Living Color

I remember the day I learned the word "psychedelic." Telling on many fronts, it is as much indicative of a time and place as of any more colorful circumstances. In 1974, my mother and I perched side by side on a brown velour chaise longue at the window of our apartment in San Francisco. It was time for our word of the day and, inspired by the sun setting over the Pacific, she provided me with an incredibly G-rated interpretation of a word more often associated with hallucinogens than the "many colored" definition she gave that evening. While she may have been intent upon expanding my vocabulary, she wasn't ready to expand my consciousness just then.

My mother may have relied upon her own knowledge of the language for these early word-appreciation lessons but when it came to more formal applications—like school papers—she adhered to the "look it up in the dictionary" method. Yet, like so many things, I may have taken the dictionary thing a bit too far. I distinctly remember fifth grade taunts of "Michelle Manafy reads the dictionary." As if glasses weren't enough reason to tease me, my early vocabulary-building skills provided unique fodder.

Truth be told: I did read the dictionary. I would look up a single word and end up reading pages at a time, enthralled by the sheer number of words, meanings, and modes of expression. Later, using the superior reference books libraries provided, I also discovered the range of dictionaries and their individual shadings of meaning and editorial bias. In college, I hit upon the granddaddy of all dictionaries: The Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

This collection of meanings and origins—both linguistic and literary—was intimidating in size and scope. Yet the OED offered an epic adventure in the evolution of language. First published in its entirety as 10 volumes in 1928 as The New English Dictionary, then updated to 12 volumes and renamed in 1933, the OED is now in only its second (20-volume) edition. I say "only" because part of this particular dictionary's mandate is to reflect the dynamic nature of the English language. Interestingly, the second edition came about after Oxford University Press published the first CD-ROM edition in 1992.

John Simpson, chief editor of the OED, can remember when they edited on index cards. Then, Simpson says, "In the Eighties, we had to sort out how a print dictionary would work in a database." He found it to be a natural fit because of its structured, field-based nature. "Now that the dictionary is digital," he says, "we are in a position to revise it comprehensively for a third edition."

The CD-ROM not only allows for the first reevaluation of the OED, it also paved the way for the launch of the online edition four years ago. Where the disc introduced the relational aspects of the dictionary, the Web again altered both the editorial process and user experience. "We can edit anywhere in the alphabet that we want to," Simpson says. "With print, when you are publishing the L volume, you can't change A." On the other hand, he says he's found that "we can be under pressure to change definitions just because people know we can."

Every three months, the OED Online incorporates thousands of updates and new words. Thus far, Simpson believes that the periodic schedule serves the product better than instantaneous alterations. "We need lead time to check the data," he says. "We have to watch out to make sure someone isn't spoofing us," Simpson adds, though he does say that with different software, they might adopt an abbreviated schedule.

The site includes a page to suggest changes and the editors receive two or three hundred a week. In the future, Simpson would like to leverage the Web to enhance this process. "With these online historical databases, we don't necessarily have time to go back and check thousands of words." So, he says he'd like to "build a community of online updaters of the dictionary."

Like many effective econtent efforts, the online edition of the OED offers users the ability to view information in a variety of ways, depending on need or preference. Simpson says, "I think that it is important that people don't just read the dictionary, but get a visual impression as well." But even this doesn't go far enough. He says, "An entry is only part of a network of other entries. It would be quite nice to build a network of say, endings of words—an alternative way of browsing, which you can't do in print."

Simpson thinks that, given the scope of the OED, "The old 19th-century editors probably would have been quite happy working on computers." He admits, though, that sometimes the digital age provides too much of a good thing, acknowledging that access to so many databases, in addition to open Web searches, often overwhelms editors with a numbing quantity of information to sift through. That said, he does prefer digital delivery for some things, requesting a URL of this article rather than waiting for a print copy to make its way to Oxford. And that URL will get to him just about the same time that the term URL makes its way into the next update of the OED Online.