Wednesday, 30 November 2016

On myths and the making of the OED


I've been pulled out of blog semi-retirement by a correspondent who watched the BBC TV show QI last week. It had a sequence on difficult-to-understand negatives, at which point one of the panellists (Gyles Brandreth) made a number of assertions about the size of vocabularies in languages, which my correspondent thought were wrong. She was right.

How many words in English? He said there were 500,000 in the OED. Wrong. There are well over 600,000 in the OED. And of course the OED doesn't claim to include every word in the language; it has, for example, always avoided including the most arcane scientific terms (see further below). The new presenter of QI, Sandi Toksvig, chipped in with 'a million' or more, but the point was drowned out. In fact, the only correct answer to the question is 'we don't know'. Once all the abbreviations, slang, regional dialect, global English lexicon, and specialized scientific vocabulary are added, we are talking about an unknown number of millions.

He then went on to say that English vocabulary is larger than that of other languages, which may well be true, given its global reach and its status as the first language of science, but then asserted that French has only 200,000 words and German half that. Again, absurd notions, based on the naive assumption that the words contained in the largest dictionaries equal the words in the language.

It's sad to see such errors still being trotted out. Still? See my post back in April 2009, 'On the biggest load of rubbish', when somebody claimed to have found the millionth word in English.

But to be more positive: the most wonderful book has just come out. I hate to use the word 'definitive' about any book, but this one justifies it. It is by Peter Gilliver, and it is called The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. In its 625 pages we get a blow-by-blow, at times even day-by-day account of the way the dictionary was conceived, planned, and implemented, from its origins in the mid-19th-century to the present day. He has trawled through all the correspondence in the Press's archives, and manages to weld everything he found into an engaging story of all those involved - not just the senior editors, but including everyone associated with the project, and not forgetting the secretarial assistants. He has actually written two books in one. Beneath the maintext is a footnote series that at times is a story in itself.

It is fascinating, because what comes to light is a tale of such human and dramatic character that it's amazing the dictionary was ever completed at all. I had no idea, for example, just how much the project was affected by illness, throughout its development. An attack of flu might cause a serious delay in the production schedule - and that was just one of the minor illnesses. Nor was I aware of how many differences of opinion there were between the editors (eg over how many scientific terms to include), between the editors and their academic advisors (including the Philological Society), and between the editors and the managers of the Press (over policy, deadlines, and, of course, money). Money is a recurring theme - from the Press's point of view, a hugely expensive project that needed to pay for itself over time, and, from the editorial point of view, a demanding schedule where salaries were dependent on productivity - a situation that inevitably took its toll on health and family life. Add to this concerns about reputation, both within the University and abroad, and the inevitable personality clashes, and we get a riveting story that Gilliver writes up brilliantly, even to the extent of giving us chapter-ending cliffhangers. I can easily imagine a television drama coming out of it.


Along with John Simpson's equally fascinating memoir, The Word Detective, it has been a great year for the OED. I'm making my own additional contribution next May, following up my book on the historical thesaurus, Words in Time and Place. The new one is to be called The Story of Be - a writing-up of the amazing amount of information on this tiny word to be found in the OED entry. Its sub-title: A verb's-eye view of the English language.

3 comments:

Pete said...

There is a film currently in production (different source). The Professor and the Madman.

Barry Cusack said...


Of course, a dictionary does not contain all the words of a language. Yet comparing numbers of words in dictionaries of different languages may indicate the comparative vocabulary size of those languages, though one would have to be careful to compare like with like: the OED is not, of course, limited to vocabulary in modern currency.

More interesting might be whether more means better: do languages with larger vocabularies perform better, in some way, than those with smaller? Or worse? Are these even answerable questions?

DC said...

Thanks for that. Re your first point: I don't think this would get us very far, as all dictionaries operate with arbitrary (and usually comercially driven) guidelines about what to include and exclude, so unless they used the same criteria, the comparison wouldn't be very meaningful. There's no international standard, as it were, for lexicography.

Re your second: I've no idea what 'perform better' might mean. It's a well-established principle in comparative linguistics that a langauge has as many words as its community needs, so that all, in a sense, perform equally well. The Victorian notion that there were 'primitive' languages, compared with languages like English or French, has long been discredited.