THE BASICS Recently relaunched as OED Online, the Oxford English Dictionary is the authority on all word referencing and is the definitive record of the English language. It contains more than 600,000 entries that have been in use over the past 1,000 years, focusing on their origin, meaning and pronunciation, using ancient quotations to modern-day examples to define them. Could come in handy over a game of Scrabble.
WHAT A GREAT IDEA. WHO THOUGHT OF IT? In 1857 the Philological Society of London decided, with some reason, that the dictionaries then in existence were deficient, full of inaccuracies and out of date. Full of Victorian confidence, they determined that a full review of the English language from Anglo-Saxon times was warranted and gave themselves a generous decade to complete it.
HOW DID THEY GET ON? Headed by James AH Murray, an academic with a keen intellect and interest in languages, after five years they had reached only "ant" and the suspicion arose that perhaps 10 years would not be enough. In fact it would take 71 years before the first edition landed, with a thud, on the shelves in 1928. Poor Murray never saw the completed work before his death 13 years prior to the 10 volumes being published.
ANY OTHER CHARACTERS STAND OUT? When he put a call out to "men of letters" to help collate the big dictionary, Murray couldn't have known that one of his main contributors was criminally insane. Imprisoned in Broadmoor Asylum, an American surgeon and Civil War veteran, Dr WC Minor, had murdered a man during a psychotic episode while living in London. Over the next 30 years, this educated and cultured lunatic provided copious examples of usage to the OED published lists and became a good friend of Murray. In his derangement, he also performed an autopeotomy (you'll have to look it up), and was sent back to a hospital in the US, where he died some years later.
SO, JOB DONE THEN? No, the job is never done. There was time for only a coffee break and it was time to start working on the first supplement, which was published five years later, followed by several more through the 1980s. Work is well underway on the third edition, OED3, actioning a US$55 million (Dh202 million) review that started in 1993. Good thing, too, as it's not a quick job: in 17 years, it has completed revising all sequential entries from "M" to "rotness" - this despite 70 editors working full-time, heading a team of over 300 scholars and specialists. Every three months remedial work and new words are published to sate our modern-day impatience.
IS EVERYONE IMPRESSED? Not all the time. The OED is inclined to glean new words primarily from esteemed literary quotes and authors rather than more popular sources, such as newspapers, which leads to accusations of intellectual snobbery. There's also the small matter of online registration fees, but it doesn't make a profit.
NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH? The OED's sister dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary Online, focuses more on modern language, citing 21st-century references so one can see today's usages. It is free to access. If you fancy an actual book, the 20 volumes of the OED cost £750 (Dh4,440). A two-volume abridged version runs £250.
WHAT ELSE TO REFERENCE? Merriam-Webster is the premier dictionary of American English. Macquarie is the Australian and New Zealand reference of choice, but one must subscribe to it. Collins and Chambers dictionaries provide shorter versions, free on the internet. OneLook is a website that trawls through over a thousand dictionaries to bring you a definition.
View past columns for The Instant Expert.
Some OED new words in 2010
AUTOMAGICALLY automatically and in a way that seems ingenious, inexplicable, or magical.
BUZZKILL a person or thing that has a depressing or dispiriting effect.
CHEESEBALL lacking taste, style or originality.
CHILLAX calm down and relax.
FRENEMY a person with whom one is friendly despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry.
HATER a negative person.
HIKIKIMORI the abnormal avoidance of social contact, typically by adolescent males (in Japan)
LBD little black dress.
MATCHY-MATCHY excessively colour-co-ordinated.
STEAMPUNK a genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery.
TWEETUP a meeting organised by means of posts on Twitter.
VUVUZELA a long horn blown by fans at football matches.