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How the OED Got Shorter

Ben’s column this week looks at the fascinating history of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. He explains how the OED, quite possibly OUP’s most important book (well, series of books), got trimmed to a manageable two volumes and why this development was important. Enjoy!

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In 1902, a fellow named William Little took on the task of making a “shorter” version of the monumental Oxford English Dictionary. When it was finally published in 1933 (more than a decade after Little’s death), the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary took up two thick volumes totalling 2,500 pages. Still, the abridgment proved to be a more convenient (and more affordable) alternative to the massive OED. This month sees the publication of the sixth edition of the Shorter, and the two volumes now span more than 3,700 pages, packed with more than half a million definitions covering ten centuries of English. Little’s dictionary, it turns out, is far from little. And despite its name, it’s not getting any shorter!

Even the title is a bit of a mouthful: in full, it’s The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. This means that, in addition to staying up-to-date with contemporary English usage, the dictionary also tracks the development of words from the earliest known evidence. Meanings in each entry are arranged chronologically, in the order in which they were first used in English. Thus it’s a distillation of the comprehensive historical record of the language found in the OED. Even though it’s one tenth the size of the “parent” dictionary, it manages to include about a third of the OED‘s overall content, with the aim of including all words used in English since 1700, plus everything in Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Milton’s poetry, and Spenser’s Faerie Queene. It’s probably the only dictionary where you can find rare old words like blunket (‘fabric of greyish blue’) sharing the page with brand-spanking new ones like Blu-Ray (‘a format of DVD designed for the storage of high-definition video and data’).

The idea of an abridged version of the OED was germinating ever since 1879, when work first began at OUP on what was then called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. But it didn’t get off the ground until William Little, fellow at Oxford’s Corpus Christi College, started the abridgment in earnest, working on it steadily for the final two decades of his life. By his death in 1922, he had finished, without assistance, the letters “A” through “T” and the letter “V.” The completion of the dictionary was undertaken by Henry Watson Fowler (of Fowler’s Usage fame) and Jessie Coulson, under the direction of Charles Talbut Onions. At the same time, Onions was busy co-editing the first supplement to the OED (also published in 1933), so he made sure the Shorter kept apace with the latest vocabulary.

When the first edition of the Shorter was published, it was greeted with much fanfare, selling 40,000 copies in two years. As the lexicographical scholar Charlotte Brewer writes, “it was particularly useful to those with insufficiently long shelves, or deep pockets, for the full OED.” The dictionary received glowing praise on both sides of the Atlantic: the New York Times approvingly noted its coverage of such Americanisms as jazz (then defined rather quaintly as ‘a kind of music in syncopated 4-4 time’), racket (‘trick, dodge, scheme’), and on the spot (‘in a position prearranged for one’s assassination’).

Onions and his successors worked arduously to ensure that the Shorter remained up to date in subsquent revisions, and that legacy has continued under the supervision of Angus Stevenson, editor of the sixth edition. Now, in addition to evidence from the OED‘s Reading Program (or the Reading Programme, depending on which side of the pond you’re on), the Shorter can draw on the two-billion-word Oxford English Corpus to glean new words, new usages, new spellings, and even new punctuation patterns. (Say good-bye to the hyphen: based on Corpus evidence, it’s been removed from numerous compound forms, such as make-over and post-modern.)

Next week I’ll take a look at some of the 2,500 words and phrases making their first appearance in the Shorter‘s sixth edition. Revealing any spoilers would be a buzzkill, so I’ll try to keep things oomphy and maintain the wow factor.


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Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.

Recent Comments

  1. [...] I described last week, the Shorter has a distinguished pedigree dating back to the first edition nearly 75 years ago. [...]

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    [...] Oxford English Dictionary. To learn more about the SOED check out Ben Zimmer’s columns here and [...]

  3. [...] described the latest edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as a pleasing mix of the old and the new, with musty archaisms sharing the page with the leading edge of English vocabulary. [...]

  4. [...] here. The whole thing is now so large it may never be printed again, except in abbreviated form. How the OED got Shorter is, something I’ve yet to read but The Making of the OED, The Meaning of Everything (full [...]

  5. [...] British dictionaries of current English, and he also helped complete the first edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (first edition 1933, just launched in its sixth edition). Nonetheless, his fame still rests chiefly [...]

  6. Roy Pullen

    I have the 1933 SOED,which is practically brand new, for sale. How much can it be worth?

  7. Roy Pullen

    You have a lovely page, but you forgot to answer my question-1933 SOED-how much can it be worth?-I havenĀ“t got a clue!

  8. Karen Rouse

    In what decade or year was the Oxford English Dictionary first published please?
    Thanks

  9. Roy Pullen

    Ben Zimmer: 2 years have passed and you still haven’t answered. If you have no information. at least answer something-like the weather forecast for example!–Saludos from Jujuy-ROY/

  10. Rebecca

    Hi Roy,
    Thanks for commenting. Sadly, Ben is no longer at OUP but you can find him at his new digs over at Visual Thesaurus. It’s a great site, you should check it out.
    Rebecca

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