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A Chat With Charlotte Brewer

Date:Jan 19, 2008
Time:12 noon Pacific (GMT -8)
Topic:The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Duration:One hour

Charlotte Brewer is a fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, and lecturer in English at Oxford University. Since 2000 she has been researching the history of OED and its lexicographers and is author of Treasure-House of the Language: the Living OED. She is now investigating OED's sources.

Chat Transcript

Anu Garg
Welcome to the 26th online chat at Wordsmith.org! Today, we are delighted to have Charlotte Brewer as our guest here. She's the author of Treasure-House of the Language: the Living OED. She is joining us from the UK.

Welcome, Charlotte Brewer!

Charlotte Brewer
Hello, everyone - I'm delighted to be here.

Anu Garg
The topic of today's chat is the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. What is it about the OED that fascinates people so much?

Bruce
Do you think the OED has an "edge" over other contemporary dictionaries?

Charlotte Brewer
Well, the OED sets out to record language as it has been used historically. Since it shows historical evidence, that sometimes does give it an 'edge' over other contemporary dictionaries.

And the reason I think that it has fascinated people is that it is so enormous and it took so many years to write.

Bruce
Hello Charlotte, what exactly is it that you do?

Charlotte Brewer
Hello Bruce. I am what is called a don at a college at Oxford University - that is, I lecture and teach - and I research the history and making of the OED.

Bruce
Do you lecture and teach in general English Literature?

Charlotte Brewer
Well, mostly Old and Middle English (Beowulf up to Chaucer, roughly). All students who study English at Oxford study this period.

Martin Fox - Michigan
How would you rate the book The Professor and the Madman?

Charlotte Brewer
A highly readable book, and a publishing phenomenon!

Doug Wolfe - Morehead City NC
What about the earlier, Caught in the Web of Words?

Martin Fox - Michigan
How about its veracity?

Betty - Maryland
And accurate?

Charlotte Brewer
Several questions here... Caught in the Web of Words is in a different class, because it was written by the first editor's granddaughter and is based on loads of original documents - it is very scholarly, but also a fantastically good read. It has made an enormous difference to people like me who came afterwards.

edie
What is the book about?

Martin Fox - Michigan
"The professor and the Madman" is a biography of the man who composed the OED

Jim Bisso - Richmond
How about Willinsky's Empire of Words?

Charlotte Brewer
Willinsky's book is packed with interesting ideas but isn't as purely scholarly as CWW - very well worth reading, though.

Doug Wolfe - Morehead City NC
But I found Caught easily readable, although not as mass market as Professor

Bruce
Charlotte, are the Victorian novelists, James, Conrad, Eliot and Austen, proclaimed by FR Leavis as the most outstanding in the language, still held in high esteem?

Charlotte Brewer
To answer the question about novelists - all these men are still much read in Oxford and elsewhere (other universities) - and they are all quoted in the OED.

Jim Bisso - Richmond
CWW is still my favorite, but I haven't read yours yet ...

Doug Wolfe - Morehead City NC
Didn't the first edition take nearly a century?

Charlotte Brewer
The first instalment came out in 1884 and the last in 1928 - then there was a supplement in 1933 and another in the 70s - and now they are starting all over again with a new edition...

Martin Fox - Michigan
What are some of the findings you've uncovered during your research?

Charlotte Brewer
My research is about all aspects of the OED - in particular its use of literary sources (great writers) and also its recent history

Bruce
Regarding pronunciation, do you sometimes get complaints from ordinary folk about the phonetic form used?

Charlotte Brewer
Bruce, can you explain your question - what do you mean by phonetic form?

Bruce
The method used to indicate how a word is pronounced.

Charlotte Brewer
OK - you mean that the OED uses something called the International Phonetic Alphabet to indicate pronunciation. Yes, I agree that that is difficult to work out.

edie
In the 1950s when I was a child, we had a dictionary/tome around 4" thick. Was that likely the OED?

Jim Bisso - Richmond
The OED1 is about 13 volumes, and more than a meter thick.

