Sunday, April 3, 2011

What has happened to Oxford English Dictionary?

Republished from New Straits Times, 3rd April 2011.

By Wan A. Hulaimi

YOU can now insert a symbol in your school essay and argue with your teacher till your face turns red, “but miss, it’s a verb, and it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary!”

Well, I the OED, but LOL, OMG, what’s happened to the OED? It used to be august and staid and venerable like Bede, but now it’s turning into the side road to be among the jabberwocky.

I say this as someone who once owned the complete OED, in two door-stopping bulks coloured blue, one volume of which dropped on my toes, producing instant liberation and a most marvellous facility of speech that the air turned blue in a way that the OED would have disapproved.

The two-volume set was printed in a font size so miniscule that it came with a rectangular magnifying glass that regularly disappeared like your TV remote control, and so eventually my trips to the shelf became less frequent for, without the glass, even the big words became much too small for me.

I now have the shorter OED that comes in two volumes that are more friendly to the eye, but toe-curling thoughts still enter my head whenever I think of them jumping in the air. And then came the news, still unconfirmed, that the OED that is still only in its second edition since its first publication in 1884, will no longer be publishing its third in print, promising access only to the Internet and perhaps also the CD.

OED2, the second edition, came out in 1989 in 20 toe-crushing volumes, and OED1 took more than four decades before the full complement could take their rightful space on the bookshelves, when the last section, Wise to Wyze, came out in April 1928.

If you’re looking to buy OED3, hold on to your tinfoil hats, for 80 lexicographers have been working hard on it for the past two decades.

So there you are, (love, v.) and tinfoil hats, added meanwhile to Oxford’s word list in its online dictionary as trumpeted last month, and from there we can have a foretaste of what’s coming electronically in, well, perhaps 2020 or thereabouts or so.

Should the most august reference book of English words bother itself with trivialities such as the heart symbol (and it isn’t even a word!)?

Well, I don’t know, but I feel that the OED ought to be prescriptive, didactic, exemplar and more things in words that track the same vein and not just a recorder of the flow. Egad, you’re not the rakish uncle Tom who brings in whatever’s going in the shops, you’re the prim and proper Aunt Sally, natch!

Perhaps dictionaries are meant to be corpus these days, and I have a thing about corpus dictionaries and that is something I have acquired while thumbing through current Malay words. Or do I see a conspiracy here? If so then I'll be forced to eat my tinfoil hat before I believe that initialisms like LOL (laughing out loud, int. and n.) and OMG (Oh my God or gosh, int. and n. and adj.) and BFF (best friends forever, at B, n.) should be in the OED. And tinfoil hat, by the way, is also a new entry and rightly so as you’'ll judge from the rants in this column.

A tinfoil hatter, according to the updated OED, is a believer in conspiracy theories about mind control, someone who wears a tinfoil hat to protect his mind from bad vibes, hence a paranoid, delusional chap.

Madness and delusions have never been far from the OED though if you go back into its history.

In 1857, when the OED project started under the chairmanship of the legendary Professor James Murray, one of its most resourceful voluntary contributors (by correspondence) was an American by the name of Dr William Chester Minor. Dr Minor contributed more than ten thousand quotations and citations to the committee, enough to earn him many invitations to Oxford which he declined.

Intrigued, Prof Murray himself offered to go down to visit him, which Minor agreed, giving his address as the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum about 80km from Oxford. Murray discovered that Dr Minor was not a doctor working at the asylum but an inmate who was committed after murdering a complete stranger in London.

Moore was lucid except for his delusions about being molested in his sleep.
He had a huge book collection in his room and was engaging enough in his conversations to encourage Murray to continue writing and visiting him.

Following a successful petition to the English court by his stepbrother, Minor was later transferred to an American asylum.

When Murray died in 1915, he wrote to Lady Murray offering his books to the OED Scriptorium. Dr Minor died in 1920, six years before the completion of the OED project.

This meeting of two minds can be read in a book by Simon Winchester, The Surgeon of Crowthorne, published in Britain in 1998, and later in the United States as The Professor and the Madman.

Wan A. Hulaimi’s latest book, A Map of Trengganu (written under the pseudonym Awang Goneng) is now in the shops. He may be reached at

The question I would like to post to our readers today is how many of you out there are still using dictionaries?

I do. How about you? I can still remember my father used to tell me to use the dictionary whenever I came across words I do not understand.

I used to feel so mad and lazy to do that when he said that but now I know his advice had the benefits to improve my English.

Anything goes when it comes to improving yourself. My English is way better than my Malay since I got a distinction for my English and only a credit for my Malay in my SPM.

I also think that English is easier than Malay but that could be due to my father exposing me to reading English books since I was small since my father had been a replacement teacher for about 3 months a long, long, long time ago.

So, give us some tips on how to improve your English as there are so many of us out there nowadays are incompetent to speak or write in English.

Writer's block

Felt like deleting this blog.

Should I or shouldn't I, that is the question?

Feedback please!