Archive for August, 2016

treasurehouse of language

10 August 2016


If you want the definitive word on the meanings of “pretty” in Jane Austen’s time, the tricky etymology of “bank,” the earliest attested use of “bromance,” or almost any other philological matter in English, you need to consult The Oxford English Dictionary. Now, definitive may not mean infallible in every case, but it does mean surveyed, over 130 years, by thousands of readers reading millions of sources and sending citations to editors who curate the world’s oldest tagged database of words and linked corpus of assorted sentences.

Every town and city library used to have a copy of the twelve-volume edition and its occasional update volumes. [1]  Now the OED, like everything else, is continuously maintained online with direct help from the public [2], and distributed online as well. The second and last full print edition began rolling off the presses in 1989. It was replaced first with CD-ROMs, and then with Web-based subscriptions. According to the OED website, subscribers include “nearly all public libraries in England, Scotland and Wales – and all in Northern Ireland,” and most of these provide home access to their own members with library cards.

This past year, Suffolk Libraries quietly cut its subscription to the OED. This caused me some inconvenience because I train students in linguistics modules to consult it as part of any background research on words and meanings, out of due diligence. All of a sudden it was not there. I spoke to the librarians and confirmed the cut. I checked the budgets and reports, which were not very detailed – Suffolk Libraries is an independent charity contracted by the local council. The cut did not seem to be mentioned but there were other things about the living wage, which is good, and yes, I get that we are in austerity Britain. We’ll be trialling the OED at the university in the fall.