At an unusual book launch Peter Ashby, a local entrepreneur, read the definition
of the word ‘Abbreviator’ from the first volume of a rather special book. It was
an early copy of the Oxford English Dictionary which Peter had been given whilst
transforming the dictionary into a compact version via microfiche. He had in turn
generously given the many volume Dictionary to the nearby Frewen Club and had borrowed
back the first volume for the evening.
The definition that he read from the Abbreviator entry was ‘An officer of the court
of Rome, appointed...to draw up the Pope’s briefs’ possibly proving that the ardent
compilers of the great Dictionary had a sense of humour – or a blind eye!
Rob Walters, local guide and author, in launching his new book on the history of
the Dictionary explained that the great book took nearly seventy years to complete.
It was issued in parts by the Oxford University Press which took over publication
in 1879 and ‘Abbreviator’ appeared in the very first section to be issued covering
A-Ant. This miniscule fraction of the Dictionary was released in 1884 when already
five years into a ten year contract. With half the A’s and all of the rest of the
letters to do the task seemed ‘mission impossible’.
It was James Murray, a self-educated Scotsman, who nursed, guided and cajoled the
Dictionary through its many years of near extinction finally arriving at Volume 3
which took the struggle up to the end of the E’s. It was at this point that the tide
turned and the whole country, the University and the Oxford University Press put
their backs behind this grand and entirely uneconomic project. Rob explained that
Murray died working on the letter T in 1915 in the full knowledge that his great
work would be completed. Robert Bullard, local author of the popular Business Writing
Tips read from a job application letter written by Murray which demonstrated the
man’s phenomenal knowledge of the languages of the world.
Rob explained that the Dictionary had its true beginnings in 1857, but was not completed
until 1928 with the publication of the first edition. However, this was not the end.
The voluntary readers who scanned the thousands of books for quotations on which
the dictionary was based continued their work through the near seventy years of compilation
and so there was a backlog of new words leading to a supplement issued in 1933. And
this is the story of the Dictionary’s life – the work never ends as new words are
added and old definitions updated. Fortunately updating is much easier nowadays and
the third edition of the Dictionary exists entirely on the Internet.
The evening finished with a rousing rendition of the ‘The Dictionary Song” by local
musician and composer, Peter Madams, lead singer of the much missed Oxford group
The book is entitled A Concise History of the Oxford English Dictionary you can buy
it here. The launch was held on 21st March 2016 at the St Aldates’ Tavern.