It's one of the great stories in the lore of dictionaries: James Murray cheerfully set to work on the definitive English dictionary in 1879, planned to finish in 10 years, and after five years reached the word "ant." From where he was standing, even "B" began looking like a distant dream. That was when he rewrote his schedule, and the true history of the Oxford English Dictionary began unfolding.
The most majestic of dictionaries may appear wrapped in the authority of permanence, but in truth it's the product of many improvisations. Like the language, it's normally in flux. Murray's solution in 1884 was to issue instalments, starting with the material up to "ant." He and his colleagues (Murray died in 1915) produced instalments until their 10-volume dictionary appeared in 1928, only four decades late.
In 1984, a century after Murray started publishing, the OED embraced electronic technology. First, 120 keyboarders spent 18 months entering in computers the original dictionary and the supplements published over the years plus much fresh material. This led to the 20-volume Second Edition in 1989, and the CD-ROM version.
Now the OED is altering course again, heading toward the Internet. In 1999 it will sell its text on-line (at a price not yet determined) and begin issuing Internet supplements four times a year. Meanwhile, an entirely fresh OED is scheduled for publication in 2010, with each entry re-edited for the first time since Murray's day.
In the 1990s, certain universities (such as Toronto) and private companies (such as Bloomberg News) have bought the rights to the dictionary and offered it on-line to their subscribers. Incredibly, the OED looks even more impressive in this form than in print. The 2.4-million quotations that illustrate how words are used become more easily available and emerge as this dictionary's essence. A word often comes accompanied by scores of them, which makes that entry a way of looking at a theme or an idea as well as the word. (Hamlet, the editors' favourite source, gets quoted 1,600 times.)
Search the word "shame" and you find a 7,000-word entry, which you can copy and read on the screen or on paper. You can see how it appeared in Chaucer and Pepys, in Tennyson and Joyce--and of course in the Bible and Shakespeare. Then ask the computer for all appearances of "shame." The computer goes away for about three minutes, an eternity in computer time, and finally returns, sweating and out of breath. After all, it has just read 20 huge volumes. It then shows how "shame" was quoted in illustrating 2,307 words, from "a" (in Shakespeare) to "zeugma," a rhetorical device (in a 16th-century grammarian's definition).
All this seemed breathtakingly sophisticated to me. But, as I learned recently, it's primitive compared to what lies ahead for the OED. First, Oxford wants its on-line presence to look as elegant as its books, which it doesn't now. More important, the OED will standardize abbreviations and other terms, so they can be searched precisely. As Donna Lee Berg of the University of Waterloo says in an essay on the electronic OED, Sir Walter Scott appears as Scott, as W. Scott, and as Sir W. Scott, depending on the whims of different editors; and Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors appears as Com.Err., C.Err., and Err. Treasure Island appears in five different forms. Computers can't understand these variations.
When I tried to find out how many words the OED identifies as Canadian, I first looked under "Canadian" and found only 30 (including caribou and tuque). But looking up "Can." yielded another 20 (toboggan, Canuck) and there were 13 more (joual, shanty) under "Canada."
I noticed The Globe and Mail was used to illustrate deke, defined as a feint in ice hockey that induces an opponent to move out of position. The quote is from a 1966 Globe article: "On the fourth deke he moved and I fired her into the corner." To illustrate bleu, meaning a Quebec conservative, the OED uses a 1978 line from the Globe that echoes eerily 20 years later: "'Joe Clark is not exactly my man, but we have to take whatever they give us' said Paul Paris, a lifetime 'bleu'." I asked the computer how many times the Globe is quoted and got a remarkable answer: 936. Not precisely the sort of fact for which computers were invented, of course, but pleasant to contemplate.