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Defining Moment
by Jack Wellman
2008-02-01 07:02:06
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February 1st 1884 was a defining moment in history - at least for those who value accurate language, both spoken and written - because this was the birth of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was the most comprehensive definition of the English language ever. Even though misspelled words would not see their last days, the excuse for the writer or student were gone, so too were frustration and confusion for both writers and readers when language used made much more sense than when they were misappropriated.

Spell Check has bailed many a writer and student out. Today, the document itself renders a word incorrect and even offers the correct spelling of it. However, a thesaurus still remains a fine companion to the dictionary. Words that actually define one thing or several things are often poorly substituted for what word should actually be used.

The 1800s could not have been a better timing for a new comprehensive dictionary, especially with the rapid rise of education and universities. Existing dictionaries were often clearly wrong, or gave definitions belonging to another word or they simply misspelled them. Spelling greatly varied at this time and, in particular, geographical areas. Some would write the word "centre" while those across the ocean spelled it "center". There was no general consensus (some would argue that Shakespeare‘s writing's were quite defining for the English language).

Work on the dictionary actually began around the mid-1800s with the London Philological Society. However, this dictionary was different. It was meticulous. It was thorough and nearly exhaustive and it gave the history of the word in chronological order. It looked back at its origins, giving more meaning to its definition. Writer and student researchers have long benefited from the lengthy cross-references and etymologies. One of the tiniest verbs in the dictionary is "set", yet it contained the longest entry, detailing 430 different uses for this word in about 60,000 words.

I too have been guilty of misspelling words to my own embarrassment. I have also used words not intended for a particular meaning - the dictionary to the rescue! Take comfort in knowing that even the most brilliant minds sometimes have trouble recalling how to spell simple words, like “it is theirs to give” being written as “it is theres to give”. My former college professor often had misspelled words on the marker boards, though few brave souls ever spoke up about it.

Today’s version has nearly 60 million words and nothing more comprehensive is known to this writer. Check out the latest version and you’d need to lift 137 pounds. It is also growing exponentially, now adding over 4,000 new words and revisions every year. What a great innovation by the Society - a “word police”, now blaring “ignorance is no excuse”.

This has most certainly raised the bar for education, for readers and for me and all writers. I owe much to the dictionary in my writing. So does Spell Check. This was most certainly a defining moment in history, so "I’d lik to say, thanx for thu dixtionarys sew I khan now writ a betre letre".

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Asa2008-02-01 07:10:27
When I worked for a veg packing one summer, one of the foreign workers asked one of the English guys what a dictionary was.

The answer still makes me smile: "Well, it is a book with words..."

Failing that, there's always the great episode in Blackadder the Third with the dictionary.

Emanuel Paparella2008-02-01 11:56:15
There is a difference though between not knowing how to spell and making typographical errors due to hurry or oversight. The latter is so common, especially in languages that are not phonetic, that most publishers assign readers to a manuscript to rid it of typos, even when sent by an English teaching don at Oxford University. What is reprehensible and even scurrilous however is to impute ignorance of English to those who make typos. It’s one of the oldest and shabby tricks of debating, in and out of academia. if one is incapable to deal with the content of of the debate, one resorts to attacks on its form and hopes thereby to score debating points by aspersion. Those are the weapons of pseudo-intellectuals; integral part of the tactics of what the ancient Romans called “argumentum ad hominem,” used by Catalina against Cicero. When Cicero’s patience was exhausted he uttered the famous words: "Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?" [To what length will you abuse our patience, Catilina?]. And a bit later in the speech he exclaims: "O tempora, o mores!" [O, the times, O, the morals!]

Sand2008-02-01 13:47:31
Cried a man who knew how to spell,
"Ignoramuses make me unwell.
When they claim typos make it
I really can't take it
I'd send them to Dante's hot Hell."

Sand2008-02-01 14:13:42
Though Cicero oft blew his top
That Catalina should quickly stop
His critiques of speech
With a lousy reach
For spelling - the whine was a flop.

Sand2008-02-01 15:05:33
Although a slip of the lip
May be an excusable trip,
When the stuff has been written
It really ain't fitten'
That spellcheck had no free permit.

Sand2008-02-01 15:14:58
It would seem a classical scholar
To be worth his erudite dollar
Would use words with much care
Bereft of hot air
And free of linguistic squalor.

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