The meaning of everything—more adventures in dictionaries

The most recent edition of the full OED. Please note that this isn't 20 copies of the same book; it takes these 20 volumes to add up to one dictionary!

The most recent edition of the full OED. Please note that this isn’t 20 copies of the same book; it takes these 20 volumes to add up to one dictionary!

I’ve mentioned many times that my childhood was spread over ten elementary schools in four different states thanks to my dad’s employment in the petroleum industry. Those ten schools varied a lot, but one thing all of them had in common was a library; and one of the things each of those libraries had in common was a big dictionary. They didn’t all have the exact same dictionary, but there was always at least one large hardbound dictionary, frequently on display on a stand or lectern.

I distinctly remember the library at the elementary school in Kimball, Nebraska keeping its dictionary on a pedestal that was too tall for me to reach the book, and it had a sign that said it was off-limits to anyone below fourth grade. When I asked why, I was told that it was too heavy for us smaller kids to lift, that it was printed on extremely thin paper which was easily torn, and besides, us lower grade kids couldn’t really understand it. I argued, of course, which got me nowhere. In fact, a note about my bad attitude was sent home to my parents. Surprisingly, my dad wasn’t angry at me about that, and seemed to actually take my side (though he didn’t go so far as to do anything about it).

I was apparently so offended at the notion that I, as a second-grader, couldn’t understand a dictionary, that I ranted about it at Sunday School. Which eventually led the wife of the pastor at the church we were attending to give me a dictionary of my own. It was an old desk dictionary whose cover was held on by a lot of layers of black book tape, but it was mine. My parents didn’t have a dictionary in the house before then (though over the next few years we acquired a couple more).

But to get back to those big dictionaries in the library, all of them said “Webster’s” on the cover, often in gold printing. A large number of them were probably various printings of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary second edition. But because the original dictionaries edited by Noah Webster had fallen into the public domain by 1889, other publishers have been using the name in the title of their dictionaries. So some of them were probably from other publishers.

I was in the fifth grade when I learned the latter fact: that just because a dictionary’s cover said “Webster’s” didn’t mean it actually was Webster’s. But at the same time I also learned about the Oxford English Dictionary. The teacher in question was deeply enamored with the OED, having started using it at libraries while he was studying in the United Kingdom, and hoped someday to own his own copy. He told us that the dictionar was so big it couldn’t be published in one book, but was split into multiple volumes, like an encyclopedia, and cost thousands of dollars. I remember specifically him explaining that it was about 30 volumes.

I learned later that the last bit was completely wrong. At the time this teacher was studying abroad, the second edition of the OED hadn’t yet been printed. The second edition is 20 volumes, whereas the first was originally ten volumes, with only three supplemental volumes having been published by the time the teacher was back in the U.S. and teaching us in the tiny town of Roosevelt, Utah. I don’t know if he truly didn’t remember how many volumes it was (which suggests that he may have used it at a library only once or twice), or if he was exaggerating for effect (giving this teacher’s personality, either was likely), but he was incorrect about the number of volumes.

Still the image of thirteen big hardback books being necessary to contain all the text of a dictionary was pretty magical. And ever since I’d learned of its existence, I too, dreamed of a day when I would have a copy of the OED of my own. It is definitely a dream, because the retail price of the full twenty volume set is usually listed at $1295 – though you can usually find it being offered at just under a thousand. I found a set in a used bookstore once… locked up in a glass case and being offered for even more than that. It wasn’t the 20-volume second edition (first published in 1989) but the old 10 volume set from 1928.

The Compact Oxford is not an abridged dictionary. It contains all of the text of the full 20-volume set)

The Compact Oxford is not an abridged dictionary. It contains all of the text of the full 20-volume set (me included for scale).

Given those prices (and once you learn how much work goes into producing a high quality dictionary {many years, dozens of editors, hundreds of readers scouring old books}, you’ll understand why the price tag is so high), I had to content myself with various abridged versions for several years. Until my husband surprised me on one birthday with the Compact Oxford English Dictionary. The Compact Oxford is a very clever book: it contains the full text of the twenty volume dictionary in a single book. They do that by printing on each page of this oversized book tiny images of pages of the dictionary—nine pages of the large dictionary on each page of the Compact. The resulting text is so small that you need a strong magnifier to read the text. So it’s a little weird… but also very cool. At least in a geeky way.

