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Making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- Recommended Podcast

Jun 6, 2007 • general, web-design

James Murray, OED editorIn this episode from the Big Ideas podcast, Simon Winchester tells the fascinating story behind the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. (Here's the podcast feed.)

Winchester narrates the story flawlessly in a classic English accent. The OED founders undertook the creation of a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, dictionary of the English language. Whereas Samuel Johnson, the first lexicographer, derived definitions for most words from his own intellect, the OED founders sent invitations to readers inviting them to contribute sentences demonstrating word meanings.

The OED editors received thousands of sentences, and used them to construct the dictionary's definitions. The result of the OED project demonstrates the power of mass collaboration. (You might compare some aspects of its creation to Wikipedia.)

The OED editors vastly underestimated the undertaking. And the project's leadership cycled through a handful of different editors (one of which had a bizarre fetish related to chimney soot). The breadth of the English language (850,000 + words) contrasts sharply with the dumbed-down dictionary used for simplified/controlled English that we use to communicate technical information.

Many of us in technical communication are also creative writers. We thrive on the beauty of the language. It's unfortunate that we cannot be more literary in the core function of our jobs. However, we shouldn't forget that conceptual descriptions of complex technologies can require an incredible degree of precision, clarity, and organization — not so unlike the making of a dictionary.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.