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The OED is 80: Postcards from Oxford

Sarah Russo, Associate Publicity Director

Like most postcards, this post comes many days after I have returned from Oxford and the 80th anniversary celebration of the Oxford English Dictionary. My last post left off on Monday after our lunch at the Eagle and Child Pub where Simon Winchester and Ammon Shea joined us for fish and chips and pints of warm English beer (mine was a half pint, I didn’t even know they came in half sizes, shows how under-traveled I am!).

The rest of the afternoon, was spent touring the city. First with the journalists and a professional tour guide who wore a little medallion proclaiming his official status. We took a great tour of the city, hitting several of the colleges (there are 39 in total that make up Oxford University, not to mention nearly 80 libraries!) and spots where they film Harry Potter. We saw some amazing architecture, including the Radcliff Camera:

And the very spot where three martyrs were burned during the Bloody Mary years! Marked by this cobble cross:

My second tour was a little more interesting when I rejoined Simon Winchester in the courtyard of the Old Parsonage:

I know Simon’s very lovely wife, Setsuko Sato, from her years as a producer for NPR’s Talk of the Nation. So over a few meetings Simon and I have gotten to be friends. As 5 o’clock rolled around we went out for a stroll through the park that borders the colleges of Oxford. On our walk we started to pass through Simon’s college. St. Catherine’s is the newest college of Oxford, founded in 1962 by the historian Alan Bullock.

St. Catz has a decidedly different feel from the rest of the colleges at Oxford. It was designed by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen in the modern Scandinavian style with a traditional English layout around a quadrangle. Jacobsen’s designs went further than the design of the buildings, similar to Frank Lloyd Wright; he also designed the cutlery, furniture, and lampshades, everything right down to the finest detail. Simon and I walked into the dining hall, which is nothing like dining halls here in the U.S., the long blond wood tables are lined up in neat rows headed by the table for professors and dignitaries at the front of the room on a low dais. The room was set up for dinner and I would have thought it was a special occasion the way everything sparkled—little did I know that it was a special occasion—but it seems they set everything up this way every night, with a dozen pieces of silverware and crystal to match.

After just slightly scaring the setup staff, as Simon had me sit in one of the ergonomic and utterly gorgeous high-backed chairs, we decided to take a detour so Simon could say hello to the Master of the college, Professor Roger Ainsworth. Simon found Roger chairing that night’s special event, a lecture by none other than America’s own Kevin Spacey! Kevin Spacey is this year’s Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theater. As odd as this may seem, Mr. Spacey has been the Artistic Director of the Old Vic Theatre in London since 2003 when it announced that it would once again become a producing theater. After the lecture Simon, and I by extension, were invited to cocktails and were introduced to Kevin Spacey. I had the slightly abashed pleasure of being introduced to Mr. Spacey as “a fellow American.” Suffice it to say, it was a great surprise and a definite highlight of the trip. We were able to chat with him for a few minutes and talked about how he has been living in London’s South End for the past six years.

All of this made Simon terribly late for his dinner with his fellow panelists (Ammon Shea, John Simpson–Chief Editor of the OED, and Lynda Mugglestone–Vicegerent, Fellow in and Tutor in English, Pembroke College), for Wednesday night’s main event at the Bodleian Library, so we rushed back. I ended day one in Oxford with dinner at the Old Parsonage, a table for one that was quickly filled by passersby who stopped to chat while I ate. An altogether perfect end to Alice’s first day in Oxford.

Day 2:

Tuesday began much like yesterday: coffee, toast, that sweet, sweet marmalade again and then the mad rush.

This is the real OED day: in-depth sessions about how the dictionary is put together, where its future lies (web or print), how long the new revisions will take to finish. Journalists received answers to all of these questions and more (you can read some reports both here: Maud Newton and here: Barbara Wallraff. The decision on whether there will be another print edition seems to be the one that people are most fascinated with. The New York Times Magazine earlier this year wrote of the demise of the print edition of the OED which has everyone aghast that the giant volumes may cease to exist. But Robert Faber, the Editorial Director of the OED, put most of these unfounded fears to rest. The revision of the OED is nowhere near complete. It could take another ten years, maybe fifteen to complete this round of revisions. That said, they honestly don’t know what the publishing world will look like in fifteen years but the OED hasn’t been out of print since the second edition was published in 1989 so in my mind that means the chances are fairly good for the print edition of OED 3. We also learned that each year revisions add the equivalent of one volume of information to the OED online which could mean that there will be some 30 to 40 volumes in the next edition. That is truly amazing!

So after the presentations, the journalists got to break into one-on-one groups with the editors of the different departments of the OED: new words with Fiona McPherson, etymology with Philip Durkin… This is where Simon Winchester’s inspiration for an op-ed on the change in meaning of “subprime” came from. While the journalists were getting into the nitty gritty of the OED I explored the OED library. Have you ever seen the condensed edition of the original OED? It literally has four pages of the giant volumes printed micro size to a page. It comes with a magnifying glass!

The day culminated with the public event in the Bodleian Library. Simon Winchester spoke about the history of the OED, John Simpson spoke of the present and future, and Ammon Shea talked about his experience reading the volumes from cover to cover. Questions ensued at the end for Ammon and it really was amazing to hear all of the parts condensed into an hour presentation. All of the most interesting bits of the past two days for a group of word lovers gathered under this amazing ceiling of the Bodleian:

But you don’t have to travel to England to get a glimpse into the OED. There will be events in the U.S. as well:


The Century Club (Members/Invite only) event will be a panel discussion on October 22nd at 6 pm featuring:
o Simon Winchester, author/historian
o Ammon Shea, author of Reading the OED
o Jesse Sheidlower, OED editor at large

The Harvard Bookstore event will be a panel discussion held on November 13th at 5:30 pm at the Brattle Theatre featuring:
o Jesse Sheidlower
o Ammon Shea
o Simon Winchester
o Barbara Wallraff, Word Court columnist in The Atlantic

The Philadelphia Free Library event will be a panel discussion on November 18th from 7:30 to 9 pm and will feature:
o Jesse Sheidlower
o Ammon Shea
o Barbara Wallraff, Word Court columnist, Atlantic Magazine

The Harvard Club of NYC event will be a discussion on March 4, 2009 featuring:
o Jesse Sheidlower
o Ammon Shea

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