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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.

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What the Deuce,
Or, Etymological Devilry

The Devil is in people’s thoughts, and his names are many. One of them is the obscure ‘Old Nick’. The word nicker “water sprite” explained as an old participle “washed one” – is unrelated to it. Then there is ‘nickel’. The term was easy to coin, but copper could not be obtained from the nickel ore.

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The Girl Whom You Think Lives Here Has Left

Language changes through variation. Some people ‘sneaked’, others ‘snuck’. The two forms may coexist for a long time, or one of them may be considered snobbish. Once the snobs die out, the form will go to rest with them. Or the snobs may feel embarrassed of being in the minority and ‘go popular’.

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One question I often field in my capacity as OUP’s editor for American dictionaries is, ‘What’s the longest word in the dictionary?’ I don’t hear it as often as ‘How do I get a new word in the dictionary?’ but it still comes up from time to time. My stock answer isn’t very interesting: ‘It depends…’

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Wilhelm Oehl and the butterfly

When I was growing up, I read Paul de Kruif’s book Microbe Hunters so many times that I still remember some pages by heart. Two chapters in the book are devoted to Pasteur. The second is called “Pasteur and the Mad Dog.” A book about great word hunters would similarly enthral the young and the old.

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