There can be few more glamorous workplaces, I have always thought, than the buildings of Oxford University Press on Walton Street, with the grand Neoclassical entrance and fountain in the courtyard. You can even go on a jaunt to Freud across the road for a drink. As John Simpson, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, led me through the winding corridors, I caught a glimpse of a sepia photograph on the wall of the old press: bespectacled gentlemen looking back from a room supported by Ionic pillars, which now houses the exhibits of the Museum of the History of Science.
Yet at the end of the corridor was a great, brightly lit room with transparent partitions, behind one of which was John’s office. He now
works almost solely on his computer, which contains a database of the dictionary: gone are the days when he started his career by shuffling index cards.
In fact, technology revolutionised the OED. When John joined the OED after seeing an advert recruiting an editorial assistant, there was little hope for the four-volume supplement he was working on. “When it was completed it wasn’t clear whether the office would just shut down. It didn’t seem to be much of a future contributing more and more supplement to a Victorian dictionary. It was only in the 1980s, just as we were getting to the end of this four-volume supplement, that people started to have the idea that maybe they could put things on to a computer, and that seemed to give the dictionary a future.” Nowadays John receives instant updates from his colleagues in New York about usage of words. “In the old days we had a twenty-volume dictionary in book form, whereas now it is not necessarily for looking up a word but for analysing language and how it ties into the history of the people who use it.”
The OED looks both ahead and backwards in time. When asked for his opinion on new words, John answered that he would level-headedly wait for five or ten years for a word to take root in the language before including it in the dictionary. “We don’t get blinded by excitement as soon as we hear something new.” This does mean the OED is ever growing in size, as old words are never removed but marked as rare or obsolete; “Someone might reclaim it in the language or it might develop in different way.” I thought it might be interesting if the staff of the OED began a trend of reviving forgotten words, but John believes in the natural selection of language, that words grow out of fashion for a reason. Neither is he attracted to flashy words. “They might be fun but they’re not central to the language. I find those more fruitful,” he says.
Since he had such a close relationship with words, I asked John whether being a lexicographer affected his appreciation of literature. “I find it really hard to read novels,” he said. “You read it word for word, word by word, rather than reading the whole sentence or the whole paragraph or the whole chapter. Is that word in the dictionary? Should I make a note of that? It rather spoils your reading experience initially.” After he while he learnt to stop continually looking over his shoulder for entries. This must be a common problem for lexicographers, since they have to keep an eye out as the meaning of words evolve imperceptibly every day. “Even though the dictionary looks like a monument of fixity, it’s actually very dynamic and changing and, to some extent, subjective. You should think of the dictionary as something that can always be improved. In fifty years’ time the way you write a definition may be different from the way you write it now because we’ll be in a different culture then, and there’ll be different nuances that affect a definition.”
As John looks forward to his retirement in October after a near forty-year career with the OED, I wanted to know where he thought the dictionary was heading. “I think in the future, the dictionary will not just be something for looking up words,” he says,“but one of the hubs that people use to find their way around the mass of knowledge on the internet.”