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
Or on DVD, several millimeters. :)

Jim Bisso - Richmond
I think using the IPA for pronunciation is better than using some ad hoc transcription system.

Bruce
Could one not resort to an easier system, as it was a decade or so ago?

Charlotte Brewer
Edie's question - there are loads of different Oxford dictionaries and it is really confusing. Jim is right that the first edition ran to 13 volumes. The second is 20!

But there are also smaller dictionaries - the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, the Pocket Oxford dictionary - and they all can be called the Oxford dictionary.

Martin Fox - Michigan
Do you use the British English or American English for pronunciation?

Charlotte Brewer
The OED is an English-based dictionary so records English pronunciation. But it has many many hundreds of US words and phrases in it.

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
Records English pronunciation? Which English pronunciation -- Queen's presumably since there are enormous variations in England, let alone Britain.

Charlotte Brewer
Carolanne - you have hit on an important topic there. It is very difficult for the OED to decide whose pronunciation, or whose language, to choose. They go for what is called by linguists 'Standard English'.

Betty - Maryland
When there are so many words in this enormous dictionary, why do people regularly use only a few hundred? Do the Brits, since it is their language, use more different words than, say, the Americans?

Jim Bisso - Richmond
Do you cover the earlier history of the OED: e.g., Furnivall's involvement and failure to publish anything?

Charlotte Brewer
Betty's question - the OED only records the words people have used, either in the past or now. The words get in because they have been found in books or documents written since 1150 or so. But today, of course, we don't use many of the words that were used in the 16th century, say.

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
As for vocabulary, more words are used in Britain than North America and that's partly because immigrants' vocabularies are naturally smaller. This past week AWAD had some words common in England that are rare for us -- usually only heard of in our children's stories, e.g. dell. Another example is copse.

Betty - Maryland
Carolanne, thanks.

Charlotte Brewer
Jim's question - no, I started with the early 1920s in my book, because that was the bit no one else had researched and I found lots of fascinating documents in the OED archives which no one else had read...

edie
Thanks to Anu, our vocabularies are growing! :)

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
What is the OED's policy on accepting neologisms (twixter, e-mail, blog, google [verb], etc) into an edition? Do you foresee a shift in the OED's attitude, given the prevalence of web-speak (LOL, google [verb, again]) and the speed with which it evolves?

Charlotte Brewer
Nathan - the OED tends to wait several years before it puts a word in, just to see whether it stays around. Other dictionaries of contemporary English may put them in faster. And yes, web-speak is transforming the language, I agree.

Donicim - Old Rectoryland
I've been advised that for degree courses in English the OED is best for including archaic definitions alongside the modern, for instance the older meaning of 'danger' as being under someone's power. Which of the more 'pocket-sized' Oxford dictionaries are similarly useful?

Charlotte Brewer
Donicim - your adviser has given you excellent guidance. I like the Concise Oxford Dictionary and I am a great admirer of Webster's dictionaries.

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
I keep hoping w00t! gets in the OED, zeros and all. :D

Charlotte Brewer
Nathan - that word is new to me.

Donicim - Old Rectoryland
w00t: an expression of joy or victory

Charlotte Brewer
Well, I will pass it on to the editor of the OED and see what he thinks.

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
Developed in geeky online competitive gaming.

Nancy Wooton - San Diego
Charlotte, was it you who appeared on The Rachael Ray Show to announce that her "EVOO" (extra virgin olive oil) was being added to the OED?

Charlotte Brewer
Nancy - I am afraid not!

Jim Bisso - Richmond
w00t made M-W word of the year.

Donicim - Old Rectoryland
I use w00t regularly in everyday speech--along with lol and several others.

Nancy Wooton - San Diego
Donicim -- so does everyone in my family. ;-)

Charlotte Brewer
If you look at the OED website you will see that you can contribute suggestions to this dictionary. So why not e-mail w00t and see what happens? You need to provide a quotation from a printed source but the Internet is fine.

Martin Fox - Michigan
w00t marks the death of modern English.

