OED bean counters and marketing folks make their calculations, and I don’t know how much they charge libraries for a subscription. But $300 a year for access to the OED vs. $120 a year for a non-resident card (free to residents) at the Toronto Public Library that gives access to the OED and a zillion other online offerings not otherwise accessible without paying large fees seems a grand bargain. I presume the Toronto Public Library’s membership and access policies are similar to those of many large-city libraries in North America.

    While in London a few months ago I availed myself of a free, non-expiring membership at one of the borough libraries. I told the librarian that not only was I not a resident of that borough but that I wasn’t even a resident of the UK. No matter, he said, we’ll sign you up anyway. And with that I gained online access from home to a huge archive of British newspapers that in some cases goes back way over 100 years. Buying access to that service directly costs hundreds of dollars. I haven’t explored more fully, but it’s quite possible I have access to the OED there as well.

  8. John Cowan says:

    This could be you, Steve:

    But years of working with words — meanings shifting, enlarging, vanishing altogether, joined by new coinages — offered a particular perspective.

    “It makes you, broadly speaking, more tolerant or calmer or placid,” [Profitt] said, hastening to add: “I don’t know whether those words are appropriate. But seeing the historical context often persuades you that what seemed like a hard-and-fast rule is not. And, similarly to the way the language changes, its uses change. The more flexible that people are about language use, then probably the more they thrive.”

    This quotation, however, is probably not phatic like but some version of belike ‘perhaps’:

    1778 F. Burney Evelina II. xxiii. 222 Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offence.

  9. My version is photo-reduced to two volumes, and was supplied with a magnifying glass. It cost half of bugger all as the introductory offer from a book club. Barg of bargs!

  10. Dearieme: I have that version too, bought the same way. As I’m in London, same book club probably ..

    John: good catch on ‘like’. Hope you tell the OED directly.

  11. I have that version too, bought from a customer in the used-book store I worked in back in the late ’70s in New Haven; he said “Would the store give me $25 for this?” and I said “Store hell, I’ll give you $25 for it!” and it was mine. No magnifying glass, but fortunately I can read small type easily without one.

  12. John: good catch on ‘like’. Hope you tell the OED directly

    I don’t agree with John (if I understand his objection); I think the OED has it correctly positioned here:

    7. dial. and vulgar. Used parenthetically to qualify a preceding statement: = ‘as it were’, ‘so to speak’. Also, colloq. (orig. U.S.), as a meaningless interjection or expletive.
    1778 F. Burney Evelina II. xxiii. 222 Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offence.
    1801 ‘Gabrielli’ Mysterious Husband III. 252 Of a sudden like.
    1815 Scott Guy Mannering I. vi. 96 The lady, on ilka Christmas night..gae twelve siller pennies to ilka puir body about, in honour of the twelve apostles like.
    [..]

    The only thing they have under like equivalent to “probably, belike” is the phrases of (a) like and by (the) like; if plain old like could be used that way, I’m pretty sure they’d know about it.

  13. Could you expand on the quotation worries? (I am certainly in agreement about the etymologies.)

    Well the main way of sourcing quotations now is through electronic datasets such as EEBO for early English books, Lexis, Chadwyck-Healey poetry etc.. There are obvious advantages to this – it is clearly the best way to antedate and locate obscure usages. But there is also a potential disadvantage in that it requires the lexicographer to know more or less what s/he is looking for and seek it out. This necessarily builds in certain assumptions to the sourcing of quotations, while leaving out others – the old reading programs had their own assumptions and prejudices (most obviously, shaped by the volumes that happened to be in their schools and libraries). The result is a much broader and more eclectic selection of sources, which might be a good or bad thing, depending on your standards for and uses of the dictionary. It’s important to recognize as well that quotations aren’t just there for colour – they form the raw data from which definitions and sense divisions are abstracted. Each version of OED has been a kind of philosophical compromise between the lexicographer and (what used to be called) the man of letters, but many of Murray’s and Burchfield’s indulgences of literary quotation would be frowned on today.

    In addition to the range of sources, the reversal of direction of data from a collecting to a searching paradigm sometimes results in selections of quotations that appear inappropriate for some reason to “domain experts”. I discuss one minor example of this (the “domain” being modern poetry studies) here: http://poetry-contingency.uwaterloo.ca/smithers-redress-the-hounds/ , where it struck me that a better understanding of the source and its contexts would have improved the quotation selection.

