Treasure-House of the Language: The living OED

by Charlotte Brewer (London: Yale University Press, 2007): 336pp, £25 (hbk), ISBN 978 0 300 12429 3.

Reviewed by Sue Browning

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In this scholarly but very readable book, Charlotte Brewer (this year's Whitcombe Lecturer) traces the development of the Oxford English Dictionary from the publication of the last instalment of the first edition in 1928 through its various supplements to the current electronic (and online) version.

After a brief introduction about the origins and production of the original dictionary, she tells how the Oxford University Press came to realize that, rather than being an end-point, this was merely the beginning of a journey, one that continues today, albeit in very different form.


Brewer describes the difficulty of keeping the dictionary up to date, especially the tensions between those funding it, who were anxious to keep it on schedule and within budget, and the editors and lexicographers, who were more concerned with accuracy and completeness. She draws on resources found deep in the bowels of the OED archives to reveal the characters behind the dictionary and the everyday issues and decisions they faced.

In Chapter 4, she breaks off from her chronological account to discuss the role and function of the OED itself. In particular, she examines the extent to which it should be prescriptive or purely descriptive, and how different contributors' views on this have influenced decisions on which words should be included and which types of (and whose) work merited quotation.

Dogged hard work

The final chapter focuses on the huge task of digitizing the dictionary (which took more than 260 person-years) and putting it online. There it now resides, complete with increasingly sophisticated search tools, so that users can explore it more readily and dig up treasure from our language's past and present.

With an extensive reference list, useful glossary and full index, this book gives a fascinating insight into the personalities, vision and dogged hard work involved in the development of what is perhaps the greatest ever account of any language.

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