Donicim - Old Rectoryland
That is an extremely narrow point of view: the language must continue to evolve.

Martin Fox - Michigan
Yes, that's why it won't be modern english, it'll be e-English or something

Donicim - Old Rectoryland
Fair enough.

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
Since post-modern English one hopes will last a long time, we'll have to come to some agreement what to call periods, or just use 'years'.

edie
Let's not have a kerfuffle!

Bruce
Charlotte, is there not a more user-friendly system of indicating pronunciation than IPA?

Charlotte Brewer
The great advantage of IPA is that it is an internationally recognized system and is very precise. Dictionaries using it usually provide a key explaining how it works, and it's worth getting to grips with it. But I agree it is not user friendly.

Preston - California
When are words removed from the OED?

Charlotte Brewer
When are words removed? Never! It is an historical record so you can't take the history out.

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
Try telling that to politicians. (har har)

Betty - Maryland
Ms Brewer, Bruce, with the coming universality of access to the Internet, will pronunciation marks become obsolete, since we can hear words pronounced?

Charlotte Brewer
Betty - the Internet is still a written text, so (unless I'm missing something here) you do need punctuation marks. Though there are lots of different symbols now being used.

Betty - Maryland
No, I mean I can now look up a word in an Internet dictionary and the dictionary will pronounce the word orally over my speakers.

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
Well, Charlotte, it could be considered user-friendly compared to the rest, a whole range of different systems and not universally known or accepted (IPA is what I'm referring to).

Charlotte Brewer
Betty - OK I see that. But the OED hasn't got that system so it still needs the IPA. And it means that the pronunciation is included in the text forever.

Martin Fox - Michigan
Well, obsolete meanings of words would have to be excluded from concise dictionaries, wouldn't they? (such as "fell" as in "bad")

Charlotte Brewer
The OED is not a concise dictionary - and in fact, strangely enough, lots of contemporary dictionaries continue to include historical words.

Donicim - Old Rectoryland
Obsolete meanings are still used, for instance in analysing old poetry.

Bruce
This might be slightly off-topic, but do you have an easy way of remembering meanings of words?

Donicim - Old Rectoryland
Is there an online version of the OED, and if not, is one being worked on?

Charlotte Brewer
Picking up on Donicim's earlier question: the OED was always thought of as an aid to reading great literature of the past. And yes, it is available online but you need a subscription.

Preston - California
Are emoticons gaining acceptance as symbols in the OED?

Charlotte Brewer
Preston - I would guess OED must record emoticon as a word, but I don't think it lists individual symbols as yet.

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
When will the next printed OED appear?

Charlotte Brewer
Carolanne - the current revision of the OED (began mid-1990s, may be finished 2050!) is being carried out online. They think they may never ever produce another printed OED - but it is still being discussed.

Janine in Fort Worth
I don't think it makes sense to publish another printed version. Although the two volume OED with the magnifier is a beloved object in our home.

Betty - Maryland
How is the OED financed?

Charlotte Brewer
Betty - good question. It is financed entirely by Oxford University Press, a private company which is part of Oxford University. It is the only national dictionary in the world to receive no government subsidy. Costs 3-5 million pounds a year at present.

Betty - Maryland
A lot to dedicate to a wonderful language!

Jim Bisso - Richmond
That's why other national dictionaries are available online for free.

Bruce
What criteria are used for compiling the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary?

Charlotte Brewer
Bruce - the SOED (Shorter Oxford Dictionary) is a 'quintessence' of the OED - picks out the interesting words and ones that are still current or useful for reading old texts (great writers, usually).

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
So maybe the last printed OED will be akin to an artifact and there'll just be a current version online.

Charlotte Brewer
I agree with the earlier correspondent who favoured the two-volume micrographically reduced OED, though I need glasses to read it now. This reduces 13 volumes to two.

Janine in Fort Worth
The two-volume set is a marker of being lovers of words in our family. It was given to me by my father and loved by my children. The Internet cannot replace that!

