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From telegraphese to texting: one hundred years of the Concise Oxford Dictionary

Part of the fascination of investigating the story of a dictionary which has achieved its centenary is to find windows which open on to very different worlds. It was particularly enjoyable, through files, letters, and papers, to meet the early editors of what was to become such an iconic book.

Henry Fowler: ‘a pleasant occupation’

Pre-eminent, of course, is Henry Fowler, a former schoolmaster, given to cold baths and early-morning runs, who is still one of our most famous lexicographers and grammarians. The project (a small dictionary based on the mighty Oxford English Dictionary, then in preparation) was originally proposed to him by Oxford University Press as one which would offer ‘a pleasant occupation for say 3 hours a day’ for himself and his brother Frank, his co-worker. Henry himself would look back on the early years as ‘plunging into the sea of lexicography without having been first taught to swim’, but his ability and energy brought him triumphantly through any difficulties. The Concise was published in 1911 (one admirer called it ‘a miracle of condensed scholarship’). Three years later, on the outbreak of the First World War, Henry enlisted and served in France (although not, because of his age, in the front line). Perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘trench foot’ and ‘trench fever’ were to be among the entries added to the 1929 second edition. Invalided out, he returned to his life’s work, and in 1926 published his classic Modern English Usage.

Gamma rays, brassieres, and the bingle – a dictionary that’s always ‘with it’

When Henry Fowler died in 1933, responsibility for the Concise passed to another distinctive character. Herbert George Le Mesurier, a retired army officer who had worked with Fowler, was a film fan. He was also an enthusiast for crossword puzzles. He oversaw the third edition of 1934, which added ‘gamma ray’ and ‘brassiere’ to the lexicon, as well as the less-lasting ‘bingle’ (a woman’s hair style described as being between a ‘bob’ and a ‘shingle’).

Le Mesurier was succeeded in turn by Ernest McIntosh, another retired schoolmaster (and classicist) who lived in ‘rooms’ in Exmouth and rather prided himself on not having a television (although he was fond of the wireless).  He was responsible for adding Second World War vocabulary such as ‘Baedeker raids’ and ‘blitz’, as well as for the later ‘antibiotic’, ‘astronaut’, ‘clone’, ‘breathalyser’, and ‘supermarket’. When publicity for the 1965 fifth edition centred excitedly on whether or not ‘Beatlemania’ or ‘fab’ should have been excluded (or ‘beatnik’ put in), he was equal to the occasion, telling journalists firmly that he tried to keep ‘with it’ – adding, ‘I think that is the term, but I haven’t included it.’

Melting metal plates for new editions

Today all dictionary text is held and edited electronically, but when the Fowlers started work on the first edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary their clean copy was typed out on a manual typewriter. They were living in Guernsey, and batches of text were sent up to Oxford where they were designed and set using a separate piece of metal type for each letter. One-piece metal plates (‘electroplates’) were created from the type, and the book pages printed from these. Plates were costly, and not readily replaced: essential additional material was often added at the end of a text. In 1914, the Concise was issued ‘with Addenda’: a separate list of new items. They included ‘movies’ and ‘Zeppelin’ as well as ‘telegraphese’. (Henry had used the term in his 1911 Introduction, explaining that they had used ‘the severest economy of expression—amounting indeed to telegraphese’. Unfortunately, he had forgotten to add the word to the text.) Even when plates were replaced the material was not wasted. The 1929 accounts for the second edition of the Concise show a credit line for the value of the metal from plates of the first edition which had been melted down and reused.

Eight million keystrokes in the 1980s

We take it for granted today that technology changes swiftly; it is easy to forget that some technologies last for decades. Metal plates were still being melted down in the 1950s. And when in 1971 a major new edition of the Concise was planned, the entire text of the fifth edition was typed out to form the basis of the working copy for the meticulous handwriting of the new editor, John Sykes. (Lexicographer, physicist, and translator, he too was a cruciverbalist, winning the Times Crossword Competition on ten occasions.) ‘Switched-on’ and ‘urban guerrilla’ were only two of the many new items added in 1976.

Finally, in the 1980s, for the eighth edition (‘glasnost’, ‘global warming’, and ‘tzatziki’), the text of the dictionary was data captured. Anne Whear, who had typed out the fifth edition, now began on what were calculated to be the eight million keystrokes necessary to key the text into an Apricot. The first steps had been taken which would lead to the highly developed electronic database which delivers the text we have today.

One hundred years on: still the world’s favourite guide to the living language

Any long-lasting reference book has to be regularly remade for its own time, yet without losing its essential character. The twelfth edition of the Concise, with entries such a ‘cloud computing’, ‘social media’, and ‘textspeak’, is a book for 2011, compiled by lexicographers in direct touch with the latest language monitoring. But in leafing through its pages we can still connect with the Fowlers typing copy in Guernsey, Ernest McIntosh considering the pop culture of the sixties, or some of those eight million keystrokes which captured the text in the 1980s.

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