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Making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- Recommended Podcast

by Tom Johnson on Jun 6, 2007 •
categories: technical-writing 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 / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation if you're looking for more info about that. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me. Finally, note that the opinions I express on my blog are my own points of view, not that of my employer.