Bruce
Charlotte, is the OED's use primarily academic?

Charlotte Brewer
Bruce - yes, it must be mostly academics who use the OED, but it is a fabulous read because of all the quotations.

Jim Bisso - Richmond
Have you read the Ring of Words (about Tolkien's stint as a sub-editor)? And if so, what did you think of it?

Charlotte Brewer
Ring of Words was written by three OED editors, two of them I know very well! I thought it was a wonderful insight into both Tolkien and the OED, and showed the roots of his linguistic imagination.

Bruce
So, an undergraduate student might find it very useful?

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
Opportunity for an academic course entitled "Dictionary Literature" (using the quotations)?

Charlotte Brewer
Yes, definitely. I insist that all my students look at it. Most universities both here and in the US have access to the online version - and the online version is great because you can search it in lots of interesting ways.

Carolanne - I give a lecture series here in Oxford on dictionaries and writers. W H Auden loved the OED and put lots of OED words in his poetry - and the OED quoted from his poetry too!

farrier
If the dictionary will not be printed again, how can we be sure it won't be lost with the quick changes in electronic storage?

Betty - Maryland
Back to my earlier question, with so many English words available, why do most people regularly use only a few hundred (and why do they express annoyance with me when I use an unusual word :))?

Charlotte Brewer
Betty - we use far fewer words than we can understand. Perhaps people don't like to hear a word whose meaning they don't know because they feel under-educated?

edie
Wadr, Betty, I think if you know it's unlikely your listeners won't understand a word, you should explain it! [WADR = With All Due Respect. -Ed.]

Betty - Maryland
edie, imho, that's an easy way to get a beating. ;)

edie
Betty, just going by personal experience. If I don't understand the word, I ask, but I'm peeved if I detect some pomposity!

Putting my comment to illustration: "What's a fascicle?

edie
Merci beaucoup, Jim!

Jim Bisso - Richmond
De nada, edie.

Jim Bisso - Richmond
I discovered the OED in high school. The library had an original edition bound from fascicles. It was amazing to sit in the library and simply browse it for hours.

Betty - Maryland
Jim, what are "fascicles"?

Jim Bisso - Richmond
Small bits of a book. Not too many pages. They can be assembled into a bound book later.

Charlotte Brewer
Fascicles is the technical term for instalments. The first OED came out in separate parts over the forty-four years it took to publish.

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
farrier - electronic storage introduces new challenges, but it is by no means impossible to protect and retain the data as reliably if not more reliably than on paper.

Donicim - Old Rectoryland
Were the OED fascicles published by letter, or with random words as the dictionary was researched?

Charlotte Brewer
Donicim - they started with A-ant, and went through the alphabet - but XYZ came out second to last, as I remember. Now that they are revising it again from scratch, they have started in the middle of the alphabet at M and have got part-way through P.

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
So that means oh frabjous joy and jabberwock along with brillig and slithy toves are there?

Charlotte Brewer
Carolanne - interestingly, some of the jabberwocky words got in but not all. The editor concerned decided to put them in only after part of the alphabet was already published.

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
And of course Finnegan's Wake words would be in a category of their own. :-) -- and impossible because of the possibilities!

Jim Bisso - Richmond
Carolanne, a few words from FW made it in: quark (for the particle) got in because Geller-Mann named it after the Mr Quark of FW.

Charlotte Brewer
Some Finnegan's Wake words got in. One of the interesting things to look at is which weird words got into the OED and which didn't. Sometimes the editors were very inconsistent -- but consistency is hard, of course.

Charlotte Brewer
Jim is right. Strange coinages get in -- thwarteous (Robert Bridges), apotropaically (Auden), gracile, riverrun, etc, etc. If a famous writer uses the word it tends to have a better chance.

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
But inconsistency is human; we only try to corral and order ourselves.

Charlotte Brewer
The OED does try very hard to be consistent...

farrier
I have heard that the English language has several times as many words as any other. I find it strange that I can still be at a loss for words.

