Saturday, January 19, 2008

Charlotte Brewer's "Treasure-House of the Language"

Charlotte Brewer is a fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, and CUF lecturer in English at Oxford University. She has published extensively on topics related to the Oxford English Dictionary.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book Treasure-House of the Language: The Living OED, and reported the following:
Treasure-House of the Language tells the story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary in the twentieth and twentieth-first century. While researching the book, I read hundreds of long-neglected documents kept in dusty archives in the basement of Oxford University Press’s offices, many of them letters and memos about the meaning of individual words and whether and how they should be treated in the dictionary.

Page 99 of my book uses these documents to illustrate both the delights and the problems of word-hunting and dictionary-making. On this page, senior officers in Oxford University Press discuss (in 1938) definitions of ‘know your onions’, a phrase of particular interest to them since one of the OED's own editors was called Onions:

‘It means “knowing what one is talking of”, “being master of the subject”, - being, in fact “the cat’s whisker” or “head man” in this or that matter”. I have no idea of why it means what it is said to mean!’

Given the infrequency with which supplement volumes were produced, however, ‘know your onions’ had to wait until 1976 before it was included in the OED – although its first usage was c.1922. Also reviewed on this page is the noun higgle, as in 'the higgle of the market' ('the adjusting of prices so that demand and supply are equal'), which had just got into the 1933 OED Supplement with a first recorded date of 1908. Two of the publishers are convinced it was used earlier than this:

'the verb is common in commercial use. We have ourselves been talking a good deal lately on the relative merits of two systems of interdepartmental prices — standardization and higgling.'

But the entry they criticized in 1938 remains untouched to this day, though their conversation suggests that not only the noun but also the verb higgle needs revision in the OED:

the relevant sense [of the verb] is not defined, though it is indicated by a sole quotation dated 1866: ‘When
A knowing or hoping that figs will be soon inquired for, buys up all the figs in the market he higgles; but when A keeps a grocer’s shop and asks B eightpence for a pound of figs and B offers him sixpence, then B haggles.’

Elsewhere on p. 99, individuals complain that the OED has left words out (e.g. John Bunyan’s slithy, from 1680), and demand that recent coinages (e.g. biosophy) should be included.

So this page illustrates a point I return to several times in my book (and explore further on my website). Although the OED is an unparalleled work of scholarship, it has never, until today, been fully revised (revision began around 1995 and will take decades to complete). Consequently, it still contains many out-of-date definitions and dates – and these are often corrected by members of the public who write in with suggestions. You can too, at ‘How to contribute words to the Reading Programme’, thus becoming one of the hundreds of volunteer contributors since 1857 who have helped to make the OED the living dictionary it is today.
Read more about Treasure-House of the Language at the Yale University Press website and learn more about "Examining the OED."

--Marshal Zeringue