    I use the OED every day in my work writing on modern poetry. This is partly because my sources, primary and secondary, do too: it’s clear that both poets and poetry critics draw significantly on the dictionary, allowing their poems and arguments about poems to be shaped by not only its definitions, but also its quotations (as it were a commonplace book). How this happens will change dramatically as OED3 replaces OED2. Perhaps this is inevitable and on the whole positive, but I will want to keep my OED2 on CD-ROM around as a source of second opinion for this (no doubt minority – but I think important and appropriate) use of the dictionary. And there are those who hold on to their 20 volume OED2 and Additional Series, or their 2-volume loupe edition, or their OED1 and Supplements…

    By the way this v.4.0 CD from 2009 can be found for $200-300 on ABE Books and has all of OED2 plus additional series to 2009. Flash-based and works on my Win7 machine. Bargain, I’d say. ISBN: 978-0-19-956383-8. If you know what you’re doing you might even be able to buy 2.0 plus the upgrade to 4.0 for cheaper. Or if you are in the UK, OED Online can be accessed from home with a local public library membership – so essentially is available to everyone.

    Also by the way, there are several worthwhile articles on OED2 and OED3 in the recent issue of Dictionaries: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/dictionaries/toc/dic.34.html

  14. the old reading programs

    My understanding was that they still had readers providing citations in addition to the new search techniques; am I wrong?

    How this happens will change dramatically as OED3 replaces OED2.

    Why? I mean, there are new citations, new definitions, and new etymologies, but I don’t see how any of this would change dramatically the way poets and poetry critics use the dictionary. You seem almost to be saying OED3 has become an entirely different sort of thing, which perplexes me.

  15. You seem almost to be saying OED3 has become an entirely different sort of thing

    No, I think it’s a matter of degree [and most of the old citations have been preserved in the revised entries], but there may be a point in the spectrum where the value as a literary resource becomes fatally diminished (though its value as something else may well be enhanced in corresponding measure). I don’t know that this has happened or will – others have voiced more alarm than I can share (Geoffrey Hill, most dramatically) – but I do see it as a concern. The latest OED Symposium, last summer, was very much focused on big data and corpus linguistics. I suppose I’m observing that the trend towards more data entails less attention, or a different kind of attention, and that there are trade-offs there.

  16. My understanding was that they still had readers providing citations in addition to the new search techniques; am I wrong?

    No, you’re not wrong.

  17. The abstract of Julie Coleman’s article in the recent edition of Dictionaries is a good illustration of some things that may be gained and lost in the shift towards more professional lexicographical standards:

    This paper argues that voluntary readers for OED1 made citations from minor literary works in accordance with stereotypes about their language and content. They are, consequently, less well-represented in the dictionary than writers of higher literary status. The use of electronic databases in the OED3 revision process will tend to reduce these works’ existing coverage by antedating first citations from them, and by selecting citations from among a wider range of possible sources. While unusual uses in Shakespeare will not be removed as part of this revision process, it is highly unlikely that the nonce forms of less canonical authors will be inserted. In this way, the current revision process perpetuates the literary prejudices of the first edition.

  18. I bought an OED-on CD ten or twelve years ago when it was somewhat reasonable in price. That version, unfortunately, didn’t work with later versions of Windows, so I faced the choice of upgrading my PC or keeping my OED.

    In the beautiful and spacious Transhimalayan republic, peopled by shameless pirates, the OED is usually enjoyed in a ~200MB electronic file, readable on any modern mobile phones.

  19. Larger public library systems often have online access to the OED. I live in Montgomery County MD, a suburb of Washington DC, and for the price of a library card (zero dollars!) I get OED access. If you live in an area with reasonable public services, you should check out your local library system’s website.

  20. John Cowan says:

    I get the OED because NYPL.

  21. Seems that anyone holding a UK library card can access the OED remotely. I’d try it with mine but a temporary upheaval occasioned by a leaky pipe has for the nonce made that a null option.

  22. Trond Engen says:

    I don’t get the nature of the objection here. I don’t even read it as an objection. The above like seems to me like a run-of-the-mill “as, as if” i.e. equivalent of Norwegian “som. som om”, but I see how it might be read differently. What’s interesting is the ambiguity, showing that phatic ‘like’ probably arose as different interpretations of the construction.

  23. No magnifying glass, but fortunately I can read small type easily without one.

    Bloody hell, I wish I could.

  24. Paul – yes, your UK library card should let you into the OED with no problems, and also the DNB, the Enc Brit, and also the Naxos Music Library, if yours is like mine, s well as all those newspapers, which outght to include the Times (of London) back to 1785.

  25. My sister recently invited me to split a subscription to OED, price down to 95 pounds, but I don’t get anywhere near $75 worth of use out of it yearly. Here in Cleveland the public library is a short walk away, and I have the shrunken OED2 + first supplement at home in West Chester (along with the unabridged Century, which I use even less).

  26. Treesong: If your library has access, should you at home through your library card? Have you looked into this? Outrageous (with rage, dammit — plenty of rage!) price notwithstanding, it is a pretty awesome website.

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