Betty - Maryland
farrier, lol

Charlotte Brewer
The relationship between words and thoughts is one that philosophers have pondered - perhaps your thoughts can't be put into words, farrier?

Jim Bisso - Richmond
Charlotte, sometimes the OED's editors' policies for inclusion or exclusion of words backfired (I'm thinking of appendicitis as related in CWW). Did you run into any examples of this during your research?

Charlotte Brewer
Yes. The most striking example is that they discussed the word 'lesbian' and decided to leave it out in 1933.

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
Charlotte, this is sort of a weird (and long) question, but: The Dvorak keyboard layout is designed statistically to make most of the typing action move from your pinky towards your index finger, placing letters that are more commonly found at the beginnings of words on the outer edges of the keyboard. Has anyone at the OED given any consideration to ordering the updating of sections by the statistical probability of neologisms developing and being accepted into the OED by the next publish date? This question is inspired by the comments about some of the terms from Jabberwocky not making it into the OED.

Charlotte Brewer
Nathan - a very ingenious question. No, I think! But you should email them and point this out.

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
Will do. And, w00t, might I add.

Jim Bisso - Richmond
Interesting. So it had to wait for the '70s supplements?

Charlotte Brewer
Jim - yes. lesbian only got in in 1976!

Charlotte Brewer
Other words they left out -- putsch, referring to Hitler's take-over in Germany. But they were very pleased to get 'bodyline bowling' (from cricket) in 1933.

Betty - Maryland
Ms. Brewer, you mean there can be thoughts without words?

Nancy Wooton - San Diego
Betty, some people think in pictures.

Charlotte Brewer
Words and thoughts - a subject for Anu's next online chat?

Betty - Maryland
Nancy, but are they thinking "thoughts"?

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
And think in colour -- synesthaesia.

edie
For Bob Dylan, "there'd be no music without the words."

Nancy Wooton - San Diego
Best example is Temple Grandin, who wrote a book about it -- she has autism.

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
Animals think and reason.

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
Betty, I'm not sure that I could call tonal experiences emotions, though. Music is intrinsically mathematical, and I tend to associate it with thoughts.

Betty - Maryland
Carolanne, yes, I have to ponder that... in words. ;)

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
Betty: I do, however, find that I seem to self-define my mental and emotional internal experiences differently from most people I meet. I learned Spanish at nine, and lived in Mexico until 20, which may color my relationship to those definitions.

edie
How coincidental, when asked how he'd describe his music, Dylan said it was "mathematical" (as opposed to a category like folk).

Betty - Maryland
Nathan, and I am amusical, so maybe my thoughts come only with words?

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
Betty, edie - everyone's own insides are their own, and as such, I'm sure they will defy definition for as long as we seek to define them. :)

Donicim - Old Rectoryland
Regarding 'putsch': is this not a German word? I understand English in particular incorporates many foreign words, but how does the OED distinguish between foreign words and those which have been incorporated? I frequently hear people use 'merci' in place of 'thank you', but it isn't recognised as an English word.

Charlotte Brewer
A good question. Lots of foreign words have entered English though, so the OED puts a good many in, e.g. cafe, restaurant were originally French (still are, of course). If they are used by lots of English speakers they have a place in the language. The OED marks some of these words with a special symbol to indicate they still have a foreign 'feel' to them.

wpbdan
What "quantity" of usage is considered enough to warrant inclusion in the OED?

Charlotte Brewer
wpbdan - tricky question, that. The first editor said in 1884 that he had tried to draw the line properly but everyone would have a different view.

Donicim - Old Rectoryland
I'd say the use of words like merci was fairly widespread -- but people use it meaning it as a French word. Restaurant is accepted as English however. Interesting.

Jim Bisso - Richmond
I assume that Murray's granddaughter (the one who wrote CWW) is gone now, but did you meet any other of his descendants? Are any involved in the OED?

Charlotte Brewer
Murray (the first editor of the OED) distinguished between 'aliens', 'denizens' and words that had become 'naturalised' - but we all feel words in different ways according to our own speech communities.

