I picked up the “Surgeon of Crowthorne” by Simon Winchester at the Northcote Library late last week sometime and finished it last night. In brief it’s about the construction of the OED and especially about the character and contributions of William Chester Minor and his relationship with the editor James Murray. I wont go over the slightly sensationalist (if true) details of WC Minor.
But a couple of points did spring out at me from the book.
One that the OED is an attempt to capture much of the printed English language, attributing each word to a series of quotes for each type of usage and partly through that, constructing an etymology of that word. The OED site has interesting information as to how they decide which word to include which is basically that the word has to have been used by different sources and that it is in use for a certain amount of time. Databases containing candidate words are kept and referred to as well. Words are only added, never removed, so it’s a moving and everchanging picture that will only get larger. Of particular interest are the shifts of a word’s meaning over time.
Next is that the OED was first constructed by volunteers who basically sat down, did a lot of reading and compiled lists of quotations for each word they thought of interest and which they then sent in to the poor sod that was the editor, albeit supported by a large staff. This reminded me a little of an early day wiki albeit with a central editing authority.
Not much to add besides that except I want an OED on my PDA (if that ever happens). I have the concise edition on my laptop and that’s very useful especially when trying to come up a unique user name that doesnt have numbers in it and/or isnt your name. I’d long since given up on cool and witty user ids because I suck rather bad at thinking them up.