Each of the blocks of text you can see is a page worth of three-column text printed very small.

Each of the blocks of text you can see is a page worth of three-column text printed very small.

I’d heard about the Compact Oxford long before I’d seen one. Sometime in the early 90s a co-worker mentioned that there was a one-volume version that they sold with a magnifying glass, but that’s all the details I had at the time. I didn’t realize that they were publishing a bunch of miniature images of full pages, nor did I understand just how tiny the type really was. I had been been quite happy with my copy of The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus: American Edition because it is a big, hefty dictionary, almost the size of some of my other unabridged dictionaries, and it had those painstaking word histories that the Oxford is famous for. Then one birthday my husband hauls out a giant present and sets it in front of me. I thought it was a computer of something at first, until I tried to lift it. It was way too heavy for the size. Under the wrapping paper as a big box with the words “The Compact Oxford Dictionary” and “Includes Magnifier.” I was speechless. He was grinning ear-to-ear, of course. It came with more than a magnifier (and a velvet bag to keep the magnifier in). There is a secondary book with instructions on how to use the big book, a protective holder that the two books can slide into—you can put the holder on the shelf, read the spine of the dictionary, and tilt it out easily enough. The holder is substantial enough that even on a shelf with a whole bunch of equally ginormous books (such as six other unabridged dictionaries from other publishers) and it will hold the space open for the book. Which I realized is most useful when you got to put the book back.

Getting the light just right is often a challenge.

Getting the light just right is often a challenge.

Being the kind of nerdy collector I am, getting this book has kicked off another obsession: trying to find the perfect magnifier. A regular magnifying glass that you might pick up for home use only magnifies about 2x or 3x, and that’s just not enough to read the tiny print. The one that came with the book is a 4x magnifier, which is adequate. In the years since I got the dictionary, I’ve found a couple of 5x that work better, though sometimes getting the light right is tricky. There have been many times I’ve slid the magnifier around with one hand while shining a flashlight with the other, finding the perfect angle to light up the words without creating a glare on the part I’m trying to read. It works best with a table big enough that you can lay the dictionary flat while you’re reading.

I’m more than occasionally asked by people why I need more than one dictionary–often with the admonishment, “You know, you can look words up online.” The free online dictionaries give you a fraction of the information about each word that even a $30 collegiate dictionary will provide, is the short answer. And most don’t have the word histories—telling you what year the first use of a particular meaning of the word appeared in print. There is also something to be learned by comparing the definitions in different dictionaries. Which people who aren’t word nerds don’t understand. Then, of course, for some of my dictionaries, there’s that Old Book smell. And you just can’t get that from an online reference.

It is true that more often I look things up in the electronic Shorter Oxford that I bought for both my Mac and iPad/iPhone, simply because it’s more convenient, and I’m usually not needing all of the extra information. (And the purchased app contains more information that the free online sources!)

But the real reason that someone who will suggest looking things up online instead of cracking open a dictionary will never understand is that the dictionaries aren’t just to “look it up” and go. Books have always been magical portals for me. They take me to far away places, or fabulous worlds, or just the mind and heart of another person. That’s true of both fiction and non-fiction. Dictionaries and encyclopedias aren’t just references to me. I love to read them. I love to browse from entry to entry, going down metaphorical rabbit holes as, while I’m reading about one word, a reference is made to a derivation of another word, or a different word that shares a similar root (I love the phrase some dictionaries use, “more at xxxx”!), and going off to read that, which leads to another, and another…

The whole world is contained in a good dictionary. Not just language and meaning, but history and culture (yes, the good and the bad). Finding all of that isn’t something you get just be reading an entry or two. You have to wander and browse and get lost among the words.

It’s an adventure!


I stole the title of this blog post from the very excellent book, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. It’s a wonderful read about the decades-long obsession of many people to create the definitive English dictionary. You should also check out his related book, Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. They’re both great!

If you want a good, but affordable version of the Oxford Dictionary (technically small enough to fit in a pocket), it can be had: The Oxford Color Dictionary. It’s not just a dictionary about colors; they put the word color in the title because all of the main headings in the book are printed in a nice blue, which isn’t just meant to make it pretty. As I said it is technically a pocket dictionary. The pages are very small and the font is smallish. They use of color for the words and black text for the definitions, etymologies, et al. It really makes it easy to find the words you want. And it’s cheap! There’s also a companion Color Thesaurus.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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