Charlotte Brewer
Jim - I had the honour of meeting Miss Murray. She invited me to lunch and cooked me egg custard!

Betty - Maryland
Ms Brewer, Wow!

Jim Bisso - Richmond
Cool!

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
As for the OED, does it list acronyms as words if they're used as such? And when will 'texting' words be included?

Charlotte Brewer
Carolanne - I think texting words must be on the brink of getting in. I will ask the editor.

Donicim - Old Rectoryland
And does it accept common acronyms of organisations or institutions, i.e. UCAS.

Charlotte Brewer
Donicim - acronyms do get in the OED if they are widely used.

wpbdan
If widely used for a period of time in the London Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, etc, that would give a word the right credentials to be included, but what about a word commonly used in other media outlets?

Anu Garg
Let's take one more question before we wrap up.

Jim Bisso - Richmond
Is the acronym OED in the OED?

Betty - Maryland
Jim, cute!

Charlotte Brewer
Jim - for some time they used NED (the old-fashioned way to refer to the OED) without explaining what they meant! Is OED in OED? Great question and I don't know the answer...

Anu Garg
Thank you, Charlotte Brewer, for taking part in this chat. For more, please check out her book Treasure-House of the Language: The Living OED and her Web site.

Thanks to all the participants for being a part of this chat even though we couldn't field each and every question due to limited time.

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
Thank you, Charlotte. I truly enjoyed the discussion!

Donicim - Old Rectoryland
Thanks, Anu, Charlotte!

Betty - Maryland
Thank you both.

Nancy Wooton - San Diego
Thanks, Anu and Charlotte.

Charlotte Brewer
Thank you very much to everyone - I have really enjoyed it!

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
Thank you, Charlotte. And thank you, Anu.

Jim Bisso - Richmond
Thank you!

edie
Nice group!

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
Yep.

Donicim - Old Rectoryland
A wonderful opportunity. I'll be back!

edie
Aloha! :)

wpbdan
Thank you Charlotte and Anu from chilly Montana.

edie
And from chilly Rochester, NY

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
And a freakishly warm Florida.

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
Thanks to all from warm Vancouver, British Columbia.

edie
Stop rubbing it in! :)

Nathan Curry-St.Pete.FL.US
:)

Ron - Southern California
Warm and sunny Southern California....

Carolanne - West Vancouver BC
Well, BC really stands for British California.

edie
But we had all the warmth of the participants (don't get ill)!

Ron - Southern California
Loved it.

Anu Garg
Our next Wordsmith Chat guest will be Seth Lerer, a professor at Stanford University and author of "Inventing English". The topic of the chat will be "The Journey of the English Language". This event will take place on Wed, Feb 6, 7pm Pacific (GMT -8). See you there!

Anu Garg
If you have any suggestions on how we can improve Wordsmith Chat or a suggestion for a chat guest, please send it to (words at wordsmith.org).


Book jacket description for 'Treasure-House of the Language':
The legendary Oxford English Dictionary today contains over 600,000 words and a staggering 2,500,000 quotations to illuminate the meaning and history of those words. A glorious, bursting treasure-house, the OED serves as a guardian of the literary jewels of the past, a testament to the richness of the English language today, and a guarantor of future understanding of the language. In this book, Charlotte Brewer begins her account of the OED at the point where others have stopped--the publication of the final installment of the first edition in 1928--and carries it through to the metamorphosis of the dictionary into a twenty-first-century electronic medium.

Brewer describes the difficulties of keeping the OED up-to-date over time and recounts the recurring debates over finances, treatment of contentious words, public vs. scholarly expectations, proper sources of quotations, and changing editorial practices. With humor and empathy, she portrays the predilections and personalities of the editors, publishers, and assistants who undertook the Sisyphean task of keeping apace with the modern explosion of vocabulary. Utilizing rich archives in Oxford as well as new electronic resources, the author uncovers a history no less complex and fascinating than the Oxford English Dictionary itself.

Charlotte Brewer's picture

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